SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba: Cuban President Raul Castro pledged Saturday to uphold his brother Fidel’s socialist revolution at a massive rally in honor of the communist icon before his burial.
Tens of thousands of flag-waving supporters recited the oath with Raul Castro at the Revolution Plaza of Santiago de Cuba, the cradle of Fidel’s guerrilla struggle.
“He demonstrated that yes we could, yes we can, yes we will overcome any obstacle, threat, turbulence in our firm resolve to build socialism in Cuba,” he said.
“In front of Fidel’s remains … we swear to defend the fatherland and socialism,” said Castro, who took over when his brother fell ill in 2006.
“Fidel! Fidel! Until victory, always!” Castro said at the evening rally attended by a few foreign leaders, including Cuba’s leftist Latin American allies from Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua, but also figures such as Argentine football legend Diego Maradona.
Capping a nine-day mourning period, Castro’s ashes will be interred on Sunday during a “simple” ceremony at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, near the mausoleum of 19th-century independence hero Jose Marti, his brother said.
But Castro said that before dying at the age of 90 on November 25, his brother requested that no monuments or statues be erected in his honor, and that no streets or buildings be named after him.
Legislation will be presented at the next national assembly, which meets later in December, to fulfill his dying wish, Castro said.
“The leader of the revolution rejected any manifestation of a cult of personality,” Raul Castro said.
While he was an omnipresent figure in the lives of Cubans after taking power in 1959, Fidel Castro always opposed the construction of statues of his likeness and no streets or buildings are named after him in the country.
Castro’s death has fueled speculation over the direction the country may take without the man who ruled for almost half a century and left behind a divisive legacy.
Tearful supporters have cheered him for the free education and health care he developed on the island, while detractors call him a brutal dictator who imprisoned dissidents and ran the economy into the ground.
After Fidel is laid to rest, all eyes will turn to Raul Castro’s next move.
While he pledged to defend the socialist revolution, the president has implemented modest economic reforms, vowed to step down in 2018 and restored diplomatic ties with the United States.
“No longer under the shadow of his older brother, Raul may now feel freer to pursue the modest economic reforms he initiated in the last decade,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University.
Castro has been hailed in almost religious terms since his death, with the communist party newspaper Granma calling him the “eternal comandante.”
A convoy carrying a cedar urn containing his ashes had arrived in Santiago earlier in the day following a four-day, 900-kilometer (560-mile) funeral procession across the country.
Children in school uniforms, veterans in military fatigues and entire families waved Cuba’s flags and chanted “Fidel!” to greet the “caravan of freedom.”
Fidel’s supporters are certain that Raul to continue his brother’s legacy.
“Why wouldn’t I trust Raul? He’s also my leader,” said Nina Rosales Garces, a 77-year-old former guerrilla fighter, adding that whoever succeeds Raul Castro will uphold the revolution. “I have no fear. They will stay on the path.”
For their part, dissidents have kept a low profile during the commemorations, calling off regular protests, although they plan to resume their demonstrations after Castro’s burial and hope that Raul will implement deeper reforms.
Like a ‘father’
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 Santiago.
Although the rebels were jailed, the raid put Castro on the map and he would eventually go into exile in Mexico.
Three years after the Moncada defeat, the Castro brothers and their band of bearded rebels returned to Cuba aboard a ship.
The rebels launched a guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra mountains that ended 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’s “caravan of freedom” took his ashes on the reverse route.
In Santiago, several people said they would spend the night at the Revolution Plaza.
“I am very sad because we have lost a father,” said Marta Loida, a 36-year-old university professor sitting on the ground and holding a picture of Fidel Castro.
“It’s as if we don’t want to say goodbye,” she said. “We want to keep him company all night under the stars.”