Faithful cult worships Cuba's reluctant Fidel at 90

 

Carlos Batista, Agence France-Presse

 

Santa Clara (Cuba).- It was just what the fiery communist leader Fidel Castro told them not to do.

 

His admirers say he freed Cuba from tyranny, but the revolution wasn't about just one guy. Would they please not plaster his face everywhere?

 

Yet as he marks his 90th birthday this Saturday, such popular reverence for the ex-guerrilla and his former comrades-in-arms is strong.

 

So strong, it is drawing thousands of tourists to Cuba -- including more and more from its old enemy, the United States.

 

- Semper Fidel -

 

Castro made it a point of pride not to be worshipped in effigy like certain other communist world leaders.

 

"I am hostile to anything that resembles a personality cult," he said in an interview published in 2006 in a book by Spanish journalist Ignacio Ramonet.

 

"There is not a single school, factory, hospital or building that bears my name. There are no statues of me. There are practically no portraits."

 

That year Castro retired from the public eye due to poor health. He officially handed over the presidency to his brother Raul in 2008.

 

But though formal portraits may be few, the bearded, cigar-chomping revolutionary smiles out from countless billboards across the island.

 

Local sociology student Juan Carlos Cabezas, 25, says he is struck by how many images of Castro's face he sees around Havana.

 

"He has become like an icon, a symbol," Cabezas said. "He is no longer just a person. He represents something more."

 

In the central town of Sancti Spiritus, a poster bears three photographs of Fidel: as a young rebel, a middle-aged statesman and a gray-haired elder.

 

"Fidel is a model that will be alive forever for all Cubans," said passerby Celia Gomez, a 27-year-old psychologist.

 

- 'Fidel With Us' -

 

In the run-up to his birthday, Cuba's state-run media published a series of photographs and articles about Castro, entitled "Fidel With Us."

 

A university in the province of Santa Clara even launched an online application of the same name with information and quotations from the ex-leader -- despite limited internet access on the island.

 

There is no museum dedicated to Fidel, though relics of his life are scattered around various historical venues.

 

A small sculpture in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana is the closest thing Cuba has to a statue of him: it portrays him along with his late comrades Camilo Cienfuegos and Che Guevara.

 

Key sites in Castro's life are preserved in his birthplace in the eastern village of Biran, the old barracks in Santiago de Cuba and an apartment in Havana where he planned a failed attack.

 

His crushing of the US-backed counter-revolutionary invasion in the Bay of Pigs in 1961 is commemorated in a museum at Playa Giron, a beach on the south of the island, with old weapons and uniforms.

 

- Che -

 

Castro may not have imagined as a young rebel commander in the 1950s that decades later his face would be sold printed on T-shirts.

 

Besides Fidel with his cigar and military cap, a cult surrounds another hero of the revolution: Che Guevara, the ultimate revolutionary icon.

 

His beret-clad image graces countless T-shirts and posters.

 

Thousands of visitors flock daily to the museum where Guevara's remains lie in Santa Clara.

 

US visitors to Cuba have surged since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations last year.

 

US citizens are still officially forbidden from visiting as tourists but many are managing to do so under new travel categories that permit certain cultural exchanges.

 

Nearly 10,000 US citizens were among the 186,000 foreigners who visited the Che Guevara site in the first half of this year, says its director Maira Romero.

 

The overall figure was more than double the total for the same period last year.

 

"For years we have been hearing about Cuba and the revolution," said one visitor, retired US teacher Jacqueline Rubio, 72.

 

"We wanted to see what it is like with our own eyes."

 

 

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