'Viva Fidel!', Cubans begin mass mourning

Author
AAP,
Section
World,
Publish Date
Monday, 28 November 2016, 5:55AM
Fidel Castro. Photo / AP / NZH

Flag-waving Cuban students broke into a mass chant of "I am Fidel" to salute Fidel Castro as nine days of mourning began for the combative Cold War icon, who dominated the Communist island's political life for generations.

LISTEN ABOVE: Author and Cuba expert Christopher Baker spoke with Rachel Smalley

Alcohol sales were suspended, flags flew at half-mast and shows and concerts were cancelled after his younger brother and successor, President Raul Castro, told the country on Friday that Fidel had died.

Giant rallies are planned in Havana's Revolution Square and in the eastern city of Santiago to honour Castro, who died aged 90, six decades after the brothers set out from Mexico to overthrow US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Newspapers on the island of 11 million people were printed in black ink to mourn Fidel, instead of the usual red of the official Communist Party daily Granma, and the blue of Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), the paper of the Communist youth.

There was no heightened military or police presence to mark the passing of the epochal revolutionary leader, and at Havana University, Castro's alma mater, hundreds of students gathered to wave huge Cuban flags and shout "Viva Fidel and Viva Raul."

"Fidel isn't dead because the people are Fidel," shouted a local student leader dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt. "I am Fidel," he continued, a refrain quickly adopted by the crowd.

"Fidel put Cuba on the map, and made Cuba a paradigm for the people of the world, especially the poor and the marginalised," said another university student, Raul Alejandro Palmeros.

Castro studied law at the university in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when it was a hotbed of leftist politics, setting him on the path that led to his toppling of Batista in 1959.

Under Castro, bitter diplomatic conflict with the United States followed, and Cuba quickly became a firm ally of the Soviet Union, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Yet despite years of ideological strife and increasing hardship under a US economic embargo, Castro's Cuba became renowned for high education standards and world-class doctors.

"What Fidel did with education and free health stands out on the world stage. It was unique," said Rene Perez, 78, a retired accountant and Communist Party member. "It's his main legacy."

Streets were quiet following the news, and some normally busy restaurants were all but empty, but Castro's death did not bring daily life in Havana to a complete halt.

Castro's remains were cremated, and his ashes will be taken around Cuba until a state funeral on December 4.

Western diplomatic officials said foreign dignitaries will arrive by Tuesday for a memorial service due to be held in Revolution Square that evening.

Standing well over 6 feet tall, the bearded Castro was for years a cigar- chomping bulwark of ideological resistance to the United States, decked out in green military fatigues and cap.

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