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Fidel’s Final Rally

At 12:07 a.m. on November 26, 2016, a three-word text message flashed across my telephone screen: “Fidel is gone!” I was shocked. I shouldn’t have been. After all I knew he was already 90 years old.

I’d traveled from one end of Cuba to the other only three months before and had seen and photographed the written greetings along the route, wishing him a happy 90th birthday. I’d joked with others that maybe he just might live forever…..and like some of them a little bit of me believed it to be so. Shocked or not, I knew I had to be in Havana on November 29 to attend his last rally. I had three days to make that happen.

Normally it would not be too difficult to make reservations and book a destination with three days to get there. But I was going to Cuba, which entailed a whole new set of obstacles. In order to get there I needed a visa. The visa office was closed for the weekend. I made airline reservations for the first flight out on Tuesday morning and secured pertinent visa information I would need in Miami. Hotel rooms were harder to find due to standing reservations by tour groups and others that were hastily made by the government for diplomats and dignitaries flying in from other countries. In the end I prevailed.

I arrived in Havana in mid-afternoon, checked into my hotel, exchanged money, grabbed my camera, and went in search of a taxi. With many streets inaccessible due to foot traffic and police regulations, the taxi driver told me he would get me as close as possible to the Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square) where the rally would be held, and from there he said, “Just follow the crowds.” I asked him about the likelihood of finding a taxi when it was over and he laughed. “Come back from the Square the same way you go in, and continue walking for several blocks and eventually you will probably find someone to help you.” With that, I hopped out of the car and did as I was told, I followed the crowd. It kept getting bigger. With it, I rounded a corner and went up a small incline that allowed me to see ahead, and gasped at the masses in front of me. I kept walking.

I had been to the Plaza de la Revolución many times since I made my first trip to Cuba in 2011. Indeed, it was the first place I visited upon my arrival, even before checking into my hotel. My familiarity with the 11-acre space still did not prepare me for what was to come. Never had I seen it like it was for Fidel's final rally: a crowd of massive proportions dominated every inch! Both The Guardian and The Telegraph, news agencies from the U.K., declared that “tens of thousands of Cubans” filled the square to bid farewell to Fidel that night….tens of thousands of Cubans and me.

There was no place to walk, no place to move, no place for maneuvering a way through the density of humanity that filled the square. I had only seen such things in newsreels or the movies, but had never experienced it myself. My plan was to go as far to the right as possible and then weave my way towards the left close to the front and eventually make a full circle of the square. However, once caught up in the crowd I had to let it be my guide.

At one point while trying to make my way through it, a woman seated on the ground who I almost stepped on, pulled on my pant leg and indicated my shoes were untied. There was no possible way to bend over to tie them, so she tied them for me. With the density of the crowd, it was surprising whenever I ran into (and often ran over) some who were seated because you couldn’t see them until you were upon them. They knew that hours of speeches lay ahead and wanted to stake out their territory in advance. Most, however, were standing and all were friendly. Although there was some sadness, most appeared to have gotten used to the idea over the preceding three days that Fidel Castro Ruz was dead, and that this was his final farewell.

Unlike crowds in other places in the world, there were no pick-pockets, and there was nothing for sale--no tents selling food, drinks, souvenirs, no chairs to rent, there were only those who had come to bear witness to the end of an era. Later to the repeated strains of "YO SOY FIDEL" (I AM FIDEL) uttered in unison from the crowd, I made my way out of the square and went in search of a taxi back to my hotel. After walking several blocks in the darkness, I saw a vehicle that looked like a giant orange with seats carved out of the middle. A voice said, "Lady, do you want a ride?" and a new best friend was made! As we rode back to the hotel I heard an occasional "Viva la Revolutión", "Viva Fidel", but it seemed as though it was time for the next part of Cuban history to begin. I was fortunate to have been part of it.