HAVANA – Galvanized by a 21-gun salute that thundered across Havana, tens of thousands of Cubans paid final respects on Monday to Fidel Castro, who led a leftist revolution, ruled for half a century and resisted the United States throughout the Cold War.
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. While he had been retired as an active leader, his death removed any impediment on his brother to pursue deeper relations with Washington if U.S. President-elect Donald Trump warms to the idea of improved ties.
Castro was admired by leftists and people of the developing world who saw him as a revolutionary champion of the poor, 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. She arrived early Monday morning at Havana’s Revolution Square to be among the first in line.
The government invited people to the square for a two-day commemoration that started with cannon blasts heard throughout much of the capital.
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.
While many Cubans report a certain pressure to attend the government’s many staged events and Castro was hated by many who fled for Miami, he was also widely loved and people appeared to shed genuine tears on Monday.
Some arrived 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.
Each of the lines of people paraded by a photo of a young Castro dressed in military fatigues and gazing into the distance with a rifle and pack slug over his back. At each station, a military honor guard and some civilians standing at attention flanked the photo and an arrangement of white flowers.
Among the mourners was Belkis Meireles, a 65-year-old civil engineer who arrived two hours before the start.
“I am very sad. I came to pay homage to our father, friend, commander,” Meireles said in a hushed voice. “He was a man who freed us and sent doctors and teachers everywhere around the world.”
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 Videaux, a 72-year-old retiree who was nonetheless proud of Castro. “Fidel was a teacher, a patriot.”
While some world leaders have echoed that admiration, critics have condemned him, including Trump, who in a weekend statement on Castro’s death called him “a brutal dictator who oppressed his own people.”
Trump, who takes office on Jan. 20, has threatened to reverse outgoing President Barack Obama’s rapprochement with Cuba, which included restoring diplomatic relations, increasing trade and pressing the U.S. Congress to end a half-century economic embargo.
Trump, a Republican, said on Twitter on Monday that he would end the U.S. “deal” with Cuba if the government in Havana did not reciprocate with “a better deal for the Cuban people.”
Obama, a Democrat, began the opening to Washington’s old Cold War foe after he won his second term in office, and has brought about his policy change through executive actions, including allowing scheduled commercial airline flights.
A scheduled flight from the United States landed in Havana on Monday for the first time in more than 50 years: an American Airlines plane that made the short hop from Miami. Scheduled service from U.S. airports to the Cuban provinces restarted in August.
Fidel Castro was distrustful about the rapprochement his brother achieved with Obama, publicly expressing his reservations in columns published in the Communist Party newspaper.
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-staff to honor Castro, its state news agency said.
In Japan, Kyodo said a senior lawmaker would head to Cuba in lieu of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Brazilian President Michel Temer was also not attending. But Robert Mugabe, the 92-year-old president of Zimbabwe, was expected to arrive.
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.
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