Cuba mourned revolutionary leader Fidel Castro on Sunday as the communist island prepared to say its last goodbyes to the towering giant of its modern history with mass memorials and a four-day funeral procession.
After the stunned commotion surrounding Saturday’s announcement that Castro had died at age 90, Sunday was set to be a day of calm preparations, with no official activities planned.
Castro, whose iron-fisted rule defied the United States for half a century, died late Friday after surviving 11 US administrations and hundreds of assassination attempts.
The authorities did not give a cause of death.
The polarizing leader, a titan of the 20th century who beat the odds to endure well into the 21st, was to be cremated Saturday, the first of nine days of national mourning.
A series of memorials will begin Monday, when Cubans are called to converge on Havana’s iconic Revolution Square.
Castro’s ashes will then go on a four-day procession through the country, before being buried in the southeastern city of Santiago on December 4.
Santiago, Cuba’s second city, was the scene of Castro’s ill-fated first attempt at revolution in 1953 — six years before he succeeded in ousting US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Adored by admirers as a savior of the people, reviled by enemies as a cruel tyrant, Castro ruled Cuba from 1959 until he handed power to his younger brother Raul in 2006 amid a health crisis.
Even then, he continued to loom large, penning diatribes against American “imperialism” in the state press and wielding influence behind the scenes.
Divisive even in death
Castro is so far as divisive in death as in life.
The news drew strong — and polarized — reactions across the world.
Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed him as “the symbol of an era,” and China’s Xi Jinping said “Comrade Castro will live forever.”
But in Miami, home to the largest community of exiles who fled Castro’s rule, euphoric crowds erupted into loud celebration.
There were sharply different reactions in the US from outgoing President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump.
Obama, who embarked on a historic rapprochement with Cuba in 2014, said the US extended a “hand of friendship” to the Cuban people.
But Trump called Castro “a brutal dictator.”
The future of the historic US-Cuban thaw announced in December 2014 looks uncertain under Trump.
He has threatened to reverse course if Cuba does not allow greater human rights.
In Havana, bustling streets emptied and parties ground to a halt as Castro’s admirers sank into grief.
“What can I say? Fidel Castro was larger than life,” said a tearful Aurora Mendez, 82.
She recalled a life in poverty before Castro’s revolution in 1959.
“Fidel was always first in everything, fighting for the downtrodden and the poor,” she said.
Underdog and survivor
Fidel Castro came to power against the backdrop of the Cold War as a black-bearded, cigar-chomping 32-year-old.
Adopting the slogan “socialism or death,” he kept the faith to the end.
He endured more than 600 assassination attempts, according to aides, as well as the disastrous US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion attempt in 1961.
His outrage over that botched plot contributed to the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, when the Soviet Union agreed to his request to send ballistic missiles to Cuba.
The US discovery of the missiles pushed the world to the brink of nuclear war.
The Soviet Union bankrolled Castro’s regime until 1989, when the Eastern Bloc’s collapse sent Cuba’s economy plunging.
Still, Fidel managed to hang on.
He ceded power to his brother Raul, now 85, in July 2006 to recover from intestinal surgery.
The father of at least eight children, Fidel Castro was last seen in public on his 90th birthday on August 13.