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Leftist allies fly in to pay tribute to Cuba’s Castro at mass rally

President Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela arrives to pay tribute to Cuba's late President Fidel Castro at the Jose Marti Memorial in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba, November 29, 2016. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

Leaders of Cuba‘s leftist allies and other developing countries arrive in Havana on Tuesday for a mass rally commemorating Fidel Castro, the rebel who seized power in a 1959 revolution and ruled the island for half a century.

Castro, who ceded control to his younger brother Raul Castro a decade ago due to poor health, died on Friday at the age of 90.

For many, especially in Latin America and Africa, he was a symbol of resistance to imperialism, having ousted a US-backed dictator, and a champion of the poor. Others condemned him as a tyrant whose socialism ran the island’s economy to ruin.

Cuba announced nine days of mourning, including the rally on Tuesday evening in Havana’s Revolution Square – the same massive space where Castro once delivered rousing, marathon speeches.

On Tuesday morning, thousands lined up in the square for a second day to file past Castro’s favourite portrait of himself, dressed in military fatigues and carrying a rifle.

“He has left us physically, but from now on will multiply in the millions, because we shall follow his ideas,” said customs worker Hipolito Rodriguez, 67, dressed in khaki military fatigues as he waited for his turn to pay homage.

“He was the father of the nation. It is like losing a beloved relative. He has left us a legacy we must continue.”

Many leaders of Latin America’s left, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Bolivian President Evo Morales, flew in to attend the ceremony. Maduro, speaking on Monday night, paid tribute to Castro’s “immortal force.”

Also expected are several African leaders such as Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. Nelson Mandela, while he was still alive, repeatedly thanked Castro for his efforts in helping overturn apartheid in South Africa.

China has sent Vice President Li Yuanchao, and on Tuesday in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Cuban embassy to pay his condolences, saying China had lost a “close comrade and real friend,” China’s foreign ministry said.

Yet few leaders from the world’s major powers are heading to the Caribbean island, with many sending second tier officials instead to pay their respects to a man who built a Communist state on the doorstep of the United States.

Russian President Valdimir Putin has skipped the ceremony to focus on preparing a major speech. However the Kremlin stressed that Putin, who described Castro as a “true friend of Russia,” held a different view on his legacy to that of Donald Trump. The US president-elect has called the Cuban leader “a brutal dictator.”

PLEDGES OF LOYALTY

Raul Castro has undertaken some economic reforms in recent years, but the one-party system remains in place and his government has signaled clearly that the death of Fidel Castro should not be taken as a sign that the revolution he launched is over. Cubans have been urged to sign condolence books and pledges of loyalty to Castro’s socialist ideology at 1,060 tribute sites throughout the country.

“I signed because he was a good man, we loved him a lot, and I wanted to reaffirm my loyalty to him and his ideas,” said Arcide Ge, 56, a security guard. “He was good to everyone, he sent doctors abroad and helped the poor here.”

All schools and government offices will be closed on Tuesday so that Cubans can more easily join the rally and other activities to pay homage to Castro, authorities said.

Tens of thousands of people paid tribute in the square on Monday, some in tears and others wrapped in the red, white and blue national flag. Many state employees and school children came together in groups.

Raul Castro, 85, and top government officials held a separate, private ceremony on Monday, laying white flowers in front of Fidel Castro’s portrait and a box containing his ashes.

On Wednesday, a procession taking Castro’s ashes will begin a slow journey east to Santiago de Cuba, where he launched the revolution. They will be laid to rest on Sunday, December 4, in the city’s Santa Ifigenia cemetery, also the resting place of independence hero Jose Marti.

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