Fidel Castro's death leaves Cuba reeling

(Reuters)
(Reuters)

Cuba's most prominent dissident group has called off its weekly protest march for the first time in 13 years following the death of its nemesis Fidel Castro, the revolutionary leader whose passing has cast a pall over the island.

Mr Castro, a world figure who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and defied half a century of US 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 held protest marches after Mass at a Roman Catholic Church in Havana 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 Mr 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 colours 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," Ms 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."

A towering figure of the 20th century and an icon of the Cold War, Mr 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.

New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said: "There's no question he repressed a lot of people and was a very polarising figure, and you can see those people that have been exiles living in Miami fundamentally rejoicing the fact that the guy has passed away."

Waikato University international law expert Al Gillespie told the Paul Henry programme Mr Castro was either loved or hated depending on people's socio-economic backgrounds. 

"If you're a poor person, he was the David who stood up to Goliath, but if you're a rich person, he was someone who took American property while it was owned in Cuba. 

"For the vast majority of people on the ground he did improve their living conditions but that was at the expense of the rich people who lost all their assets. 

"If you look at the economic and social progress of the country before 1959, it was dismal. But post that period he took up the education standards and living standards in terms of life expectancy, close to a wealthy western country.

"The difficulty is his human rights record, and that puts him at the bottom third of most countries in the world - freedom of press is amongst the worst three in the world to this day.

He says Mr Castro was not just a dangerous figure for many Cubans but also for nations around the world.

"He took the world close to nuclear war in 1962. So it wasn't just the difficulties to his own people, it was the threat he posed to many people outside in other countries including our own." 

Reuters / Newshub.