Fidel Castro memorial draws thousands to Santiago; funeral Sunday

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SANTIAGO, CUBA – Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolution commander who governed and symbolized the island nation for half a century, was memorialized Saturday night by hundreds of thousands of cheering, flag-waving people packed into Antonio Maceo Revolution Square in Santiago.

President Raul Castro, who took over when his brother fell ill in 2006, spoke in a somber tone about the struggles Fidel Castro faced in leading the revolution in the 1950s.

He touched on Fidel Castro’s success in increasing literacy across Cuba, fighting racism and anti-colonialism and spreading revolutionary assistance to other countries. The crowd, quiet through much of his speech, broke into loud cheers at the end.

Castro says his government will prohibit the naming of streets or public monuments after his brother Fidel in keeping with the former leader’s desire to avoid the development of a personality cult. Castro kept his name off public sites during his time in office.

World leaders, most of them from Latin America and including some inspired by the Cuban revolution, paid their respects.

Dignitaries on the stage were Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, Bolivian President Evo Morales, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, Panamanian President Carlos Varela, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, South African President Jacob Zuma, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, a FARC delegation and ex-Presidents of Brazil Lula and Dilma Rousseff .

“Yo soy Fidel”

Castro’s invitation-only funeral is scheduled for Sunday, so the Santiago memorial was the last chance for the masses to show their love for Castro.

The crowd gathered hours before the actual event began, chanting, “Yo soy Fidel!” (I am Fidel). Above them loomed the 16-meter (52.5-foot) statue of a Cuban freedom fighter from the 1890s, Antonio Maceo Grajales.

Fidel Izaguire Martinez, 8, visited the square before the rally, carrying a small Cuban flag.

“He was the most important man in the country,” the youngster said of his namesake.

Historical route

Castro’s ashes arrived Saturday in Santiago after a four-day tour across the island nation. A military jeep pulled a trailer displaying the casket.

Starting in Havana, the tour reversed the route Castro took across the island after seizing power in 1959. Crowds of Cubans lined the roads and stood on rooftops to watch Castro’s funeral cortege pass by.

Santiago, Cuba’s second-largest city, played a crucial role in Castro’s rise.

On July 26, 1953, Castro led a group of about 150 rebels who attacked the Moncada military barracks in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Castro was imprisoned briefly, but the attack made him famous and helped launch another, successful attempt to overthrow Batista. Castro declared victory January 1, 1959, from the balcony of the Santiago City Hall.

Perhaps as a reminder, a large black-and-white image of Castro wearing his familiar military fatigues and a backpack was projected on a screen beside the square in Santiago.

Castro died November 25 at 90, his brother announced on state television. Castro’s remains were cremated Wednesday and hundreds of thousands attended a Mass that night in Havana.

The funeral will be at the eastern city’s Santa Ifigenia Cemetery with an unlikely mix of world leaders, royalty, Marxist guerillas and Hollywood actors expected to attend. Though President Barack Obama reopened relations with Cuba this year, no representative from the United States government is expected.