ALISON STEWART, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND: Today in Santiago, Cuba, the remains of former president Fidel Castro, who died 10 days ago, were interred in what the government called a simple ceremony.
No other man in the 20th century ruled his country long as he did — 49 years, before he stepped down in 2008.
His supporters saw him as a brave champion of the people…and opponents saw a ruthless dictator.
With the help of the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Nick Schifrin is in Cuba, outside the funeral, and joins us now from Santiago. Nick?
NICK SCHIFRIN, SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT, NEWSHOUR WEEKEND: Alison, good evening. This is the city that birthed the hero’s myth of Castro as revolutionary, where he descended from the mountains behind me in 1959 to overthrow a corrupt, US-backed dictator. He dominated Cuba for the next half century with a combined charisma and cruelty, convincing his people he was their destined savior… repressing them with zero tolerance for dissent. But in this city you hear no loathing. Only love.
Fidel Castro’s final journey ended in the city where his revolution began. A military convoy pulled a flag-draped, cedar coffin containing his ashes through Santiago’s streets.
His successor and 85-year-old younger brother, Raul, took that box and placed it inside a boulder-like tomb. The final resting place for the man who outlasted 10 U.S. Presidents, is inscribed only with his first name…that became synonymous with his country.
Outside the cemetery, with the Cuban flag at half-staff, 56-year-old Rogelio del Toro vowed to run the 500-mile route that Castro’s remains took to get here.
ROGELIO DEL TORO: I will run this route to show the new generation the physical resilience of our commander in chief and what the Cuban people are capable of.
SCHIFRIN: Del Toro’s sense of patriotism means he glosses over the Castro’s economic policies, which prevented him from escaping poverty.
DEL TORO: He is the father of the revolution, and we will move forward with the traditions of our commander.
SCHIFRIN: That adulation was also on display last night at Revolutionary Square, for the final public farewell to the man they call their eternal commander.
Cuban President Raul Castro has promised to continue his older brother’s work. And amid the flying flags, we found no Fidel critics. No critics of the Cuban government’s persecuting its enemies or curtailing freedom of speech.
Norah Bosque is 69-years-old and has lived in Santiago all her life.
NORAH BOSQUE: The people who don’t agree with us can say whatever they want. But for those of us who love him, he will always be our commander-in-chief.
SCHIFRIN: Even the government’s opponents admit these sentiments are genuine. Daniela Morales is 16.
DANIELLA MORALES: He will always be our commander even if he’s not here physically. We owe him our freedom and independence.
SCHIFRIN: For her, freedom and independence means the state’s safety nets: free education from pre-K through university, and free health care. She wants to be an actress.
MORALES: Our government, our state guarantees everything we need. I think our salary is enough to have a stable and comfortable life. I want everything to stay the way it is.
SCHIFRIN: But the fact is, during the last decade everything in Cuba has not stayed the way it was. 32-year-old Angel Garcia is one of a half million Cubans who’s been allowed to enter the private sector. His old government job only paid 10 dollars a week. He quit and now works at this high-end salon, where a single haircut costs about that much.
ANGEL PEREZ, HAIR STYLIST: We prefer to work in the private sector now, because we make much more money than in any government job.
SCHIFRIN: He’s eager for more opportunity. And he thinks the country can provide that without challenging the revolution’s core principles.
PEREZ: We have education, we have free health care. Our problems are small. That allows us to move forward and put our energy toward finding the right changes.
SCHIFRIN: Going forward, Cuba’s leaders will have to figure out a way to maintain the socialist safety net and, at the same time, ease economic frustration. It’s not clear if that’s possible, but Alison, what that likely means is that Cuba will evolve—but very, very slowly, and while it maintains the repression that is one of Fidel’s main legacies.
STEWART: Nick, one of president Obama’s legacies has been normalizing relations. What are Cubans saying about that trend continuing under president-elect Trump?
SCHIFRIN: President-Elect Trump could reverse President Obama’s executive actions that increased travel and business opportunities. That’s what Trump seemed to threaten in a recent Tweet, vowing to quote terminate the agreements unless Cuba made a better deal for the Cuban people. Raul Castro has been allowing slow, modest openings here, including those private sector jobs. And most analysts here and in the U.S. warn that halting the normalization could lead to more crackdowns, and fewer openings.
STEWART: Nick Schifrin reporting from Santiago, Cuba. Thank you.
SCHIFRIN: Thanks, Alison.