World leaders gather in massive rally to bid farewell to Fidel Castro

A mass eulogy was held in Cuba's capital Tuesday night as tens of thousands of Cubans gathered to pay their respects, along with several world leaders who delivered tributes.

Natacha Pisarenko/AP
A man carries a Cuban flag as he arrives to attend a massive rally honoring the late Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Schools and government offices were closed Tuesday for a second day of homage to Fidel Castro.

Several world leaders and tens of thousands of Cubans arrived in Havana Tuesday night to pay their final respects to former Cuban President Fidel Castro, who died Friday, in a mass eulogy commemorating the figure’s achievements.

The rally was held in Havana’s Revolution Plaza, where crowds chanted “Viva Fidel,” carried signs celebrating the Cuban Communist party, and walked through a memorial featuring displays of Mr. Castro’s medals. His long-time ideological allies, presidents of Mexico, Ecuador, Bolivia, Venezuela, and South Africa, attended the rally in person and paid tribute to the leader in speeches.

“Fidel was not just your leader. He was our leader and the leader of all revolutionaries. We followed him, listened to him and tried to emulate him,” Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe told reporters as he arrived in Havana, as reported by The Guardian. “Farewell, dear brother. Farewell, revolutionary.”

But other than the six who attended, few leaders of major world powers came in person, only sending second-tier officials as representatives. The attendance list illustrates the legacy of a man whose actions deeply polarized the world. There were some fervent supporters of Castro’s anti-imperialism and socialist approach to governing while many others opposed his tendency to rule Cuba with an iron fist.

Castro seized power in a 1959 revolution by leading bearded rebels to overturn a US-backed dictator, subsequently establishing a Communist state opposed by the United States. He became a symbol of resistance to imperialism, aiding several Latin American and African countries in their own uprisings. Nelson Mandela, former President of South Africa, had personally thanked Cuba for helping defeat the apartheid forces in 1991.

"They [imperialists] could overcome neither Fidel, nor the people of Cuba nor the dreams and hopes of this great nation," Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said in a tribute Wednesday night, as reported by Reuters. Mr. Maduro’s predecessor had close relations with Castro. "He fulfilled his mission on this earth.... Few lives have been so complete, so bright. He has left unconquered."

Mr. Mugabe, a former Marxist guerrilla himself, praised Castro’s government for training thousands of Zimbabwean doctors and teachers. South African President Jacob Zuma complemented Castro for his efforts in providing free education, health care and support for African independence struggles, saying he will be remembered as "a great fighter for the idea that the poor have a right to live with dignity," as reported by the Associated Press.

At the same time, his policies and close relationship to the Soviet Union then alienated other world leaders, most notably the US, with whose relations with Cuba were only normalized after President Obama reversed course in 2014.

The White House announced on Tuesday that Mr. Obama would not be sending a presidential delegation but would instead send Jeffrey DeLaurentis, chief diplomat at the US embassy in Havana, and Ben Rhodes, an Obama aide who represented the US in the talks to normalize relations, according to the Associated Press.

China sent Vice President Li Yuanchao, while Chinese President Xi Jinping will pay his respects at the Cuban embassy in Beijing.

Russian President Vladimir Putin did not attend the ceremony but described Castro as a “true friend of Russia.” Some speculate that Mr. Putin’s absence might hint at his desire to maintain good relations with President-elect Donald Trump, who has criticized the deal Obama made with Cuba.

The opposing reactions fielded by world leaders were also reflected among Cuban-Americans and Cubans themselves. Exiled Cuban-Americans critical of Castro’s rule celebrated in Miami, while some in Cuba "see him off with pain, others with relief … the great majority with a certain tone of indifference," as Cuban opposition blogger and journalist Yoani Sanchez tweeted.

A procession will carry Castro’s ashes in a four-day journey across Cuba from Havana to Santiago on Wednesday, tracing in reverse a victory tour Castro and his rebels took after the 1959 revolution.

This report contains material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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