After 4-day funeral trek, Cuba saying goodbye to Fidel Castro with mass rally

The cremated remains of Fidel Castro, which have been taken on a slow and winding journey across the island, arrived in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where a rally was scheduled to honour the former leader. 

Cubans gathered along the streets of Bayamo on Saturday as the ashes, aboard a military jeep, began the 80-kilometre trip to the city where the first shots were fired in the Cuban Revolution in the 1950s.

Castro will be buried Sunday morning in a private ceremony at the Cemetery Santa Ifigenia, where Cuban national heroes Jose Marti and Carlos Manuel de Cespedes are laid to rest.

The arrival of his remains marked the end of a four-day trek that reversed the path Castro took to Havana after his rebels ousted the military dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista and he declared victory in Santiago on Jan. 1, 1959.

Thousands of Cubans, young and old and waving flags have stood roadside to catch a glimpse of the flower-bedecked trailer carrying Castro’s remains, which are encased in a small, Cuban-flag-draped casket.

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Schoolchildren wait to view the ashes of Fidel Castro in Jimaguayu, Cuba, as the leader’s remains make a four-day journey across the island. A rally will honour Castro tonight in Santiago de Cuba, before his burial Sunday. (Ronaldo Schemidt/AFP/Getty Images)

Tonight’s rally for the former Cuban leader, who died last Friday night at the age of 90, will be held at the Plaza Antonio Maceo.

It’s expected to be similar to Tuesday’s memorial event at Revolution Square in Havana, which drew tens of thousands of Cubans and foreign dignitaries from around the world and featured speeches and eulogies from Castro’s political allies.

Most of the world leaders came from Latin American and African nations including Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and South Africa.

Many leaders, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. President Barack Obama, didn’t attend Havana’s mass, nor will they be travelling to Santiago. Trudeau had sent Gov. Gen David Johnston to represent Canada at Tuesday’s event in Havana. Obama has sent deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes for tonight’s memorial in Santiago.

Dignitaries confirmed to be attending Saturday’s rally:

  • Former Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva
  • Former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff
  • Haitian President Jocelerme Privert (and first lady)
  • U.S. deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes
  • U.S. ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis
  • Ethiopian President Mulato Teshome (and delegation)
  • African Union President Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma
  • Bolivian President Evo Morales
  • Laos Vice-President Phankham Viphavanh

Notables not attending:

  • Russian President Vladimir Putin 
  • French President François Hollande
  • U.S. President Barack Obama
  • Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau
  • British Prime Minister Theresa May
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Havana has no officially sanctioned events to mark the occasion, but the Federation of Students has invited students and workers to watch the rally live on the University of Havana’s steps.

Castro’s death has been followed by a nine-day national mourning period. Due to the restrictions placed on music during this time, the normally vibrant Havana has been relatively quiet. 

The first two days of mourning were set aside for people to pay their respects to Castro at the towering Jose Marti Memorial in Revolution Square.

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Castro’s death at age 90 on Nov. 25 has been followed by a nine-day period of national mourning. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

Thousands of people waited for hours under the hot sun for the chance to get a quick look at a display of flowers, wreaths, a picture of a young Castro in army fatigues and Castro’s war medals. 

One of the most divisive figures in modern history, Castro’s one-man and one-party rule kept him in power for 49 years, the longest of any head of government in the world. 

To some, he was a revolutionary icon defending a socialist ideal against the encroachment of capitalism and imperialism. To others, he was a totalitarian dictator who ran a repressive government that quashed individual rights and carried out political executions.

Castro’s social and economic reforms transformed the country; many residents now have easy access to health care and education. But much of Cuba is also in a prolonged economic collapse, and many struggle to earn a living under the island’s social system and stifling economic rules.

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