Farewell begins in Cuba: Thousands flood streets for Castro commemoration

Revolution Square

Revolution Square

Hundreds of thousands of Cubans rallied for late communist leader Fidel Castro with Latin American and African leaders in Havana on Tuesday night before his ashes are taken across the country.

They chanted “long live the revolution!” and “Fidel! Fidel!” at a packed Revolution Square, the vast esplanade where he gave so many of his legendary, marathon speeches.

A giant picture of a young, bearded Castro in his guerrilla uniform and rifle hung on the National Library as his brother and successor, Raul Castro, waved at the crowd.

Ecuador’s leftist President Rafael Correa praised Castro’s ideology, telling the crowd: “We will keep fighting for these ideas. We swear!”

South African President Jacob Zuma hailed Castro as “one of the great heroes of the 20th century,” citing his opposition to apartheid and his deployment of Cuban troops to back Angola’s government against rebels in 1975.

But several world leaders shunned the tribute, highlighting the divisive legacy of the major Cold War player. Even the presidents of friendly nations such as Russia, China and Iran sent deputies.

Castro — who ruled from 1959 until an illness forced him to hand power to his brother Raul in 2006 — died Friday at age 90. The cause of death has not been announced.

“Fidel would be proud to see the square overflowing like this, especially with young people,” said 46-year-old teacher Tatiana Gonzalez.

The rally followed two days during which Cubans, encouraged by the government, streamed past a picture of Castro inside the square’s towering monument to independence hero Jose Marti.

They were also urged to sign an oath of loyalty to Castro’s revolution in books placed at schools and other public buildings.

After Tuesday’s ceremony, the urn holding Castro’s ashes will be taken on a “caravan of freedom” across the country, retracing the route his guerrilla movement took to celebrate the toppling of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

The commemorations end Sunday, when the urn is laid to rest in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where 19th century independence hero Marti is buried.

‘Dear brother’

Leftist presidents Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia and Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua — spiritual sons of Castro’s revolution — were among the most notable foreign dignitaries to pay tribute to Castro.

Venezuela long has shipped cut-rate oil to ally Cuba, which cannot get credit on international markets. This critical support from Havana’s main regional ally enabled Cuba’s economy to stay afloat, if barely, for more than a decade, analysts say.

Now, however, with oil prices sliding, Caracas has cut back on subsidies for Cuba as Venezuela muddles through an economic crisis itself, after it adopted greater state-led economic plans.

Castro spent decades feuding with the United States, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the 1962 missile crisis, backed guerrilla movements in Latin America and deployed his army to conflicts in Africa.

Zimbabwe’s longtime ruler, Robert Mugabe, praised his “dear brother” after landing in Havana.

“He was not just your leader. He was our leader and the leader of all revolutionaries,” the 92-year-old Mugabe said. “We followed him, listened to him and tried to emulate him.”

The presidents of Mexico and Central American nations also flew in, but Colombian Juan Manuel Santos, whose government negotiated a peace deal with the Marxist FARC rebels in Havana, did not come as expected.

Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was the only European leader at the rally.

The leaders of Britain, Germany, France, Spain and Canada all sent others to represent them.

US President Barack Obama, who along with Raul Castro ended decades of enmity to restore diplomatic relations, did not attend.

Obama’s senior advisor Ben Rhodes and the top US diplomat in Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, represented Washington, but without the status of a “presidential delegation.”

“We continue to have some significant concerns about the way the Cuban government currently operates, particularly with regard to protecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

‘Brutal dictator’

That stern message comes as President-elect Donald Trump threatens to end Obama’s thaw with Havana unless the regime makes concessions on human rights and opening up its economy.

Trump called Castro a “brutal dictator.”

One person famously caught up in the two nations’ standoff took issue with that description: Elian Gonzalez, who was the subject of an international custody battle as a five-year-old boy when the boat carrying him and 13 other Cuban asylum seekers sank off the Florida coast in 1999.

“I don’t believe all these people could cry for someone who’s a dictator,” said Gonzalez, who is today 22 and famously pro-Castro.