HAVANA Draped in the red, white and blue national flag, Fidel Castro’s ashes began a marathon procession across Cuba on Wednesday to his final resting place in the east of the island, where the first shots in the Cuban Revolution were fired.
Castro, who ruled Cuba for half a century until 2008 and built a Communist state on the doorstep of the United States, died on Friday aged 90, plunging the Caribbean nation into nine days of mourning.
He was cremated on Saturday. It will take the cortege carrying his ashes three days to make the 550-mile (900-km) journey eastward across his eyebrow-shaped land to Santiago de Cuba, going back along the route taken by his bearded revolutionaries in their victory march to Havana in 1959.
The cortege slowly set off from the city´s Revolution Square on Wednesday morning, wending its way along Havana´s seafront drive the Malecon. Thousands lined the roadside along the procession route, many waving small Cuban flags or cheering.
The box containing Castro´s ashes sat in a glass case on a small flatbed trailer towed by a green military jeep, rimmed in white flowers.
“Fidel is everything to Cuba, and we are going to miss him,” said 83-year-old Guillermo Cadiz, who fought with Fidel and his rebel army in the Sierra Maestra mountains.
“There will never be another like him,” he added, sitting in an electric wheelchair by the roadside in the town of Jovellanos around 96 miles (155 km) east of Havana, wearing a straw hat and a clutch of medals.
The interment will take place on Sunday morning in Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel Castro first launched his revolutionary movement in 1953 with an assault on the Moncada barracks.
Later, after his bearded guerrillas deposed U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, they swept down from the Sierra Maestra mountains into Santiago, before making their victory
march westward towards the capital.
On Tuesday night, thousands of Cubans, as well as leaders of Cuba’s leftist allies and other developing countries, gathered in Havana’s Revolution Square for a service commemorating “El Comandante” (The Commander).
“He more than fulfilled his mission on this earth,” Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose government supports Cuba’s ailing economy with oil sold on favourable terms, told the massive crowd.
“Few lives have been so complete, so bright. He has left unconquered.”
Castro was admired by many around the world, especially in Latin America and Africa, for standing up to the United States, instituting free education and health care, and sending doctors around the world on missions of mercy.
But others vilified him as a dictator who ruined the economy with his brand of socialism and denied Cubans basic human rights such as freedom of speech. Some two million Cuban-Americans live in the United States, the result of a steady stream of people quitting the country for political and economic reasons.
With the average state salary at $25 per month, many young Cubans look for ways to leave, seeing little future in their homeland.
A pall of silence has settled over Havana’s usually buzzing streets since the mourning period began. Officials have banned live music, and suspended the professional baseball season and sales of alcohol everywhere except for in large hotels catering to tourists.
Nationwide, Cubans have lined up to sign condolence books and pledges to honour Castro’s socialist ideology. State media continue to play tributes on a loop.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Editing by Simon Gardner and Alistair Bell)