Leftist allies arrive in Havana to pay tribute to Castro at mass rally

Fidel Castro, who ceded control to younger brother Raul Castro a decade ago over poor health, died on Friday at the age of 90.

FILE: This file photo taken on 12 October 1995 shows Cuban President Fidel Castro saluting journalists. Picture: AFP.

HAVANA - Leaders of Cuba's leftist allies and other developing countries arrive in Havana on Tuesday for a mass rally commemorating Fidel Castro, the rebel who seized power in a 1959 revolution and ruled the island in the face of US opposition for half a century.

Castro, who ceded control to his younger brother Raul Castro a decade ago due to poor health, died on Friday at the age of 90.

For many, especially in Latin America and Africa, he was a symbol of resistance to imperialism, having ousted a US-backed dictator, and a champion of the poor. Others, including many in the large Cuban exile community in Miami, have condemned him as a tyrant who jailed opponents and ruined the economy through socialism.

Among those to praise him was Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, 92, himself a former Marxist guerrilla who has led Zimbabwe as prime minister or president since 1980 despite financial and health crises.

"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," Mugabe told reporters as he arrived in Havana, praising Castro's government for
training thousands of Zimbabwean doctors and teachers.

"Farewell, dear brother. Farewell, revolutionary," he said.
Cuba announced nine days of mourning, including the rally on Tuesday evening in Havana's Revolution Square - the same massive space where Castro once delivered rousing, marathon speeches.

On Tuesday morning, Cubans lined up in the square for a second day to file past Castro's favorite portrait of himself, dressed in military fatigues and carrying a rifle.

Cubans reported waiting four or five hours to pass through the lines on Monday, when tens of thousands of people paid tribute, some in tears and others wrapped in the national flag. Many state employees and school children
came together in groups.

Raul Castro, 85, and top government officials held a separate, private ceremony on Monday, laying white flowers in front of Fidel Castro's portrait and a box containing his cremated remains.

A caravan carrying Castro's ashes will depart Havana on Wednesday en route to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, his final resting place, in a reversal of the journey he took with the rebel army that overthrew Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

"He has left us physically, but from now on will multiply in the millions, because we shall follow his ideas," said customs worker Hipolito Rodriguez, 67, dressed in khaki military fatigues as he waited for his turn to pay homage.

Many leaders of Latin America's left, including Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and Bolivian President Evo Morales, flew in to attend the ceremony.

Joining Mugabe among African leaders will be South African President Jacob Zuma. Nelson Mandela, while he was still alive, repeatedly thanked Castro for his efforts in helping overturn apartheid in South Africa.

China has sent Vice President Li Yuanchao, and on Tuesday in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited the Cuban embassy to pay his condolences, saying China had lost a "close comrade and real friend", China's foreign ministry said.

Yet few leaders from the world's major powers are heading to the Caribbean island, with many sending second-tier officials instead.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has skipped the ceremony but described Castro as a "true friend of Russia." The Kremlin said he held a different view on his legacy to that of US President-elect Donald Trump, who has called the Cuban leader "a brutal dictator."

Raul Castro has undertaken some economic reforms in recent years, but the one-party system remains in place and his government has signaled clearly that Fidel Castro's death should not mean the end of his revolution.

Cubans have been urged to sign condolence books and pledges of loyalty to Castro's socialist ideology at 1,060 tribute sites throughout the country.

WATCH: Looking back at Fidel Castro's controversial legacy