Fidel Castro returned Saturday to the city where he and a band of rebels staged an assault on the Moncada Barracks, the beginning of the Cuba Revolution, and the place where he began his march into the history books.
Castro, the historic leader of the revolution, died Nov. 25, at the age of 90 after a lingering illness that resulted in his ceding power to his brother Raúl Castro in 2006.
A caravan carrying Castro's ashes arrived Saturday afternoon in Santiago — the "heroic city" and so-called cradle of the Cuban Revolution — on the final leg of a journey across Cuba that began on Wednesday from Havana. The journey retracked, in reverse, the triumphant march into the capital that los rebeldes made after the ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista.
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of Cubans are expected to turn out for a final farewell to Castro at the Antonio Maceo Plaza on the eve of his internment at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. He will be laid to rest next to the mausoleum of 19th century Cuban patriot José Martí, who fought for Cuban independence from Spain.
Never miss a local story.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro was expected to give the main address at the nationally televised homage, which begins at 7 p.m.
Many in the plaza, which had begun to fill by mid-day, planned to spend the night in vigil and then fall into a funeral procession accompanying Castro's ashes to the cemetery where a private funeral is planned.
"We Santiagueros think Santa Ifigenia is a fitting place for him because Santiago is the city of heroes — Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (another independence hero from nearby Bayamo), José Martí and now Fidel," said Norma Arias, who runs a bed and breakfast overlooking Parque Cespedes.
From the balcony of the blue and white municipal building on one end of the park, Castro addressed all Cubans on Jan. 1, 1959, the day Batista was defeated.
"This time the revolution is for real," Castro said. "The revolution will not be an easy task; the revolution will be a tough enterprise and full of dangers..."
As she sat on a balcony of her home where she could get a clear view of the passing caravan that carried Castro's ashes in a small flag-draped chest, Arias became overcome with emotion.
"Really, his death has affected me a lot. Fidel was everything, everything," Arias said tearfully. "We feel like orphans, like something is missing."
For many Cubans, the only government they have known has been run by a Castro.
"Fidel is part of every one of us — an entire generation, more than 50 years," said Manuel Rondón Medina, Arias' husband.
But Cuba is also very much a nation divided with many of its former residents in exile in Miami and around the world decrying its revolution as one of betrayal.
Those in exile point to human rights abuses, firing squads after the revolution and imprisonment of Castro opponents, and the losses they suffered after the nationalization of their homes and businesses.
Cubans who turned out to see the remains of Castro pass in the "Caravan of Liberty" chose to focus on advances in education, free medical care and other social benefits of the revolution.
Thirty foreign delegations were expected to attend the events in Santiago, including a Haitian delegation led by Interim President Jocelerme Privet. But the United States isn't among them. U.S. officials attended an homage at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana earlier in the week but said they wouldn't be in Santiago.
Ex-presidents from around Latin America also are flying in for Castro's funeral service and even former Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona came.
"I come to be with my second father," he told Cuba state television. "There are many players but he was the leader of the [World Cup] team of politicians."
There was palpable excitement in Santiago and in the small towns along the Central Highway from Bayamo, where Castro's ashes spent the night. On Friday, people were busy arranging white rocks on hillsides along the route that spelled out "Fidel vive" (Fidel lives), "Fidel will always be among us" and other revolutionary slogans.
Buildings and curbsides were being painted and townspeople were sweeping the streets, hacking away brush and sprucing up their yards in anticipation of the passage of the caravan as it headed to Santiago. En route, it passed El Cobre where the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of El Cobre, Cuba's patron saint, is located.
Santiago is full of landmarks weighted with revolutionary significance. But the Moncada Barracks where the Castro brothers and a group of rebels attacked at dawn on July 26, 1953 tops the list.
The plan was to capture the barracks, distribute arms to the population and begin a nationwide insurrection.
The attack failed miserably but it is the event that set in motion the Cuban Revolution.
In memory of Castro, some Santiago residents have been wearing homemade versions of the red and blacks arm bands of the 26th of July Movement.
Now the mustard-colored barracks has been converted into a museum and a scholastic center, housing several primary and secondary schools.
School kids and their teacher lined the blocks around the barracks to watch the passage of the caravan. Some had written "I am Fidel" and "Fidel Lives" on their foreheads and cheeks with marker.
Yoaleni Martínez, a teacher at another elementary school, carried a sign reading: "Who says Fidel has died? He lives, grows and multiplies himself. He lives in the heart of every Cuban."
"Here at this barracks we have the blood of many Cuban revolutionaries and today it is a school. Imagine that," said Martínez. "And this girl standing next to me, how much would the medicine that saved her life have cost elsewhere? She had a serious bacterial infection and the medicine was free. Now she's 12 years old."
Just after the caravan passed the barracks, the military vehicle pulling the trailer containing Castro's ashes stalled, and members of his honor guard jumped off to give it a push. The caravan continued through the streets of Santiago.
Even those who chose not to witness the passage of the caravan, remembered Castro in their own ways.
Ninety-six-year-old María Estrella Estévez Blanco dug out an old picture of Castro who lived in a blue and yellow house next door to hers at 6 Gen. Jesús Rabí St. when he was sent to Santiago to study as a child.
She didn't know him as a youngster, but met him several times over the years.
"He always liked to visit that house when he came to Santiago," she said. "This is a picture with my grandchildren from the last time he visited."
In the image, Castro can be seen leaning toward the porch of Estévez's home to talk with her. It was 2003 — three years before Castro took ill.