9-day mourning period for Fidel Castro begins in Cuba

HAVANA (AP) -- Thousands of Cubans are lining up early near Havana's Plaza of the Revolution for the start of week-long services bidding farewell to the man who ruled the country for nearly half a century.

Cubans will be filing through the monument to the national hero Jose Marti in the center of the plaza, where the government has said they will sign an oath to carry out the "concept of revolution."

Many of the Cubans lining up early to pay homage to Castro in Havana are workers at state businesses.

Simultaneous 21-gun salutes will sound in Havana as well as the eastern city of Santiago, where Castro launched his revolution in 1953.

Castro, who led a rebel army to improbable victory in Cuba, embraced Soviet-style communism and defied the power of 10 U.S. presidents during his half century rule, died Friday at age 90.

With a shaking voice, President Raul Castro said on state television that his older brother died at 10:29 p.m.  He ended the announcement by shouting the revolutionary slogan: "Towards victory, always!"

Castro overcame imprisonment at the hands of dictator Fulgencio Batista, exile in Mexico and a disastrous start to his rebellion before triumphantly riding into Havana in January 1959 to become, at age 32, the youngest leader in Latin America. For decades, he served as an inspiration and source of support to revolutionaries from Latin America to Africa.

His commitment to socialism was unwavering, though his power finally began to fade in mid-2006 when a gastrointestinal ailment forced him to hand over the presidency to Raul in 2008, provisionally at first and then permanently. His defiant image lingered long after he gave up his trademark Cohiba cigars for health reasons and his tall frame grew stooped.

"Socialism or death" remained Castro's rallying cry even as Western-style democracy swept the globe and other communist regimes in China and Vietnam embraced capitalism, leaving this island of 11 million people an economically crippled Marxist curiosity.

He survived long enough to see Raul Castro negotiate an opening with U.S. President Barack Obama on Dec. 17, 2014, when Washington and Havana announced they would move to restore diplomatic ties for the first time since they were severed in 1961. He cautiously blessed the historic deal with his lifelong enemy in a letter published after a month-long silence.

Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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