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Cuba pays final tributes to revolutionary leader Fidel Castro

Juan Barreto, AFP | Cuban President Raúl Castro gives a speech to thousands of people gathered in Santiago, Cuba on December 3, 2016.

The ashes of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro were enterred Sunday at Santiago’s Santa Ifigenia cemetery in a private ceremony attended by family and a few officials, including French Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal.

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special correspondent in Cuba

Cuban President Raúl Castro on Saturday evening paid tribute to his predecessor and brother Fidel as the ashes of the late revolutionary leader arrived at their final resting place in the country’s eastern city of Santiago.

Thousands of Cubans, waving tiny flags and hoisting pictures of the leader in various stages of life from young guerilla fighter to ageing head of state, gathered in Plaza Antionio Maceo to honour a figure who dominated their county’s political landscape for half a century.

“Yes, we can!” Raúl Castro told the crowd several times, repeating César Chávez's motto "Sí, se puede" in a deep, raspy voice as he recalled the many challenges and accomplishments that shaped his older sibling’s life.

“Fidel’s lasting lesson was that – yes, we can – overcome the most difficult obstacles,” Raúl said, insisting Cuba would continue to defend its “socialist character” and “national independence” even after its historic leader's death.

The speech was the culmination of a four-day trip across the communist-controlled island, in which Fidel’s ashes were taken from the capital of Havana to Santiago. On Sunday the ashes will be placed in Santiago’s main cemetery with little fanfare, Raúl said. They will be interred near the mausoleum containing the remains of José Martí, who fought for Cuba’s independence from Spain in the late 1800s and is considered a hero by Cubans of all political stripes.

While he praised his late brother for never yielding to Washington, even as the Soviet Union crumbled, Raúl Castro’s speech contained little emotion.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and former Brazilian President Luis Ignacio Lula Da Silva were among a handful of left-wing Latin American leaders sitting close to Raúl at the event. International football icon Diego Maradona and French environmental minister Ségolène Royal were also among the guests of honour.

The Cuban president said that before his death, Fidel Castro had requested that no public buildings, streets, public spaces bear his name and no busts or effigies be erected in his honour.

Raúl said Cuban lawmakers would soon introduce legislation in Congress to assure tha wish would be respected.

Homecoming

Santiago, located on the eastern end of the island, was an important place for the man who led Cuba’s 1959 revolution and then became the country’s supreme leader for nearly five decades.

Fidel was born around 40 kilometres north of Cuba’s second city and was sent to boarding school there from an early age.

In 1953, at only 26, Fidel and a group of students launched a failed attempt to storm La Moncada army barracks in the city. He was sent to prison, but was quickly amnestied and went into exile.

Three years later, Fidel and around 80 other revolutionaries landed on the coast west of Santiago, beginning an insurgency that would eventually topple dictator Fulgencio Batista. On January 2, 1959, Fidel’s fighters took control of Santiago, then headed to Havana, triumphantly entering the capital six days later.

No music

For the last week, the entire country has been following the funeral procession as it has advanced toward Santiago, with several ceremonies during the journey widely covered on national radio and television.

Meanwhile, Cuban exiles in the United States have been celebrating the death of a man they blame for their departure from the island, painful family separations, and the country’s economic decay.

In the capital, hourly cannon blasts from the San Carlos de la Cabana fort – just opposite Old Havana –have been a constant reminder to both residents and tourists of Fidel Castro’s death. Cubans have been asked to refrain from playing music or selling alcoholic beverages during the nine-day national mourning period, which comes to an end on Sunday.

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