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Fidel Castro’s ashes began a lengthy procession through Cuba on Wednesday, mirroring the legendary leader's post-revolution journey in 1959. At the time, Castro depicted himself as a national savior -- a view some Cubans still hold today. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with special correspondent Nick Schifrin in Havana for a report on the response to Castro’s death and hopes for the country’s future.
The ashes of the late Cuban dictator Fidel Castro began a long procession across the island nation today, from Havana to Santiago, where Castro declared victory in the revolution he led in 1959.
His funeral will be held there Sunday, ending nine days of mourning since his death last Friday.
"NewsHour" special correspondent Nick Schifrin is in Havana reporting for us this week, joins me now.
Nick, let's talk a little bit about the route. Why is it so significant?
Yes, Hari, it's the same route that he took in 1959, only in reverse.
And it's really that trip that cemented Fidel Castro as a kind of heroic figure in Cuba, almost a destined savior of the country. That's certainly the image that he tried to portray, came in on a boat, descended from the mountains, won battles and won over people with his speeches, tried to really portray himself as a messiah for the country. And at least along the route today, that image of him really survives.
There aren't a lot of freedoms to speak out against the government, but what are people along the route saying?
Along the route, people use the same exact words, my leader, my father. And even critics of Fidel Castro say that those sentiments are genuine after so many decades of his rule. For example, Hari, I talked to one family, three generations.
The uncle used to be a Castro bodyguard. The grandmother told me that Castro gave her more opportunities. An aunt told me that he really believed in human rights. And the granddaughter, 23-year-old Giselle Gallego, said that the revolution should go on, the ideals should go on, and that there shouldn't be drastic change in Cuba, even though the father of the revolution has now died.
Did you hear any voices of dissent?
Yes. They are few and far between, but they are important to listen to.
And I spoke to one dissenter, as he calls himself, just a few hours ago. His name is Carlos Miraros Falcon. He says there is no freedom of speech and no freedom of multiple parties.
And what that means, Hari, is that the criticism of the government remains rare and that the opposition remains fractured. And I asked him whether there is any chance of change now that Fidel Castro is dead. He said most likely not. That's because Fidel's younger brother Raul has been running the country as president since 2008.
But he did point to one date, 2018. That is the year that Raul Castro promises to step down. One of two things could happen there. He will step down, but he will remain head of the party. That means more status question.
Or it is possible, this dissident said, that Raul could step down and there could be an opposition leader who emerges.
When you talk to people on the route, they're very quickly aware that you're an American. Does the conversation walk into the territory of the new president-elect?
Look, I think that there have been changes over the last few years. And more Americans have been here, so they're more used to us.
Certainly, there is some fear of president-elect Trump, most specifically because there is mostly unanimity over the deal that Raul Castro and President Obama struck in the last couple years, a kind of detente, and they don't want president-elect Trump to take that away.
But critics do point out one thing, that there have been four times as many detentions this year already as in all of 2010. That's according to the Cuban Human Rights and National Reconciliation Commission.
And those people who point that out point to President-elect Trump's tweets saying that he would terminate the deal unless Cuba is willing to improve it. There are some people who are hoping he actually does that, but, in general, people want the trend of the last few years to continue.
Nick Schifrin joining us from Havana tonight, thank you.
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Nick Schifrin is the foreign affairs and defense correspondent for PBS NewsHour, based in Washington, D.C. He leads NewsHour's foreign reporting and has created week-long, in-depth series for NewsHour from China, Russia, Ukraine, Nigeria, Egypt, Kenya, Cuba, Mexico, and the Baltics. The PBS NewsHour series "Inside Putin's Russia" won a 2018 Peabody Award and the National Press Club's Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence. In November 2020, Schifrin received the American Academy of Diplomacy’s Arthur Ross Media Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs.
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