MEXICO CITY—Several hundred Mexicans gathered in front of the Cuban Embassy on Sunday holding roses, flags, and homemade banners to bid a final farewell to Cuba’s Fidel Castro.
The celebration of the communist revolutionary’s life took place in Polanco, one of Mexico City’s fanciest neighborhoods, lined with luxury car dealerships and fashion boutiques.
The crowd sang “El Necio,” a famous song about Cuban nationalism and a singer’s reluctance to stop believing in his homeland. Yo me muero cómo viví, I die just as I lived, the people chanted.
Children, adults, and people in wheelchairs approached the embassy gates to leave gifts for El Comandante. A Trump effigy was burned nearby. “¡Muera Trump, Viva Cuba!”
Castro’s death has struck a nerve with many Mexicans who lament the loss of an iconic leader from the revolutionary left at a time when the world seems to be shifting back towards the reactionary right.
“The Cuban Revolution and Fidel Castro were important parts of our political education as leftists in Mexico,” said Uriel Jímenez, a 25-year-old student at the Autonomous Metropolitan University (UAM) in Mexico City.
“Ever since I was fourteen years old and starting high school, I have loved the history of Cuba, Che and Fidel,” he added. “Since the 1950s and the Mexican student movement of 1968, the idea of Cuba was planted very deep inside us Mexicans. That history excites us, and it politicizes us. So we have to be here today.”
Some Cuban immigrants in Mexico City, unlike their counterparts in Miami, are also feeling saddened about Castro’s death.
“For us Cubans, Fidel’s death has been very sad,” said Aron Arello, a 35-year-old Cuban small business owner living in Mexico City. “We were born in a country truly marked by his influence.”
Regarding the Castro death parties taking place in the United States, Arello said, “We can’t spit on the earth where we were raised. Fidel left us a cultural heritage, not just for the island, but for the whole world.”
Mexico’s relationship with Castro’s Cuba was far different than that between the U.S. and the island nation. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto this week remembered Castro as a “friend of Mexico who promoted a bilateral relationship based on respect, dialogue and solidarity.”
“Fidel’s relationship with Mexico was first and foremost pragmatic,” said Ana Covarrubias, an expert on Mexico-Cuba relations. “It’s also a relationship that has been romanticized a bit too much.”
That romanticism started with Castro’s time in Mexico 60 years ago. The young revolutionary arrived in the Aztec nation in 1955, after spending 22 months imprisoned in Cuba for leading a failed 1953 guerrilla attack on the Moncada Barracks. It was in Mexico were Fidel began planning the Cuban revolution, and where he received training, arms and funding. It was in Mexico City where Fidel met Ché Guevara. And it was from Mexican shores that he boarded the legendary boat known as Granma packed with 82 revolutionaries bound for Cuba.
After the revolution, Fidel used Mexico and Mexico used Fidel.
“The relationship between Mexico and Cuba has always been one of convenience and geopolitics,” said Homero Campa, a Mexican journalist who spent eight years living in Havana covering Cuban politics for Proceso magazine.
Campa says Mexican solidarity with Cuba during the Cold War exemplified the country’s foreign policy of non-intervention, while helping the Mexican government portray itself as as an independent global player that wasn’t beholden to U.S. interests.
“The Mexican government and Fidel Castro had a mutual understanding: Cuba wouldn’t incite leftist guerrilla movements in Mexico as it did in other nations, and Mexico would support the island on the international stage,” Campa explained.
Cuba also helped Mexico look like a big player on the world stage and a mediator in a region that often split between Washington and Havana. In short, Castro gave Mexico a sense of diplomatic relevancy— one that declined along with Fidel’s health over the years.
Castro also helped Mexico’s PRI party, which ruled the country for over 70 years and was able to partly delegitimize the Mexican left for sympathizing with Castro’s communist regime.
But it was an uneasy relationship all around. Castro didn’t always play nice. In March 2002 he released a telephone conversation with then-President Vicente Fox, in which the Mexican leader asked Fidel to “eat and then leave” during a summit in Mexico to avoid any encounters with U.S. President George W. Bush.
It was obvious that the man who survived 11 U.S. Presidents would be able to outfox Fox.
Even in death, Mexico’s relationship with Castro remains controversial. Critics are upset that so many Mexicans have paid their respects at the Cuban embassy, and say it’s hypocritical for the media and Mexican politicians not to call Castro a dictator while denouncing his human rights abuses.
Still, many Mexicans feel Latin America has lost a leader who was able to stand up to the U.S., just when that role could be more important than ever as Trump prepares to take office.