Tens of thousands of Cubans — many sobbing while holding images of Fidel Castro, flowers and Cuban flags — lined up well into the evening to pay their respects to “El Comandante” at Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution on Monday.
Inside the memorial to Cuban patriot José Martí that looms over the plaza, they filed past simple floral arrangements and a portrait of a young bearded Castro in fatigues with a rifle over his shoulder looking across the Sierra Maestra mountains that served as headquarters for the guerrilla campaign that ultimately led to the revolution’s triumph.
The overall mood was somber, respectful and reflective. Some openly wept, brushed away tears or kissed pictures of Castro. Others simply walked past as if fulfilling a duty.
“I was born under the Revolution. I was raised by the Revolution. I was trained by the Revolution,” Wilson Vega, 51, a neurologist who lined up in his white doctor’s coat told Bloomberg. “I am who I am because of Fidel Castro.”
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“He’s our commander and I wanted to say goodbye,” Sofia Morales said with little apparent conviction. Morales, 25, arrived by bus with other students from their teacher-training college, Bloomberg reported.
The procession was the beginning of a week of services that will spread across the island, ending Sunday in Santiago de Cuba, where the revolution was launched.
The plaza, a massive concrete expanse where papal masses have been celebrated and Cubans have gathered at key moments in the island’s history, was open to mourners until 10 p.m. Monday and will open again Tuesday morning. A mass gathering scheduled for the evening is expected to include international leaders and dignitaries. The United States is likely to send a delegation, but the White House said Monday it would not include President Barack Obama nor Vice President Joe Biden.
On Wednesday, Castro’s ashes will begin making a journey across the island in a caravan that will follow a route that is the reverse of the one that a young Castro and other revolutionaries took in 1959 from eastern Cuba to Havana after the triumph of the revolution.
As Monday’s tribute began at 9 a.m., Cuban soldiers fired off 21-gun salutes from the Morro fort in Havana and from a fort in Santiago.
One of the first in line was Tania Jimenez, 53, a mathematician who arrived at 4 a.m. carrying a rose.
“Fidel is everything to us, the soul of this country who gave everything, all his life,” she told The Associated Press.
A nine-story image of a young Castro draped from the National Library building joined the towering images of fallen guerrillas that overlook the massive square.
Over the weekend, the plazas and streets of the capital were strangely quiet — and the music and blaring horns that usually punctuate Havana’s bustling street life were silent — as Cuba began nine days of mourning to mark Castro’s passing on Friday night.
By early Monday, Cubans began to filter onto the streets to make their way to the plaza and pay their respects to Castro.
Flag-waving students broke into a mass chant of “I am Fidel,” Reuters reported.
Government-run newspapers were filled with tributes and stories about Castro’s life and printed only in black ink, instead of the usual red and black of the official Communist Party daily Granma and the blue and black ink that is used for Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), the paper of the Communist youth.
“For me, it’s my mother first, my children, my father, then Fidel,” Rafael Urbay, 60, a father of five told Reuters as he manned a government photo and printing store in downtown Havana.
He recalled his early years spent on a remote island off the mainland of Cuba with no drinking water. “We weren’t just poor. We were wretched,” he said. “Then came Fidel and the revolution. He gave me my humanity. I owe him everything.”
Cubans who passed by the memorial in the plaza were asked to sign a book of condolences and a “solemn oath” to fulfill the ideals of the revolution.
Cuban diplomatic missions across the globe — including the Cuban Embassy in Washington — opened their doors for people to sign condolence books.
Cuban Ambassador to the United States José Ramón Cabañas wrote a note on behalf of the embassy staff expressing their “profound grief” and signing off with “¡Hasta Siempre, Comandante!” (Until Forever, Commander)
Condolences continued to flow into Cuba from around the world for the man who was both admired yet reviled by many Cuban exiles, during his nearly half-century at Cuba’s helm.
In her message of condolence, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet called Castro “a leader for dignity and social justice in Cuba and Latin America,” and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canadians “were united with the Cuban people in their mourning for the loss of an extraordinary leader” who was “a revolutionary and a legendary orator.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry sent condolences to the Cuban people. President Barack Obama has emphasized that many of the efforts he had made to build a more normal relationship with Cuba have been undertaken to support the Cuban people.
“Over more than half a century, he played an outsized role in their lives, and he influenced the direction of regional, even global affairs,” said Kerry. “As our two countries continue to move forward on the process of normalization — restoring the economic, diplomatic and cultural ties severed by a troubled past — we do so in a spirit of friendship and with an earnest desire not to ignore history but to write a new and better future for our two peoples.”
He said the United States reaffirms “support for deepening our engagement with the Cuban people now and in coming years.”
HAVANA — Cubans across the island are being urged to pay tribute to Fidel Castro by signing oath upholding the late leader’s revolutionary ideals.
The oath contains Castro’s words outlining his vision of revolution, first pronounced in a May Day speech in 2000 at the height of the custody battle over 6-year-old castaway Elián Gonzalez.
Here is the Cuban government’s official English translation of the text from that speech:
“Revolution means to have a sense of history; it is changing everything that must be changed; it is full equality and freedom; it is being treated and treating others like human beings; it is achieving emancipation by ourselves and through our own efforts; it is challenging powerful dominant forces from within and without the social and national milieu; it is defending the values in which we believe at the cost of any sacrifice; it is modesty, selflessness, altruism, solidarity and heroism; it is fighting with courage, intelligence and realism; it is never lying or violating ethical principles; it is a profound conviction that there is no power in the world that can crush the power of truth and ideas. Revolution means unity; it is independence, it is fighting for our dreams of justice for Cuba and for the world, which is the foundation of our patriotism, our socialism and our internationalism.”