At midnight on Aug. 13, I was in the main square in Viñales, Cuba. I had booked my trip around the island 12 months earlier and one main thing had changed: on November 25th 2016, Fidel Castro, at the age of 90, had died.
Fidel Castro: A Remarkable Life in 13 Pictures
Viñales, in the province of Pinar del Rio, is said to have been Fidel's favorite place and it was therefore a fitting location for his birthday celebrations. Having spent the previous two days in this beautiful town, located right next to the valley, you could have sensed it would be an evening of celebration rather than of mourning, and I should never have been in any doubt.
Walking down the main street in Viñales, there seemed to be more than the usual adoration for Cuba's former commander in chief. Like many of the towns, villages and cities I visited during my time in Cuba, shops, restaurants and front doors had a quote, his face, or both, stuck up on it — sometimes on nothing more than a scrap of paper. At the playground was a hand-painted sign with words from Fidel.
“Revolution is unity, is independence, is the fight for our dream of justice for Cuba and for the world, and it is our base for patriotism, socialism and our internationalism.”
Come the final minutes of Aug. 12, with the square full of the world's people — white, Black, Cuban, English, French, Spanish, Italian — the reggaeton and salsa that had been filling the streets for the past two hours made way for the national anthem.
When it came to the end, a spokesman from the Young Communist League, UJC, gave a speech lasting just short of five minutes on Fidel's life and legacy. It finished with a rapturous applause from the crowd and an invitation from the UJC leaders to come up to the stage for a slice of birthday cake.
The kids were to be first, despite it being midnight, and through talking to two different men that night, it was clear who they thanked for this feeling of safety.
First, I went up onto the stage, not for cake but to speak with one of the UJC Leaders. Mario told me the day would be "a celebration as if Fidel was still alive" and said many similar independent events were taking place across Pinar Del Rio.
He added that the day held extra importance as it was The Day of Young People, something he gave special attention to in his role as a leader of the UJC.
“It is important for the young people of today, many who are too young to know Fidel well, to know the importance of the Revolution to Cuba.”
I asked him how he felt about President Raul Castro stepping down in February 2018 — his answer was one of assurance rather than apprehension. He wouldn't speculate on who the next president may be, but he was sure Cuba's future would continue on its path of socialism and he had no worries. His dream was to one day himself be part of the Communist Party, having been part of the voluntary UJC since his teens. For now, though, he was clearly proud of his role as a youth leader.
Needing a drink after a lot of near-shouting to make myself heard to Mario over the celebrations, I headed to El Colonial, the bar opposite the square.
Having rehydrated, I asked one of the bar staff if Fidel's birthday held any importance for him. His answer was abundant with gratitude. It was because of Fidel, Alexi told me, that he and his partner had no worries about the future of their child.
He'll have free healthcare and education, he said, using the night as a clear example that his son will also grow up in safety.
“Look at tonight; the children can walk two miles home in the middle of the night and nothing (bad) will happen. That makes me happy for my child.”
I asked Alexi how old his child was. He made a circular motion over his stomach with a big grin on his face. “She's still pregnant!”
Around 2 a.m., the music started to come to a close and the nightlife, even if not the day's celebrations, came to a natural end. They may not have been old enough to remember Fidel's presidency — some weren't even alive for it or were still yet to be born — but the night was very much a celebration of one old man by many young. Exactly, Mario told me, as he hoped it would be.
As the square emptied, there was just one figure watching over the events — poetically, the bust of Jose Marti.
"Men of action, above all those whose actions are guided by love, live forever,” an accompanying quote read.