SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba: The convoy carrying the ashes of Cuba’s late communist leader Fidel Castro ends an island-wide journey on Saturday in the cradle of his revolution for a big ceremony before his burial.
The flag-draped cedar urn left Havana on Wednesday, passing roads lined with people chanting “I am Fidel!” and making daily stops on the way to Santiago de Cuba in the eastern end of the country.
President Raul Castro, who took over when his brother fell ill in 2006, will deliver a much-awaited speech during a massive tribute with foreign dignitaries on Saturday evening.
Capping a nine-day mourning period, the remains will be interred during a private ceremony on Sunday at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery, where 19th century independence hero Jose Marti is buried.
Fidel Castro’s death on November 25 at age 90 has fueled discussions about his divisive legacy and the direction that the country may take without the omnipresent leader who ruled for almost half a century.
Tearful supporters have cheered Fidel Castro for the free education and health care he spread in the island, while detractors call him a brutal dictator who imprisoned dissidents and ran the economy to the ground.
People put up posters of Castro as Santiago prepared to greet the convoy.
“He has been the father of all Cubans and all the people in need in the world,” said Margarita Aguilera, the 54-year-old director of a state tobacco company who painted the words “farewell, comandante” on stone.
Enediel Rodriguez, 50, was helping to make preparations on Friday in a public hall where people will be able to watch the arrival of the jeep with the ashes before they go out on the street.
“He will rest in Santiago de Cuba because Marti is our national apostle and this was his idea, to rest here next to him,” Rodriguez said.
The government had already led a huge rally with two dozen foreign presidents in Havana on Tuesday, but Santiago holds a special place in Castro’s life.
On July 26, 1953, the Castro brothers launched a failed attack on the Moncada military barracks in the city, some 900 kilometers (560 miles) east of Havana.
While the rebels were jailed, it put Castro on the map and he would eventually go into exile in Mexico.
“Condemn me, it does not matter,” the trained lawyer had famously said at his trial. “History will absolve me.”
Dissidents lie low
Three years after the Moncada defeat, the Castro brothers and their band of bearded rebels returned to Cuba aboard a ship named Granma. On Friday, Cuba marked 60 years since the yacht landed in a southeastern beach.
The rebels fled into the Sierra Maestra mountains, launching a guerrilla war that would end in triumph against US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959.
Following their victory, Castro celebrated by touring the island from Santiago to Havana. This week, the “caravan of freedom” took his ashes on the reverse route.
While hundreds of thousands of people have congregated along the road to bid farewell, the government has also encouraged Cubans to sign a pledge to defend his revolution.