Invited world leaders and tens of thousands of Cubans flocked to the Plaza Antonio Maceo for a final farewell to Fidel Castro on Saturday night, the eve of his internment at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery.
“On behalf of our people of the party, the state, the government and family members, I reiterate the deepest gratitude for countless signs of respect for Fidel, his ideas and his work that continue to come from all over the world,” Cuban leader Raúl Castro said during the homage, adding that legislation would be introduced in the next session of the National Assembly of People’s Power, Cuba’s parliament, that would reflect the late Fidel Castro’s will.
“Few in the world bet on our ability to resist,” Castro said with a towering statue of Antonio Maceo, an independence hero, as a backdrop.
He added that Fidel demonstrated “that one could proclaim the socialist character of the revolution within 90 miles of the empire … that one can resist, survive and develop without renouncing the principles and achievements of socialism.
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“This is Fidel,” Raúl Castro said, “…who summons us with his example and actions to show that we could, we can and we shall overcome any obstacle, threat or turmoil in our firm commitment to build socialism in Cuba or, what is the same, guarantee the independence and sovereignty of the homeland.”
Then he made a solemn promise: “Before the remains of Fidel, in the Plaza of the Revolution Major General Antonio Maceo, the heroic city of Santiago de Cuba, we vow to defend the homeland and socialism and together we reaffirm the phrase of the Bronze Titan (independence hero Antonio Maceo),” he said. “Whoever tries to take over Cuba, will collect the dust of its soil flooded with blood if he doesn’t die first.”
The end of his address, which lasted about 30 minutes, was greeted with chants of “Raúl, amigo, el pueblo esta contigo (Raúl, friend, the country is with you).
The event was designed as an homage from the people of Cuba’s eastern provinces, and representatives from mass organizations and the Union of Communist Youth offered their tributes.
As the late leader’s friends and allies, including both of Brazil’s former presidents — Dilma Rousseff and Inacio Lula da Silva — as well as Bolivian President Evo Morales, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, arrived, the crowd began to chant “Yo Soy Fidel, Yo Soy Fidel“ (I am Fidel), which has become a mantra following Castro’s death.
The United States wasn’t among the foreign delegations attending the events in Santiago, although U.S. officials attended an homage at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana earlier in the week.
Those at the podium at the Plaza Antonio Maceo spoke before a sea of fluttering Cuban flags. Many in the crowd also held up images of the former leader at varying stages of his political life.
“Fidel was a political giant of the 20th century,” Ulises Guilarte de Nacimiento, the secretary general of the Cuban Workers Federation, told the audience. “From him, we learned that all who fight have the right to triumph.”
In words meant for Fidel Castro, he said, “Thanks to you, Cuba is a dignified, independent and solid homeland.”
Under Castro, “for the first time we Cubans were the protagonists of our own destiny,” said Teresa Amarelle, secretary general of the Federation of Cuba Women.
“The revolution has dignified the role of women,” she said.
Castro’s ashes arrived earlier in the day 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 Raúl Castro in 2006.
The caravan carrying Castro’s ashes arrived to Santiago — the “heroic city” and so-called cradle of the Cuban Revolution — on the final leg of a four-day journey across Cuba that began on Wednesday from Havana. The journey retraced, in reverse, the triumphant march into the capital that los rebeldes made after the ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Castro will be laid to rest Sunday morning next to the mausoleum of 19th century Cuban patriot José Martí, who fought for Cuban independence from Spain.
Many in the plaza 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.”
In the afternoon, as she sat on the 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.
There was palpable excitement in Santiago and in the small towns along the Central Highway where throngs lined up to greet the caravan. Residents arranged 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 painted and townspeople swept the streets, hacking away brush and sprucing up their yards in anticipation of the passage of the caravan, which also drove by 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 wore homemade versions of the red and black 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.
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.
Miami Herald staffer Kyra Gurney contributed to this report from Miami.