HAVANA—Political leaders and other dignitaries from around the world joined Cuban mourners on Tuesday night in the packed Plaza of the Revolution—the site of so many fiery orations by Fidel Castro—to pay their last respects to the former Cuban leader in a service called “Song to Fidel”.
As the island’s flag fluttered at half staff over the plaza, Cuban actress Corina Mestre began the ceremony by reading the poem “Triumphant March of the Rebel Army”, and encouraged the massive crowd in chants of “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!” at appropriate passages.
One by one, world leaders rose to pay tribute to Castro, whose death was announced on Friday. No cause of death was released, but the 90-year-old had been in declining health for years.
“He died undefeated. Only the inexorable passage of time could defeat him,” Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa said.
As Correa arrived at the airport, he paid tribute to Castro and the accomplishments of the revolution in health care and education.
“Fidel lives in every child with a school, every person with health, each laborer who is the master of his work, in each idealistic young person, inspired by the principles of Fidel and the Cuban Revolution, who will keep fighting for a better world,” he said.
At the plaza, Correa commended Cuba’s resistance to the US embargo, saying, “Any capitalist country in Latin America would collapse in a few months under the blockade that Cuba endured.”
Castro said South African President Jacob Zuma will be remembered as “a great fighter for the idea that the poor have a right to live with dignity.”
And Li Yuanchao, China’s vice president, called Castro “a colossus of our era, history and the people who will remember him eternally. The best homage to Fidel will be to follow his cause.”
Among the dignitaries from 60 countries who have arrived in Havana to take part in a weeklong tribute to Castro were: Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, Mexico’s Enrique Pena Nieto, Panama’s Juan Carlos Varela, Honduras’s Juan Orlando Hernandez and King Emeritus Juan Carlos, who headed the Spanish delegation.
During the nationally televised ceremony at the plaza, Maduro, a staunch ally of the island, sat next to Cuban leader Raul Castro, who was the last of 18 speakers at the homage.
Other allies, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, announced that they would not travel to Cuba. The US delegation included Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes and Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the top American diplomat at the US Embassy in Havana.
House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican, objected to any US officials attending Castro’s funeral.
“History will record and judge this decision to send US officials to the funeral of a ruthless dictator, murderer and supporter of terrorism,” he said.
The Tuesday night memorial at the plaza was the final event in Havana before Castro’s ashes leave early on Wednesday on a 600-mile journey across the country to Santiago de Cuba, which will be Castro’s final resting place.
The caravan will follow the reverse of the route that Castro and “los rebeldes [the rebels]” took from Santiago before marching triumphantly into Havana on January 8, 1959, after the ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista.
During this lengthy journey, Castro’s ashes will pass through rural communities significantly changed by social and economic reforms he adopted.
Many residents now have access to health care and education. But many of those towns are also in a prolonged economic collapse, with the country’s once dominant sugar industry decimated, and the sugar mills and plantations gone, The Associated Press (AP) reported.
Castro and his revolutionary government believed the island’s reliance on sugar exports to the US was the root of many of the country’s ills and have struggled to diversify the island’s economy.
In state broadcast programs and Cuba’s official newspapers, the government has urged Cubans to unite behind the socialist, single-party system installed by Castro.
Hundreds of thousands of Cubans are expected to line the streets as his ashes are transported over the course of three days.
Some Cubans said the caravan symbolizes the island’s continued loyalty to the revolution.
Julexis Hernandez, a bank auditor, recalled watching yearly events commemorating Castro’s jubilant march into Havana since she was a child.
“It has always been the caravan of victory,” Hernandez told AP as she and a colleague waited to pay respects at the public memorial site in Havana. “Now, it will be a caravan of sadness.”