The big question on Cubans’ mind on Tuesday – halfway through the nine days of funeral solemnities over the death of Fidel Castro last Friday – was whether his brother Raúl would speak at the “mass event” scheduled for that evening at Revolution Square in Havana.
The matter was cleared up when the Cuban president took the stage after Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. And he opened his own speech with a joke: “Everyone can rest easy, I am the last speaker.”
The rest of his address, however, was imbued with gravity and dedicated fundamentally to celebrating the legacy left behind by his brother Fidel.
“He devoted his life to solidarity, and led a Revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble,” he said.
The Cuban president, who announced Fidel’s death on Friday night, had not spoken in public since then. A leading presence on the island ever since his older brother retired from politics due to illness in 2006, Raúl Castro is now a more relevant figure than ever.
He is the last surviving member on the list of great names linked to the history of the Cuban revolution, and at age 85, he faces the challenge of reforming the system or at least putting it on the right track before leaving the presidency in 2018, as he has promised to do.
On Tuesday, Raúl Castro peppered his tribute to Fidel with historical references.
“In the face of aggressions backed by the Organization of American States, Fidel proclaimed that behind the homeland, behind the free flag, behind the redeeming revolution, there is a nation full of dignity that stands ready to defend its independence and the common destiny of a freed Latin America,” he asserted.
Another time, he stated that “with him standing right here, Cuba was declared an illiteracy-free territory in December 1961.”
He devoted his life to solidarity, and led a Revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble
Cuban President Raúl Castro
The president’s address ended with an emotional tribute to Fidel’s memory: “Standing precisely here, where we celebrate our victories, we say to you, together with our self-sacrificing, combative and heroic people: ever onward to victory!”
The crowd broke out in applause, chanting “Yo soy Fidel, yo soy Fidel” (or, I am Fidel, I am Fidel) and “Raúl, amigo, el pueblo está contigo.” (Raúl, friend, the people are with you).
The coming months will pose a challenge to the Cuban president. In January, Donald Trump will take office as the next US president, and the Republican has already expressed opposition to the thaw initiated by Barack Obama.
Additionally, the Cuban system will have to get accustomed to the symbolic void left behind by Fidel in a country that was built around him.
Raúl Castro was joined in his tribute by the leaders of other countries with ideological affinities: Nicolás Maduro from Venezuela, Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua, Evo Morales from Bolivia, and Rafael Correa from Ecuador.
As he gave the stage over to Castro, Maduro told him: “You can count on Venezuela, today more than ever.”
Ecuador’s Correa said: “Fidel, most of the nation loved you with a passion, a minority hated you, but nobody was able to ignore you.”
The most notable absentee from an event attended by hundreds of thousands of Cubans was Russian president Vladimir Putin. Neither did China’s Xi Jinping show up.
But perhaps even more surprising was the absence of a high-ranking US representative at the ceremony. Even though Obama initiated the normalization of relations with Havana, his lame duck status and Trump’s haughty stance towards Cuba have meant that no official delegation traveled to the island for the tribute.
Instead, the de facto US ambassador to Havana, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, and Ben Rhodes, who helped Obama initiate the thaw, were the sole Washington representatives in Havana.
Spain sent honorary King Juan Carlos, father to Felipe VI.
On Wednesday, a hearse will take Fidel’s ashes from Havana to Santiago de Cuba for burial on Saturday.
English version by Susana Urra.