Story

Fidel Castro Laid to Rest in Private Ceremony

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Still image from PBS NewsHour. Image by Nick Schifrin and Zach Fannin. Cuba, 2016.

Still image from PBS NewsHour. Image by Nick Schifrin and Zach Fannin. Cuba, 2016.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now to Cuba where the remains of the late President Fidel Castro were interred earlier today and more than a week of national mourning. Nick Schifrin, a special correspondent for PBS NewsHour has been following the memorial events and joins us now from Castro's hometown, Santiago de Cuba. Nick, thanks so much for speaking with us.

NICK SCHIFRIN: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: So tell us what you know about the burial ceremony today which was private, correct?

SCHIFRIN: Yeah. It was very private. You know, for the last nine days, we've seen a 500-mile journey that Castro's ashes took here from Havana. We've seen people lining the streets. We've seen events. This was a very quiet, very quick ceremony. Castro's remains traveled here in a box, and his younger brother and successor Raul Castro placed that box inside a tomb. And the tomb looks like a boulder, basically. There's a small cutout in the middle of it.

Raul placed that box into the cutout, and it was then covered with a very simple plaque that only said the name Fidel. There were family there. There were government officials and no international media at all. As one onlooker told The New York Times earlier today - a man so large in a box so small.

MARTIN: So let's talk more about the country at large and at this particular point in the country's history. Since the time that you've been there covering all these events, are people able to express their hopes for the country during this time? What are people telling you about what they hope and expect now that Fidel Castro is gone and his brother Raul, the current president, has said that he will step down himself in 2018?

SCHIFRIN: Castro led this country with a kind of combined charisma and cruelty, and that cruelty meant that he tolerated no dissent. That's changed a little bit over the last few years, and what dissidents I've talked to over the last week say is that the red line for dissent is criticizing people by name. So long as your criticism is general - my life is X or I don't have enough food or my money is not quite as much as I want - without placing any blame, people can feel free to say that. And that's what I certainly heard in the rural areas between Havana and Santiago.

People who have really struggled with poverty who were doing fine in the '80s but post-Soviet collapse, post-special status in Cuba when things began to change, that's when these people felt more impoverished. And people do complain about that today. But, overall, especially here, you hear no loathing. You hear only love for Fidel whom they call father. They call him their eternal commander. And in this part of the country, there's a lot of people who will dismiss your question - my questions about whether Fidel did not respect human rights - and instead focus on the positive aspects of the revolution which they see as free education, free health care and racial equality.

MARTIN: What are Cubans saying specifically about relations with the U.S. if they're talking about that? President Obama is the first sitting president to visit in decades. President-elect Trump has - seems to be expressing a lot of skepticism about the opening moves that President Obama set forth. What are they saying about that?

SCHIFRIN: People are certainly talking about that. President-elect Trump could reverse the executive actions that increased travel and business opportunities here, and that's what Trump seemed to threaten. In a recent tweet, he basically vowed to, quote, "terminate the agreements unless Cuba made a better deal for the Cuban people."

Now, Raul Castro, even Fidel toward the last few years of his rule, have been allowing slow, modest openings here. And what most people here believe, and frankly what most analysts here and in the U.S. warn, is that any kind of halting of the normalization would likely lead to more crackdowns by the Cuban government and fewer openings for its people and to the U.S.

MARTIN: Thanks, Nick. That's Nick Schifrin joining us from Santiago de Cuba. In Cuba, that's Fidel Castro's hometown. Nick, thanks so much.

SCHIFRIN: Thanks very much.