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Fidel Castro

Thousands of Cubans joined by world leaders to pay tribute to Fidel Castro

Castro – who ruled from 1959 to 2006 – died of undisclosed reasons on Friday at age 90

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 7:44am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 30 November, 2016, 8:40am

A steady stream of Cubans paid homage to late communist icon Fidel Castro again on Tuesday as Latin American and African presidents joined them for commemorations shunned by several world leaders.

Encouraged by the government, grieving islanders lined up for a second day at Havana’s Revolution Square to view a memorial to the man who ruled the island for nearly half a century.

He was not just your leader. He was our leader and the leader of all revolutionaries
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwean President

Hundreds of thousands, many in tears, had already streamed across the square late into the night on Monday to salute the picture of a young, black-bearded Castro in military fatigues during the revolution that brought him to power in 1959.

“Fidel isn’t dead. He’s a world symbol and his ideas spread not only in Latin America but all around the world,” said Roberto Hernandez Rosabal, a 47-year-old anthropology professor.

Castro’s leftist admirers in Latin America – Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Bolivian President Evo Morales – joined them inside the monument to Cuban independence hero Jose Marti on Tuesday morning.

“All this sadness that has accompanied us since November 25 [when Castro died] has reminded us of the battles of recent history that revolution leader Fidel Castro and our comandante Hugo Chavez experienced,” Maduro said. “We have come to pay tribute to this great giant.”

Chavez had a special bond with Castro and shipped oil to the island while Cuba returned the favour by sending a large number of doctors to Venezuela.

Castro – who ruled from 1959 until an illness forced him to hand power to his brother Raul in 2006 – died of undisclosed reasons on Friday at age 90.

Some 25 leaders from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa were expected for the massive rally at the square on Tuesday night, part of a week-long commemoration.

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Zimbabwe’s long-time ruler, Robert Mugabe, praised his “dear brother” after landing in Havana.

“He was not just your leader. He was our leader and the leader of all revolutionaries,” the 92-year-old Mugabe said. “We followed him, listened to him and tried to emulate him.”

Other African leaders were flying in along with the presidents of Mexico, Central American nations and Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos, whose government negotiated a peace deal with the Marxist FARC rebels in Havana.

There will be at least one European leader at the ceremony, as Cuban authorities said leftist Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras was on the list.

But a slew of countries were sending lower-ranking representatives, a list of absences that highlights the divisive legacy of a major player in the cold war.

Castro spent decades feuding with the US, brought the world to the brink of nuclear war during the 1962 missile crisis, backed guerrilla movements in Latin America and deployed his army to conflicts in Africa.

The leaders of Britain, Germany, France and Canada are all sending others to represent them.

Leaders from some friendly nations were also staying home, with Chinese President Xi Jinping sending his vice-president.

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US President Barack Obama, who along with Raul Castro ended decades of enmity to restore diplomatic relations, will not attend.

Obama’s senior advisor Ben Rhodes and the top US diplomat in Cuba, Jeffrey DeLaurentis, will represent Washington, but without the status of a “presidential delegation.”

“We continue to have some significant concerns about the way the Cuban government currently operates, particularly with regard to protecting the basic human rights of the Cuban people,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said.

That stern message comes as President-elect Donald Trump threatens to end Obama’s thaw with Havana unless the regime makes concessions on human rights and opening up its economy. Trump on Saturday called Castro a “brutal dictator”.

One person famously caught up in the two nations’ stand-off took issue with that description: Elian Gonzalez, who was the subject of an international custody battle as a five-year-old boy when the boat carrying him and 13 other Cuban asylum seekers sank off the Florida coast in 1999.

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“I don’t believe all these people could cry for someone who’s a dictator,” said Gonzalez, who is today 22 and stridently pro-Castro.

After Tuesday’s ceremony, the urn holding Castro’s ashes will be taken on a “caravan of freedom” across the country, retracing the route his guerrilla movement took to celebrate the toppling of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

The commemorations end on Sunday, when the urn is laid to rest in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where 19th century independence hero Marti is buried.