Music is playing in the streets again. Tourists are sipping mojitos at sidewalk cafes. Flags are flapping at full staff. After nine days of national mourning for Fidel Castro, Cuba is slowly returning to noisy, boisterous normality. Cuba is a country where sidewalks serve as living rooms and social clubs, but during the mourning period people mostly stayed indoors, watching television and avoiding any appearance of joviality. With a government ban on selling alcohol and on playing live or recorded music after Castro’s death, Cubans paid tribute to their longtime leader in near silence. They filed by the hundreds of thousands through special sites equipped with photos of Castro as a young guerrilla and books where people could separately sign both their condolences and an oath of loyalty to Castro’s socialist, single-party system.
“It was very quiet. In a bar, restaurant, you could hear the air conditioning,” Janine Jenner, a German tourist, said Monday as she had a glass of sangria in Old Havana. “Today it’s like someone turned the noise on everywhere. It’s like the pulse of the city is back. People smile more.” Clamor is a constant in Cuba. Music of all types – salsa, reggaeton, pop – blares at top volume at all hours of the day. People rev motorcycle engines for hours under their neighbors’ windows, or flatten hundreds of soda cans for recycling at 7 a.m. on a Saturday.
All that noise suddenly hushed the morning after Castro’s Nov. 25 death was announced. Even the incidental noise of Cuban life – children laughing while playing in the streets, neighbors shouting to each other – seemed to fall away. Life started creeping back on Monday. Bars and cafe were selling alcohol again and Cubans could be seen discretely sipping beers on stoops or drinking from little boxes of cheap white rum. The crowds of foreigners wandering through Old Havana were more overt, chugging beers on the street and dancing with drinks in hand as bands played for the first time in more than a week in tourist cafes.
People were once again greeting each with a “good day” after more than a week of only somber “hellos.” President Raul Castro, who on Sunday personally interred his older brother’s ashes in a tomb fashioned from a granite boulder, has declared that Cuba will soon pass a law barring other memorials to Fidel, in keeping with his wishes to avoid a cult of personality developing after his death.
There has been no indication of how Raul’s rule might be affected by his brother’s death. He has been breaking slowly but steadily from Fidel’s legacy during his 10 years in power, implementing a series of free-market reforms and restarting diplomatic relations with the U.S. Fidel publicly inveighed against the United States and capitalism in his final months, but it wasn’t clear if his objections had any concrete effect on Raul’s decision-making.
In neighborhoods across Havana, street vendors hawked their goods again after more than a week of silence. A piercing tune on a pan flute alerted people that the knife-sharpener was passing by. A man selling bricks of sweet pastry for $2 shouted, “Cappuccino cake, 50 pesos!”
Ordinary music was the slowest to return. On a two-hour walk across three Havana neighborhoods in the afternoon, an Associated Press reporter heard music only four times, all at low volume – twice from idling cars and twice from open apartment windows.
Music student Maikel Ramirez Ortega normally plays his trumpet on the Malecon seafront for three to four hours every afternoon. After stopping during the mourning period, he returned Monday afternoon and blew a few tentative notes under a footbridge, out of the public eye. It didn’t feel quite right, even though it was now allowed, he said.
“It still feels like we’re in mourning,” he said. The mood was still somber across the island. In the eastern city of Santiago, where Castro’s ashes were interred on Sunday, hotel bartender Mailen Fuentes said things didn’t feel normal yet. “It’s going to take time to get used to the idea that Fidel is no longer here,” she said. “We feel sad. It’s too soon.”