Reportage. Fidel Castro’s ashes make their way toward Santiago, where his funeral will take place on Sunday.

A ‘caravan of freedom’ as Fidel’s ashes move toward Santiago

It is an endless river of people who greet, applaud and shout with passion “Fidel es Cuba,” “hasta siempre,” while waving “lone star” flags and throwing flowers.

A river that winds from Havana eastward, to the passage of the Caravana de la libertad, accompanying and escorting the open wagon carrying a cedar urn containing the ashes of the Commander of the Revolution to the cemetery of Santiago, where it will be buried on Sunday. This river passes through the stopping points in the cities — Villa Clara, where the mausoleum of Che Guevara is, Sancti Espiritus, a small jewel of colonial architecture, and finally, Thursday, Camaguey, where the gamut of Cuban society was represented, from white coat doctors and nurses to children in uniforms of the various school levels, guajiros, men and women in the fields, wearing straw hats of, and military men and women in olive green.

This is the long and moving goodbye of the Cuban people to their top leader. Last night in Camaguey, in the center of the island, a vigil was celebrated, organized by the artists of the province in the central park Ignacio Agramonte. Because, as a young local musician stated to the local TV, “artists owe a lot to Fidel.” This is an opinion shared by Miguel Barnet, poet and writer (published in Italy by Einaudi) and president of Cuba’s Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC). “It is difficult to report any Cuban success in the field of culture that is not related to Fidel,” he said. “As it happens in medicine, in education, in science. Very few men have existed in the continent with such an integral, holistic, complete vision.”

And he lists with the fingers of one hand: the Literacy Campaign, the Art School (now a University, one of the most significant architectural works in Latin America), the foundation of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic industry and Art (ICAIC), that in a few days will open the 38th edition of the Festival of new Latin American cinema, the Casas de las Americas, the UNEAC itself.

“That’s why Fidel is alive,” he added. “This is his work, his thought.” One of the latest achievements, “one last gift to Fidel” he claims, was received in Wednesday by UNESCO, which has included the Cuban rumba in the Representative List of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity.

With a strong presence of African culture, merged with other art forms, the rumba, with its melodies, songs, movements and gestures “expresses a spirit of resistance and self-esteem” by a part of Cuban society with an African background, once marginalized and exploited and fully reinstated by the Revolution. Also Santeria was reinstated, the name commonly associated with the various rites of the Afro-Cuban religion which naturally produces a peculiar symbiosis between the imagery of Catholicism (the religion of Spanish colonial Cuba) and the cults, especially Yoruba, practiced by the black slaves brought from Africa. This merger is not common in other parts of the world.

In the first period of the Revolution, Fidel’s policy against the Catholic Church was very hard — as a matter of fact, most priests were Spanish, with the exception of some Basque prelates, and all of the right if not openly falangistas — while he was more tolerant with the popular expressions of the Afro-Cuban religion.

So much so that the Commander, as other important Cuban political figures, has been associated with Santeria. “Fidel also had an esoteric side, of course powered by the Afro-Cuban Santeria,” wrote Georgie Anne Geyer in her book Guerrilla Prince: The Untold Story of Fidel Castro.

On this topic, this episode is often mentioned. When Fidel arrived to Havana after the victory of his guerrillas on Jan. 8, 1959, he gave an impassioned speech to the population. At one point, a white dove landed on his shoulder.

This incident was interpreted by the Cubans and santeros as a signal that he was “el elegido,” the chosen one. The decision to bury his ashes on Sunday is considered linked to the Afro-Cuban religion.

On Sunday, Catholics celebrate the day dedicated to Santa Barbara, virgin and Christian martyr beheaded by her own father.

But the vast majority of Cubans celebrates this day the worship of the deity associated with Santa Barbara in the syncretic Santeria pantheon: Shangó, one of the main orishas, or deities of the Yoruba pantheon, represented by the colors red and black. It is certainly one of the most beloved and revered deities, because it is a warrior god, represented by thunder and lightning, and associated with justice, virility and fire.

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