As a new day dawned Sunday in this city, the launching site for the Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro was laid to rest in a private ceremony for family and friends.
His ashes were interred in a crypt next to the 85-foot mausoleum of Cuban patriot José Martí in the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery.
In contrast to Martí’s towering mausoleum, which was completed in 1951, Castro’s crypt was a simple, boulder-like structure. His ashes were slid into a niche in the stone, and workers sealed the entrance with a metal covering that said simply “Fidel.”
Castro’s remains join those of fallen rebels who took part in the July 26, 1953, assault on the Moncada Barracks, which marks the start of the revolution. Other Cuban historic figures also are buried in the cemetery.
Thousands of mourners had kept vigil at the plaza overnight and then fanned out to surrounding streets to watch the passing of Castro’s ashes one last time as the sun began turning the sky pink early Sunday.
“I’ve been here since yesterday morning,” said Ernesto Echevarria, 44, who works at the University of Oriente. “I just left for some coffee, and now I’m back to watch the funeral procession. I didn’t sleep a bit.”
Echevarria, who sported a 26th of July armband made by university students, said he decided to keep the vigil because of a “sense of commitment. How could you miss a day like this?”
The burial was over shortly before 9 a.m., according to those in attendance.
“There was no speech, it was very somber, only the ashes were buried before family, members of the government and officials,” Segolene Royal, ecology minister of France, told Agence France-Presse.
Just before 7 a.m., a somber mood spread as mourners of all ages waved Cuban flags and chanted, “Yo soy Fidel! Yo soy Fidel!”
Cuban state television was offering constant coverage of the island’s farewell to Castro and recalling the life of the revolution’s historic leader, but it did not provide live coverage of the funeral.
Pictures taken by photographers for Cuban state media who were permitted inside the cemetery during the service captured mourners including Raúl Castro and Castro’s wife, Dalia, and his sons, as well as Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua.
For the first time in the more than 600-mile odyssey Castro’s ashes made from Havana to Santiago and points in between, the honor guard accompanying his remains was attired in dress whites for the funeral.
On the ground, the funeral procession arrived at the cemetery at 6:50 a.m., following the short 10-minute trip from the plaza. The Cuban military kicked off the private ceremony with a 21-gun artillery salute.
Just before 8 a.m., Cuban television showed images of his ashes, in a box wrapped in a Cuban flag, carefully being lifted from atop an olive-green trailer towed by a military jeep. Two soldiers, goose-stepping, carried the ashes into the cemetery in front of a row of saluting officials.
The cemetery is located in the northwestern part of Santiago, close to the bay. Castro’s tomb had been a long-guarded secret. Construction began about two years ago, according to those who live nearby.
Cuban officials opened the gates of the cemetery Sunday afternoon, and Cubans and tourists, some carrying roses, began to file past the tomb. It’s about 10 feet high and appears to be made from a single boulder.
“It’s a privilege to have him here,” said Cruz Maria Pardo, 64, who worked at the cemetery cleaning the mausoleums for more than 20 years. She told The Associated Press that she had seen trucks bringing in materials for a little over a year.
Beyond Cuban patriots, martyrs, celebrities and other important figures, Santa Ifigenia also houses the remains of prominent members of families who fled after the revolution such as Emilio Bacardi Moreau, who managed his family’s rum dynasty and died in 1922. The Bacardi family left Cuba in the early years of the revolution after their properties were nationalized by the Castro government.
The funeral service followed a night in which leaders of Cuban mass organizations from the Cuban Federation of Women to the Federation of University Students rose one by one to remember Castro at the Plaza of the Revolution Antonio Maceo. Cuban state television reported that some 500,000 people attended the event.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro, who took over for his brother when Castro fell ill in 2006, was the final speaker of the homage Saturday night.
He told those gathered in the plaza that his brother wasn’t one who wanted a cult of personality to develop after his death.
“The leader of the revolution rejected any manifestation of a cult personality and was consistent with that through the last hours of his life, insisting that once dead, his name and likeness would never be used on institutions, streets, parks or other public sites, and that busts, statues or other forms of tribute would not be erected,” Raúl Castro said at the Saturday rally.
He added that legislation would be introduced in the next session of the National Assembly of People’s Power, Cuba’s parliament, to that effect.
But the interlude since Castro’s death, announced by Raúl Castro on Nov. 25, gives the impression that a cult of personality has already developed. Cubans who lined the highways to watch the passage of a caravan carrying Castro’s ashes from Havana to Santiago hugged portraits of Castro and painted “Fidel Vive” (Fidel Lives) on their faces.
“Yo soy Fidel” [I am Fidel] has become a national mantra since Castro’s death, and a warehouse along the funeral procession route also spelled out the message in large letters.
“Why ‘Yo Soy Fidel?’ Fidel did everything for this country. Even though he’s now dead, we would die for the same causes,” said Ernesto Lao, a technical professor. “My name is Ernesto, but now my name is Fidel.”
Large billboards with Castro’s image also have long been present from one end of the island to the other, and it was unclear from Raúl Castro’s remarks whether those would remain.
During the nine-day mourning period, the public adulation has reached staggering levels. But South Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wasn’t impressed. On Sunday morning she tweeted: “Fidel Castro’s death still leaves tyrant Raúl oppressing.”
Meanwhile, the government has been making the point that the revolutionary ideas of Castro will continue despite his death.
“Fidel, seed that will keep on germinating,” stated the headline on the Sunday edition of Juventud Rebelde, the newspaper of Cuba’s Communist youth.
Granma, the official daily of the Communist Party of Cuba, led with this headline: “The permanent teaching of Fidel is yes you can.”
Miami Herald staff writer David Ovalle contributed to this report from Miami.