Cuba prepares for Fidel Castro's funeral

Series of events to commemorate the life of the man who ruled the communist island for decades

Havana: Nightclubs closed and baseball games were suspended Sunday as Cuba prepared to send off revolutionary leader Fidel Castro with days of tributes and a cross-country funeral procession.

Cubans braced for a series of events to commemorate the life of the man who ruled the communist island for decades, played a major role in the Cold War and was loved or loathed by many.

Students left candles burning next to a portrait of the black-bearded communist firebrand during a vigil at Havana University.

A giant photo of Castro was hung outside the National Library on Revolution Square, where throngs of people are expected to pay their last respects Monday and Tuesday, kicking off a series of memorials.

The portrait shows a young Fidel carrying a backpack and rifle during the Cuban Revolution, which brought him to power in 1959.

A titan of the 20th century who beat the odds to endure into the 21st, Castro died late Friday after surviving 11 US administrations and hundreds of assassination attempts. No cause of death was given.

“It is a great loss. The most important thing is that he died when he chose, not when all the counter-revolutionaries wanted,” said Carlos Manuel Obregon Rodriguez, a 43-year-old taxi driver in Havana.

“It may not be painful for everyone, but it is for a lot of people. I was born under this revolution and I owe Fidel a lot,” he added.

President Raul Castro said his older brother’s remains would be cremated. There was no official confirmation of whether that had yet happened.

Dissidents who endured Fidel’s iron-fisted rule kept a low profile. The Ladies in White opposition group cancelled a regular Sunday protest in what they said was a show of respect for those mourning Castro.

“We are not happy about the death of a man, a human being. We are happy about the death of dictators,” Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, told AFP.

Funeral procession

Castro’s ashes will go on a four-day island-wide procession starting Wednesday before being buried in the southeastern city of Santiago de Cuba on December 4.

Santiago, Cuba’s second city, was the scene of Castro’s ill-fated first attempt at revolution in 1953 - six years before he succeeded in ousting the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.

Castro ruled until handing power to Raul Castro in 2006 due to poor health.

Ordinary Cubans hailed him for providing free health care and education. But he cracked down harshly on dissent, jailing and exiling opponents.

Dancing in Miami

The news of Castro’s death drew strong - and polarized - reactions across the world.

In Miami, just 370 kilometers (230 miles) away, crowds of celebrating Cuban-Americans danced in the streets.

Amid the din of car horns, drums and singing in the Little Havana neighborhood, a chant rang out: “Fidel, you tyrant, take your brother, too!”

Some two million Cubans live in the United States, nearly 70 percent of them in Florida, where so many islanders have fled to since the 1959 revolution.

Cuban-American politicians excoriated Castro, with Florida Senator Marco Rubio calling him an “evil, murderous dictator who inflicted misery and suffering on his own people.”

However, Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed Castro as “the symbol of an era,” and China’s Xi Jinping said “Comrade Castro will live forever.”

There were sharply different US reactions from outgoing President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump.

Obama, who embarked on a historic rapprochement with Cuba in 2014, said the US extended a “hand of friendship” to the Cuban people.

But Trump dismissed Castro as “a brutal dictator.”

The future of the US-Cuban thaw is uncertain under Trump, who has threatened to reverse course if Havana does not allow greater respect for human rights.

Mourning in Havana

Havana was unusually quiet after alcohol sales were restricted and shows and baseball matches suspended.

Fidel Castro, who came to power as a bearded, cigar-chomping 32-year-old, adopted the slogan “socialism or death” and kept his faith to the end.

He survived more than 600 assassination attempts, according to aides, as well as the failed 1961 US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion.

His outrage over that botched plot contributed to the Cuban missile crisis the following year, when the world stood on the brink of nuclear war.

The USSR bankrolled Castro’s regime until 1989, when the Soviet bloc’s collapse sent Cuba’s economy into free-fall.

But Fidel managed to hang on, ceding power to his brother in July 2006 to recover from intestinal surgery.

Raul Castro has begun very gradually to liberalize the economy and strengthen ties with former foreign foes.

Analysts said the elder brother’s presence still weighed on his brother’s rule.

Fidel Castro’s death “will probably speed up the economic reforms,” said Jorge Duany, a Cuba specialist at Florida International University.

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