Thousands of Cubans flock to see Fidel Castro's ashes

To waving flags and some shouts of "Long may he live!", Fidel Castro's ashes began a four-day journey across the island on Wednesday, retracing the path of his triumphant march into Havana nearly six decades ago.

A small, Cuban-flag covered cedar coffin containing the remains of the 90-year-old leader was taken out of Cuba's Defense Ministry and placed into a flower-bedecked trailer pulled by a green military jeep for the more than 800-kilometre procession to his final resting place in the eastern city of Santiago.

People wave Cuban national flags as they watch the motorcade transporting the remains of Cuban leader Fidel Castro drive past. Photo / AP
People wave Cuban national flags as they watch the motorcade transporting the remains of Cuban leader Fidel Castro drive past. Photo / AP

The ashes will be interred on Sunday, ending the nine-day mourning period for the man who ruled the country for nearly 50 years. The route traces in reverse the victory tour Castro and his bearded rebels took after overthrowing the forces of strongman Fulgencio Batista in 1959. Carpenter Rene Mena, 58, said his mother had taken him out of their home on the capital's seafront Malecon boulevard as a baby to see Castro arrive that year.

On Wednesday he donned a Cuban flag and a military cap outside the same house where he still lives, and saluted Castro's caravan.

"I saw him when he came, and now I've seen him when he left. Goodbyes are moving, difficult," Mena said.

Outside Havana, the caravan will pass through rural communities significantly changed by social and economic reforms he adopted. Many residents now have access to health care and education. But many of those towns are also in a prolonged economic collapse, the country's once-dominant sugar industry decimated, the sugar mills and plantations gone.

Placed in a small coffin covered by a Cuban flag, the ashes of Cuban leader Fidel Castro are driven along the streets of Havana, Cuba. Photo / AP
Placed in a small coffin covered by a Cuban flag, the ashes of Cuban leader Fidel Castro are driven along the streets of Havana, Cuba. Photo / AP

Thousands of Cubans lined the streets of Havana, some sleeping on sidewalks overnight, to bid goodbye to Castro. Many had attended a massive rally Tuesday night at Havana's Revolution Plaza, where the presidents of Cuba, Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela and South Africa, along with leaders of a host of smaller nations, offered speeches paying tribute to Castro, who died on Friday night.

The crowds at the rally and along on Wednesday's procession route were a mix of people attending on their own and groups of Cubans organised by government workplaces, where attendance was not strictly obligatory but with strong pressure to attend. Some groups of government workers slept on the streets because all public transport had been commandeered to move people to Castro- related activities.

A photograph of the late Fidel Castro hangs at a memorial in his honour in Guanabacoa. Photo / AP
A photograph of the late Fidel Castro hangs at a memorial in his honour in Guanabacoa. Photo / AP

Signs read: "The Cuban Communist Party is the only legitimate heir of the legacy and authority of the commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution, comrade Fidel Castro."

The scene was played out on a smaller scale at countless places across the country as the government urged Cubans to reaffirm their belief in a socialist, single-party system that in recent years has struggled to maintain the fervour that was widespread at the triumph of the 1959 revolution.

After 10 years of leadership by Raul Castro, a relatively camera-shy and low-key president, Cuba has found itself flooded once again by the words and images of the man who dominated the lives of generations. Since his death on Friday night, state-run newspapers, television and radio have run wall-to-wall tributes to Fidel Castro, broadcasting non-stop footage of his speeches, interviews and foreign trips, interspersed with adulatory remembrances by prominent Cubans.

- AP

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