SOURCE –AP — Regional leaders and tens of thousands of Cubans gathered last night for a service honouring former President Fidel Castro at Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution where the Cuban leader delivered fiery speeches to mammoth crowds in the years after he seized power.
The presidents of Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, Panama, South Africa and Zimbabwe, along with leaders of a host of smaller Caribbean nations, including Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness, flew in to Havana to pay tribute to Castro, who died Last Friday night at 90.
Jamaica’s Opposition Leader Portia Simpson Miller, accompanied by a delegation from the People’s National Party, also travelled to Cuba yesterday for the mass.
South African President Jacob Zuma praised Cuba under Castro for its record on education and health care and its support for African independence struggles.
Castro will be remembered as “a great fighter for the idea that the poor have a right to live with dignity”, Zuma told the crowd.
The service began with black-and-white revolution-era footage of PCastro and other guerrillas on a big screen and the playing of the Cuban national anthem. Castro’s younger brother and successor, President Raul Castro, saluted.
Cuban state media reported that an urn containing Fidel Castro’s ashes was being kept in a room at the Defence Ministry where Raul and top Communist Party officials paid tribute the previous evening.
During the day, lines stretched for hours outside the Plaza of the Revolution, the heart of Government power. In Havana and across the island, people signed condolence books and an oath of loyalty to Castro’s sweeping May 2000 proclamation of the Cuban revolution as an unending battle for socialism, nationalism and an outsize role for the island on the world stage.
“I feel a deep sadness, but immense pride in having had him near,” said Ana Beatriz Perez, a 50-year-old medical researcher who was advancing in the slow-moving line with the help of crutches. “His physical departure gives us strength to continue advancing in his ideology. This isn’t going away, because we are millions.”
“His death is another revolution,” said her husband, Fidel Diaz, who predicted that it will prompt many to “rediscover the ideas of the commander for the new generations.”
Tribute sites were set up in hundreds of places across the island as the Government urged Cubans to reaffirm their belief in a socialist, single-party system that in recent years has struggled to maintain the fervour that was widespread at the triumph of the 1959 revolution.
Many mourners came on their own accord, but thousands were sent in groups by the communist Government, which still employs about 80 per cent of the working people in Cuba despite the growth of the private sector under Raul.
Inside the memorial, thousands walked through three rooms with near-identical displays featuring the 1962 Alberto Korda photograph of the young Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains, bouquets of white flowers and an array of Castro’s medals against a black backdrop, framed by honour guards of soldiers and children in school uniforms. The ashes of the 90-year-old former president did not appear to be on display.
Signs read: “The Cuban Communist Party is the only legitimate heir of the legacy and authority of the commander-in-chief of the Cuban Revolution, comrade Fidel Castro.”
“Goodbye, commander. Your ideas remain here with us,” 64-year-old retiree Etelbina Perez said in-between sobs, dabbing at her eyes with a brown handkerchief. “I feel great pain over his death. I owe my entire life to him. He brought me out of the mountains. I was able to study thanks to him.”
The scene was played out on a smaller scale at countless places across the country.
Today, the urn containing his ashes will be taken on a four-day procession from Havana to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, retracing the route that Castro took to celebrate his victory in the 1959 revolution.
The ashes will be laid to rest in Santiago at the cemetery where Jose Marti, the 19th century independence icon, was buried.
Before departing Jamaica yesterday, Prime Minister Holness signed the condolence book at the Cuban embassy in Kingston.