Cubans began lining up five hours in advance of a mass gathering in Havana’s Revolution Square on Monday to commemorate Fidel Castro, the guerrilla leader who led a leftist revolution in 1959 and ruled the Caribbean island for half a century.
Castro died on Friday at the age of 90, a decade after stepping down due to poor health and ceding power to his brother Raul Castro.
Castro was admired by leftists and people of the developing world who saw him as a revolutionary who stood up to the powerful United States, but vilified by those who viewed him as a dictator who oppressed Cubans and ruined the economy through socialism.
“For me, he continues living in the hearts of the Cubans,” said Misleidys Rivero, 47, a service station employee with a small Cuban flag in her hand.
Castro was cremated on Saturday and the government has declared a nine-day period of mourning. His ashes will be carried in a cortege to a final resting place in Santiago de Cuba, the city in eastern Cuba where he launched the revolution.
The government has invited people to Havana’s Revolution Square for a two-day ceremony that started at 9 a.m. EST (1400 GMT) with a thunderous cannon salute that could be heard throughout much of the capital.
People began queuing up as early as 4 a.m. to be at the head of one of three lines of mourners entering a square that has been central to Cuba’s recent history, and where Castro gave many of his rousing, lengthy speeches.
Mourners paraded by a photo of a young Castro dressed in military fatiques and gazing into the distance with a rifle and pack slug over his back. A military honor guard and some civilians flanked the photo and an arrangement of white flowers.
Among them was Ana Maria Vazquez, 49, who said she once worked in Castro’s office in the Council of State.
“Fidel was country. He was revolution. But above all Fidel was a man who opened his heart to the people,” said Vazquez, wiping away tears.
Political opponents stayed away or kept quiet, allowing admirers to say goodbye to a man who elevated the island to the world stage during the Cold War by forging a communist-run state just 90 miles (145 km) from Florida and then resisting Washington’s long efforts to force change.
“He wasn’t perfect. Nobody is,” said Roberto Videax, a 72-year-old retiree who was nonetheless proud of Castro. “Fidel was a teacher, a patriot.”
The ceremony in the capital will end on Tuesday night when foreign leaders are expected to pay their respects.
CORTEGE ACROSS CUBA
A cortege will carry Castro’s remains east across the 750-mile-long (1,200-km long), island to Santiago. His cremated ashes will be laid to rest in the birthplace of the revolution when the mourning period ends on Dec. 4.
Cuba’s rich variety of music, a soundtrack on the streets of Havana, has been muted since Friday night and the government has also temporarily banned alcohol sales and suspended the professional baseball season.
Some world leaders will be notably absent from Tuesday’s ceremony in Havana.
The Kremlin said Russian President Vladimir Putin would not attend as he was preparing for a major speech. His close ally and speaker of the Russian State Duma or lower house of parliament, Vyacheslav Volodin, would lead the Russian delegation, it said.
North Korea called for three days of mourning and said it would keep flags at half mast to honor Castro, its state news agency said.
And in Japan, Kyodo said a senior lawmaker would head to Cuba in lieu of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
Reacting to his death, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump called Castro “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people for nearly six decades.”
Trump has threatened to reverse outgoing President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, which included restoring diplomatic relations, increasing trade and bilateral contacts and pressing the U.S. Congress to end a half-century economic embargo.
Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, said on Monday he would end the United States’ “deal” with Cuba if the government in Havana did not reciprocate with a better deal itself.
“If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal,” Trump wrote in a post on Twitter.
(Additional reporting by Maria Tsvetkova in Moscow, Tony Munroe in Seoul, William Mallard in Toyko, Susan Heavey in Washington; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Simon Gardner, Bernadette Baum and Frances Kerry)