'Viva Fidel!': Castro Takes Final Voyage across Cuba


A military jeep carried the ashes of Fidel Castro along streets lined with hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Cubans in Havana on Wednesday, starting a four-day journey to his final resting place across the island.

After two days of tributes to the late communist icon in Cuba's capital, the "caravan of freedom" departed on a 950-kilometer (590-mile) trek retracing the route of the revolution's victory tour of 1959.

The flag-covered urn rested on a small olive-green trailer, flanked by white flowers and protected by a glass case as Havana bid farewell to the man who ruled the island with an iron fist for almost half a century.

The huge crowds chanted "I am Fidel!" and "Viva Fidel!" as the convoy headed on a long trip that will end with a final ceremony in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba on Sunday.

Senior officials of the government and Communist Party, and Castro's longtime partner, Dalia Soto del Valle, attended the farewell ceremony at the armed forces ministry before the caravan headed out.

Cubans were observing the fifth of nine days of mourning for Castro following his death on Friday at age 90. Castro ruled from 1959 until an illness forced him to hand power to his brother Raul in 2006.

Dissidents call Castro a dictator who jailed opponents but others in Cuba praise his legacy of providing free education and health care to Cubans while defying the U.S. "empire."

"I come from a poor family. I am black. In another era, I wouldn't have had the opportunity to be who I am today," said Maria Gonzalez, a 31-year-old computer engineer.

Elsewhere along the route, a tearful Esperanza Pares, 86, said it was "moving to say goodbye to a person who meant so much but who lived long enough to accomplish what he wanted."

Castro's ashes were taking the reverse route that his band of guerrilla fighters took after defeating dictator Fulgencio Batista.

From January 2 to January 8, 1959, the bearded rebels traveled from Santiago to Havana, stopping in Castro's home region, Holguin, as well as the cities of Camaguey, Las Tunas, Sancti Spiritus, Santa Clara and Matanzas.

One of the most symbol-filled stops of this last trip will be in Santa Clara, where the ashes of his Argentine comrade-in-arms, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, rest.

The urn will be laid to rest at the Santa Ifigenia cemetery, next to the mausoleum of 19th century independence hero Jose Marti.

- Uncertain future -

As the country ponders its future without Fidel Castro, attention is turning toward Raul Castro and whether he will undertake deeper economic reforms after enacting modest changes in recent years.

The 85-year-old general, who has vowed to step down in 2018, has also restored diplomatic relations with his brother's eternal enemy, the United States.

"If Fidel's death results in reforms in Cuba speeding up a little, the rapprochement with the United States could be energized," said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.

"It's an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations, but a lot will depend on what happens within the Cuban government," he said.

U.S. President-elect Donald Trump threatened this week to halt the detente that was begun by U.S. President Barack Obama if the Castro government doesn't offer a "better deal" to the Cuban people.

Obama did not join other foreign leaders at a massive rally for Fidel Castro in Havana late Tuesday, instead sending aides.

The White House said it still has "some significant concerns about the way the Cuban government currently operates, particularly with regard to protecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people."

Tuesday night's rally capped two days of tributes in Havana where hundreds of thousands were encouraged by the government to view a shrine to Castro at the capital's Revolution Square.

Leaders from Latin America, Africa and the Caribbean joined the commemoration, while Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was the only European leader there.

The absences of many world leaders underscored the divisive legacy of a leader who backed guerrilla movements in Latin America and deployed his army to conflicts in Africa during the Cold War.

- Leftists carry the torch -

Leftist Latin American presidents vowed to carry the torch of Castro's revolution as they addressed the rally.

"Today it is up to us to hold the flag of dignity and freedom of the people," said Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose late mentor, Hugo Chavez, had a special bond with Castro.

Castro's death, however, comes as Latin America's left is losing ground.

Maduro is facing a deep economic crisis and fighting opposition attempts to hold a recall referendum, while Brazil's Dilma Rousseff was impeached in August and conservative Mauricio Macri took over in Argentina last year.