HAVANA Cuba’s most prominent dissident group called off its weekly protest march for the first time in 13 years on Sunday following the death of its nemesis Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader whose passing has cast a pall over the island.
Castro, a world figure who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and defied half a century of U.S. efforts to topple him, died late on Friday at the age of 90.
The Cuban government has declared a nine-day period of mourning and suspended alcohol sales and even baseball games.
The Ladies in White dissident group decided to avoid creating tensions this week.
“We’re not going to march today so that the government does not take it as a provocation and so that they can pay their tributes,” the group’s leader, Berta Soler, said on Sunday. “We respect the mourning of others and will not celebrate the death of any human being.”
The group, originally formed in support of husbands jailed for political opposition, has called protest marches in Havana following Mass at a Roman Catholic Church each Sunday for the past 13 years.
It has been the rare expression of dissent to be largely tolerated by the Communist government, although police have clamped down over the past several months, stopping protesters in their homes and preventing the demonstrations from taking place.
The difference this week is that dissidents themselves have opted against even trying, three opposition leaders said.
The streets of Havana have been calm since Castro’s death, with people expressing national pride by hanging more Cuban flags than normal.
Lysset Perez, a 44-year-old peanut vendor, dressed in the national colors with a single-starred, blue, red and white flag on her head on Sunday.
“It’s calm but a little dark because Cuba is music and for nine days of mourning there will be no music,” Perez said. “There is calm and sadness. If it weren’t for Fidel and the revolution, the people wouldn’t be as they are: educated and cultured.”
TRIBUTES AND CONDEMNATION
A towering figure of the 20th century and an icon of the Cold War, Castro had been in poor health since he nearly died of an intestinal illness in 2006. He formally ceded power to his younger brother, Raul, in 2008.
Raul Castro, 85, who had been at his brother’s side since they took up arms against a U.S.-backed dictatorship in the 1950s, has not appeared in public or on television since he announced Fidel’s death on Friday night in a brief televised statement.
Cuba’s allies and foes around the world have marked Castro’s death with a mix of tributes and condemnation.
U.S. President Barack Obama, who reversed more than five decades of U.S. hostility toward Cuba and re-established diplomatic ties last year, called Castro a “singular figure” and said the United States would extend “a hand of friendship” to Cuba.
But Obama’s elected successor, Donald Trump, who has threatened to erase Obama’s overtures to Cuba, issued a blunt statement calling Castro “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.”
It is unclear whether Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, will continue efforts to normalize relations with Cuba or fulfill a campaign promise to close the U.S. embassy in Havana once again.
(Reporting by Nelson Acosta and Ana Isabel Martinez; Editing by Kieran Murray and Frances Kerry)