Fidel Castro's ashes return to the city where the revolution began
BY MIMI WHITEFIELD
SANTIAGO DE CUBA
Fidel Castro returned Saturday to the city where he and a band of rebels
staged an assault on the Moncada Barracks, the beginning of the Cuba
Revolution, and the place where he began his march into the history books.
Castro, the historic leader of the revolution, died Nov. 25, at the age
of 90 after a lingering illness that resulted in his ceding power to his
brother Raúl Castro in 2006.
A caravan carrying Castro's ashes arrived Saturday afternoon in Santiago
— the "heroic city" and so-called cradle of the Cuban Revolution — on
the final leg of a journey across Cuba that began on Wednesday from
Havana. The journey retracked, in reverse, the triumphant march into the
capital that los rebeldes made after the ouster of dictator Fulgencio
On Saturday night, tens of thousands of Cubans are expected to turn out
for a final farewell to Castro at the Antonio Maceo Plaza on the eve of
his internment at Santa Ifigenia Cemetery. He will be laid to rest next
to the mausoleum of 19th century Cuban patriot José Martí, who fought
for Cuban independence from Spain.
Cuban leader Raúl Castro was expected to give the main address at the
nationally televised homage, which begins at 7 p.m.
Many in the plaza, which had begun to fill by mid-day, planned to spend
the night in vigil and then fall into a funeral procession accompanying
Castro's ashes to the cemetery where a private funeral is planned.
"We Santiagueros think Santa Ifigenia is a fitting place for him because
Santiago is the city of heroes — Carlos Manuel de Cespedes (another
independence hero from nearby Bayamo), José Martí and now Fidel," said
Norma Arias, who runs a bed and breakfast overlooking Parque Cespedes.
From the balcony of the blue and white municipal building on one end of
the park, Castro addressed all Cubans on Jan. 1, 1959, the day Batista
"This time the revolution is for real," Castro said. "The revolution
will not be an easy task; the revolution will be a tough enterprise and
full of dangers..."
As she sat on a balcony of her home where she could get a clear view of
the passing caravan that carried Castro's ashes in a small flag-draped
chest, Arias became overcome with emotion.
"Really, his death has affected me a lot. Fidel was everything,
everything," Arias said tearfully. "We feel like orphans, like something
For many Cubans, the only government they have known has been run by a
"Fidel is part of every one of us — an entire generation, more than 50
years," said Manuel Rondón Medina, Arias' husband.
But Cuba is also very much a nation divided with many of its former
residents in exile in Miami and around the world decrying its revolution
as one of betrayal.
Those in exile point to human rights abuses, firing squads after the
revolution and imprisonment of Castro opponents, and the losses they
suffered after the nationalization of their homes and businesses.
Cubans who turned out to see the remains of Castro pass in the "Caravan
of Liberty" chose to focus on advances in education, free medical care
and other social benefits of the revolution.
Thirty foreign delegations were expected to attend the events in
Santiago, including a Haitian delegation led by Interim President
Jocelerme Privet. But the United States isn't among them. U.S. officials
attended an homage at the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana earlier in
the week but said they wouldn't be in Santiago.
Ex-presidents from around Latin America also are flying in for Castro's
funeral service and even former Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona came.
"I come to be with my second father," he told Cuba state television.
"There are many players but he was the leader of the [World Cup] team of
There was palpable excitement in Santiago and in the small towns along
the Central Highway from Bayamo, where Castro's ashes spent the night.
On Friday, people were busy arranging white rocks on hillsides along the
route that spelled out "Fidel vive" (Fidel lives), "Fidel will always be
among us" and other revolutionary slogans.
Buildings and curbsides were being painted and townspeople were sweeping
the streets, hacking away brush and sprucing up their yards in
anticipation of the passage of the caravan as it headed to Santiago. En
route, it passed El Cobre where the Basilica of Our Lady of Charity of
El Cobre, Cuba's patron saint, is located.
Santiago is full of landmarks weighted with revolutionary significance.
But the Moncada Barracks where the Castro brothers and a group of rebels
attacked at dawn on July 26, 1953 tops the list.
The plan was to capture the barracks, distribute arms to the population
and begin a nationwide insurrection.
The attack failed miserably but it is the event that set in motion the
In memory of Castro, some Santiago residents have been wearing homemade
versions of the red and blacks arm bands of the 26th of July Movement.
Now the mustard-colored barracks has been converted into a museum and a
scholastic center, housing several primary and secondary schools.
School kids and their teacher lined the blocks around the barracks to
watch the passage of the caravan. Some had written "I am Fidel" and
"Fidel Lives" on their foreheads and cheeks with marker.
Yoaleni Martínez, a teacher at another elementary school, carried a sign
reading: "Who says Fidel has died? He lives, grows and multiplies
himself. He lives in the heart of every Cuban."
"Here at this barracks we have the blood of many Cuban revolutionaries
and today it is a school. Imagine that," said Martínez. "And this girl
standing next to me, how much would the medicine that saved her life
have cost elsewhere? She had a serious bacterial infection and the
medicine was free. Now she's 12 years old."
Just after the caravan passed the barracks, the military vehicle pulling
the trailer containing Castro's ashes stalled, and members of his honor
guard jumped off to give it a push. The caravan continued through the
streets of Santiago.
Even those who chose not to witness the passage of the caravan,
remembered Castro in their own ways.
Ninety-six-year-old María Estrella Estévez Blanco dug out an old picture
of Castro who lived in a blue and yellow house next door to hers at 6
Gen. Jesús Rabí St. when he was sent to Santiago to study as a child.
She didn't know him as a youngster, but met him several times over the
"He always liked to visit that house when he came to Santiago," she
said. "This is a picture with my grandchildren from the last time he
In the image, Castro can be seen leaning toward the porch of Estévez's
home to talk with her. It was 2003 — three years before Castro took ill.
Source: Fidel Castro's ashes return to the city where the revolution
began | Miami Herald -