All roads lead to Revolution Square for Cubans mourning Castro

Students lighting candles in honour of Dr Castro on Saturday at his alma mater Havana University, where hundreds gathered to wave Cuban flags and shout: "Viva Fidel and Viva Raul." A series of memorials will begin today, when Cubans will converge on
Students lighting candles in honour of Dr Castro on Saturday at his alma mater Havana University, where hundreds gathered to wave Cuban flags and shout: "Viva Fidel and Viva Raul." A series of memorials will begin today, when Cubans will converge on Havana's Revolution Square to mourn the leader who survived 11 US administrations and hundreds of assassination attempts.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

HAVANA • Flag-waving Cuban students broke into a mass chant of "I am Fidel" to salute Fidel Castro as nine days of mourning began for the combative Cold War icon, who dominated the communist island's political life for generations.

Alcohol sales were suspended, flags flew at half-mast and shows and concerts were cancelled after Dr Castro's younger brother and successor, President Raul Castro, told the country on Friday that he had died aged 90 at 10.29pm, without giving a cause of death.

A series of memorials will begin today, when Cubans are called to converge on Havana's iconic Revolution Square to mourn the "Maximo Lider" (Maximum Leader), who survived 11 US administrations and hundreds of assassination attempts.

Dr Castro's remains, which his younger brother said were cremated on Saturday, will then go on a four-day islandwide procession before being buried in the south-eastern city of Santiago on Dec 4.

Santiago, Cuba's second city, was the scene of Dr Castro's ill-fated first attempt at revolution in 1953 - six years before he succeeded in ousting US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Newspapers on the island of 11 million people were printed in black ink instead of the usual red of the official Communist Party daily Granma, and the blue of Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), the paper of the Communist youth.

"For me, it's my mother first, my children, my father, then Fidel," father-of-five Rafael Urbay, 60, said as he manned a government photo and printing store in downtown Havana, remembering his early years spent on a remote island off the mainland with no drinking water.

"We weren't just poor. We were wretched. Then came Fidel and the revolution. He gave me my humanity. I owe him everything," he said.

There was no heightened military or police presence to mark the death of the epochal revolutionary leader.

At Havana University, his alma mater, hundreds of students gathered to wave huge Cuban flags and shout: "Viva Fidel and Viva Raul."

 

"Fidel isn't dead because the people are Fidel," shouted a local student leader.

Another student, Raul Alejandro Palmeros, said: "Fidel put Cuba on the map, and made Cuba a paradigm for the people of the world, especially the poor and the marginalised."

Dr Castro studied law at the university in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when it was a hotbed of leftist politics, setting him on the path that led to his toppling of Batista.

Under Dr Castro, bitter diplomatic conflict with the United States followed, and Cuba quickly became a firm ally of the Soviet Union, sparking the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.

Yet despite years of ideological strife and hardship under a US economic embargo, Dr Castro's Cuba became known for high education standards and world-class doctors.

"What Fidel did with education and free health stands out on the world stage. It was unique," said Mr Rene Perez, 78, a retired accountant and Communist Party member. "It's his main legacy."

Apart from the chanting students, Havana life went on largely as normal, only quieter and more subdued. Street vendors sold food and handcrafts from stalls, while 1950s Chevrolets full of dents and held together by makeshift repairs cruised by, crammed with passengers.

Western diplomatic officials said foreign dignitaries will arrive by Tuesday for a memorial service at Revolution Square that evening.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'All roads lead to Revolution Square for Cubans mourning Castro'. Print Edition | Subscribe