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“Where will Fidel Castro be buried?”
That’s a $64 million question as Fidel celebrates his 89th birthday this Thursday, on August 13.
It’s also the opening line of a popular joke told by Cubans, sotto voce of course.
“Anywhere but Jerusalem,” they answer. Why? “Because we don’t want another Resurrection!”
The joke was first told to me a few years ago by a guide at Necropolis Cristóbal Colón—Havana’s vast and astonishing cemetery, containing the remains of more than 2.5 million deceased (more than the current population of Cuba’s capital), from six former Cuban presidents to former world chess champion Raúl Capablanca (see below).
In fact, like almost every other detail of Fidel’s life, the actuality of where he’ll be buried is a closely guarded state secret.
In my latest Moon Cuba guidebook I mistakenly reported that he was to be buried in a simple grave beside that of his parents at his birthplace, Finca Manacas, at Birán, in Holguín Province. I’d just visited the site and noted that workmen were restoring and expanding the simple white marble grave (see below). When the guide demurred at my question, “Will Fidel be buried here?” I jumped to a wrong conclusion.
Not least, such a simple memorial site would not be in keeping with Fidel’s own sense of self.
In fact, he’s to be buried beside the tomb of José Martí, the Cuban national hero, in Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, in Santiago de Cuba.
This was confirmed to me by a cemetery employee on my most recent visit to Santa Ifigenia in March 2015… repeating what was first whispered in my ear last year by a reliable government source, who added: “But you didn’t hear it from me!”
Standing beside Martí’s huge tomb last March, it made perfect sense as I watched the half-hourly changing of the goose-stepping honor guard.
Fidel has always seen himself as the heir to Cuba’s national hero (and leader of Cuba’s independence movement), who asked to “die facing the sun.” Representations of Fidel’s speeches and figure are frequently coupled to those of José Martí, who Fidel identified in his “History Will Absolve Me” speech (during his trial following the failed attack on Moncada Barracks, in Santiago de Cuba, on July 26, 1953) as the “intellectual author” of the Revolution.
Barely one mile separates Moncada from San Ifigenia cemetery, where Fidel’s tomb will be sited immediately to the north side of Martí’s. (For full details on the various sites, and to plan a visit, buy the latest copy of my Moon Cuba guidebook.)
In February 2014 when I visited, the area was cordoned off by a metal barrier (see below), presumably to lay out the site directly in front of the arcing, pink marble Panteón de los Mártires del 26 de Julio (aka Retablo de los Héroes, or ‘Heroes Altarpiece’). All indications are that he will be buried in front of the tableau, in an as-yet-unmarked space that has been laid out with gray marble.
The anti-Castro organization Cuba Independiente y Democrática first reported the possible site in January 2012 as being that of Fidel’s future tomb. It claimed–incorrectly in my opinion–that Fidel’s remains (either his body or, more likely, his ashes) will be placed in a niche within the Panteón de los Mártires del 26 de Julio, which was erected in 1961 and contains the remains of the victims of the assault on Moncada, as well as other revolutionaries who died for the anti-Batista cause
The rear of the tableau, called “Panteón de los Caidos de la Insurgencia” (Pantheon of the Fallen of the Insurgency, ie against dictator Fulgencia Batista), contains 180 niches inset in limestone. Each has a plaque naming the insurgent, some of whom remain alive to this day. Only one space (to the bottom right) remains unallocated. Could that be for Fidel?
There’s no obvious sign of a Castro-specific tomb, however, although a row of Royal palms has been planted in front of the site where it is claimed Fidel will be buried.
In January 2015, the Miami-based El Nuevo Herald picked up the scent. It reported on an extensive remodeling at the cemetery, which contains the remains of numerous other Cuban patriots: “Selecting St. Ifigenia… and the city of Santiago de Cuba, would give the Cuban government the symbols for a grand gesture to forever inscribe the comandante in the history of Cuba.”
Indeed, last March I confirmed with my own eyes that the remodeling included not only the cemetery’s landscaping, but also construction of a new access road and parking, plus a grandiose widening and beautifying of Avenida de la Patria, the 3-kilometer-long boulevard linking the graveyard to the Plaza de la Revolución (84 families have been relocated for the widening).
Martha Hernández Cobas, of the Office of the City Curator, claims justifiably that the remodeling is all part of a previously scheduled restoration and beautification project for one of Cuba’s most important historic sites. For example, more than one thousand tombs (many of them already quite unstable) were damaged by Hurricane Sandy when it struck Santiago de Cuba in October 2012.
The 9.4-hectare cemetery is also to receive a new entrance. And Odalis Quintana, in charge of the project, adds that the works include an area for military parades in front of the cemetery.
All this is also tied to the celebration, in 2014, of the 500th anniversary of the founding of Santiago de Cuba.
The Cuban government is keeping absolutely mum about plans for after Fidel… a leader who liked to keep his cards close to his olive-green chest, to paraphrase Cuban literary figure Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
Unlike Fidel, his five-year-younger brother Raúl Castro, Cuba’s current President, has publicly announced that he’ll be buried next to his late wife Vilma Espín (1930-2007) beneath a huge rock at the Mausoleum of the Second Front, in the mountains northeast of Santiago de Cuba. The boulder already bears Raúl’s name engraved on a plaque.
Meanwhile, who knows when Fidel will die? Or if ever!
That’s the source of even more jokes among Cubans and Cuban exiles.
In one, Fidel is offered a turtle as a gift, which he refuses. “They only live one hundred years,” he says. “Just when you get attached to them, they die.”