HAVANA : Hundreds of thousands of Cubans swarmed Havana’s Revolution Square for a tearful tribute to Fidel Castro on Monday while his brother, Raul, led a private ceremony in front of the late communist icon’s ashes.
A weeklong farewell to Castro began with long lines of mourners streaming past a black-and-white picture of “El Comandante” as a young, black-bearded revolutionary carrying a rifle. The crowd walked by silently, some took pictures with their phones and others sobbed uncontrollably as they looked up at the portrait flanked by white roses inside the monument to independence hero Jose Marti.
Many were dressed in state uniforms — school children, soldiers, veterans, doctors and customs officers — and the line continued as night fell. “We know that our comandante has become immortal,” said 36-year-old university professor Pedro Alvarez.
To the surprise of many, Castro’s ashes were not part of the public display. Cuban state television later showed Fidel’s brother and successor, Raul Castro, leading a private ceremony in front of the dark wood urn at the armed forces ministry.
It was the first time that his remains were shown since his death Friday at age 90. Castro, whose 1959 revolution toppled a dictatorship with the promise of bringing justice and equality to the Caribbean island, was a towering figure of the 20th century.
While some saw him as a socialist hero who brought education and free health care, others labeled him a tyrant who caused economic hardship and sparked an exodus of Cubans seeking a better life. “He’s the father of all Cubans. My dad was my dad, but he couldn’t give me what (Castro) gave me,” said Lourdes Rivera, a 66-year-old retired civil servant who sat on a curb and cried as she waited in line.
“He gave me everything. My freedom. My dignity.” Across the island, Cubans were invited to sign an oath to “keep fighting” for the revolution at hundreds of schools, hospitals and other public buildings. Raul Castro, who took over for his ailing brother a decade ago, and top officials signed the same pledge during their intimate ceremony after placing flowers in front of the urn.
In a sign of changing times, US President Barack Obama visited Revolution Square during his historic visit to Havana in March, when he became the first US leader since 1928 to step foot in Cuba, a nation of 11 million people.
In 2014, Raul Castro announced a diplomatic detente with Obama, who has lifted some trade barriers. On Monday, the first regular flights from the United States to the Cuban capital in half a century resumed. But US President-elect Donald Trump renewed a threat to end the thaw unless Havana makes concessions on human rights and opening up its economy.
“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the US as a whole, I will terminate deal,” he said on Twitter. Manuel Rodriguez Oliva, a 73-year-old interior ministry retiree who paid tribute to Castro, said Trump is “paranoid and crazy.”
“He can break relations. We have lived without them and we will keep living,” Rodriguez Oliva added. Raul Castro has enacted gradual economic reforms. But he has firmly resisted any changes to the communist island’s political system. Government opponents hope Fidel’s death will trigger bolder reforms.
Blame the US embargo
Dissidents who were repressed by Castro’s regime for years said they were happy that the “dictator” had died, but called off regular demonstrations on Sunday out of deference to those in mourning.
In Miami, where so many Cubans flocked in the past decades to escape Castro’s policies, Cuban-Americans celebrated his death with street parties throughout the weekend. The tributes will continue in Havana on Tuesday with an event featuring foreign dignitaries.
Castro’s leftist allies in Latin America are coming, including Presidents Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia. From Africa, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya and Jacob Zuma of South Africa will fly in. But several Western leaders, including Obama, are not coming.
Starting Wednesday, Castro’s ashes will go on a four-day island-wide procession. They will be buried on Sunday in the southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba, the heartland of Castro’s uprising against US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Fidel could do no wrong for the mourners at Revolution Square, where Castro would often rail against the US “empire” during his legendary, marathon speeches.
For them, the country’s economic problems stem from the decades-old US embargo. “If we didn’t develop more, it’s the fault of imperialism,” said a teary-eyed Augustin Fivale Hernandez, 80, holding his wife’s hand after participating in the event. -AFP