Fidel Castro’s ashes were encased in a large granite boulder on Sunday, in a ceremony that capped nine days of public mourning in Cuba that aimed to literally set in stone the legacy for one of the 20th century’s most influential figures.
Revolutionary leader Castro toppled a U.S.-backed strongman in 1959 and went on to build a Communist state a short distance from the Florida coast that survived the collapse of the Soviet Union.
He relished tormenting Washington during half a century in power and crossed swords with 10 U.S. presidents, before stepping down a decade ago.
Since Castro’s death on Nov. 25 at age 90, hundreds of thousands of Cubans lined streets and plazas to bid farewell to “El Comandante” (The Commander), with a combination of tears, vows to sustain socialism and choruses of “I am Fidel!”
His monument at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery in the city of Santiago de Cuba, sits a few steps from the mausoleum of independence hero Jose Marti, another towering figure of Cuban history with whom Castro shared a mistrust of the United States.
Castro was educated in the eastern city and launched his revolution there with a failed attack on the Moncada army barracks in 1953.
Cutting a solitary figure in his four star general’s uniform, President Raul Castro placed a wooden box containing his elder brother’s cremated remains in the 10 foot (3 meter) polished stone at the Santa Ifigenia Cemetery, photos released by state media showed.
A dark plaque engraved with the word “Fidel” was then fixed over the niche. Raul Castro saluted the rock, which was flanked by two honor guards in white uniform.
WAR AND PEACE
Fidel Castro had been out of power for a decade but never far from the center of public life. In his final years he wrote a periodic column on world and local matters and received foreign dignitaries at his home on the outskirts of Havana.
Castro gave Cuba an outsized influence in world affairs. He was feted by Nelson Mandela for helping to end apartheid at a time when the West supported the racist system, but helped take the world to the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban missile crisis.
Forced to step down due to an intestinal ailment, he ceded power to his brother, at first provisionally in 2006, then definitively in 2008.
His send off reflected a man who had a vast public career but was intensely private about his health and family.
Dominating Cuban life for almost 50 years as president, Castro angrily rejected suggestions he was a dictator, denying any personal enrichment or personality cult around him.
In keeping with his wishes, Castro’s image will not be immortalized with statues and public places will not be named after him, his brother said on Saturday.
Cubans still do not know the cause of his death, or where he was cremated. After a three-day caravan in which Cubans lined streets and packed squares to bid him farewell, the last ceremony was not broadcast on Cuban media.
Instead, in Havana, military cannons unleashed a 21-gun salute that thundered across the capital city as the ceremony began hundreds of miles to the south east.
Castro’s naturalistic memorial was dwarfed by Marti’s mausoleum and other elaborate edifices at the cemetery. The stone is a few steps from a monument to rebels who died fighting in the Moncada attack in Santiago, which started the revolution.
Seeing greatness in himself long before taking power, Castro created his own, enduring persona, and played the role with a flourish throughout his long public life.
He was at various times a triumphant revolutionary, an indefatigable speaker, and a military strategist. His larger-than-life character instilled Cuba with pride and national identity, while also generating acute hatred among his enemies.
It even came with its own wardrobe and props: olive green fatigues and military hat, boots and a beard, and, until he quit smoking in the 1980s, a long lancero cigar.
He ruled for 49 years, longer than any contemporary except for Queen Elizabeth of England. He aligned Cuba with the Soviet Union and sustained a near-permanent confrontation with the United States, sending both doctors and soldiers overseas to burnish Cuba’s revolutionary character.
In recent years, Cuban doctors have been praised for quick deployment in international health crises, including the Ebola outbreak and the aftermath of Haiti’s 2010 earthquake.
Even after ceding power to Raul, now 85, Fidel was a guiding light to leftists and anti-imperialists around world and a lightning rod for the barbs of his critics, who loathed him for confiscating private property, jailing opponents, and shutting down almost all dissent.
The impact of his long clash with the United States is still being felt. Cuban-Americans in Miami celebrated his death, and Washington maintains a trade embargo that Castro long used as the reason for Cuba’s economic troubles.
U.S. Vice President-elect Mike Pence on Sunday called Raul Castro “a murdering dictator,” in the latest sign the new Washington administration will be adversarial with Cuba, rhetorically at least.
President Barack Obama changed course on U.S. policy toward Cuba in December 2014, agreeing on a prisoner exchange, declaring his intent to restore diplomatic ties and asking the U.S. Congress to end the embargo.
Fidel Castro gave grudging approval to the detente brokered by his brother. He did not meet Obama during his historic visit to the island, instead penning a column that warned Cubans not to trust the president’s “honey-coated” words.
President-elect Donald Trump has threatened to reverse Obama’s rapprochement after he assumes the White House on Jan. 20 unless Cuba enacts internal changes, the kind of pressure both Castro brothers have vehemently rejected.
(Writing by Daniel Trotta and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Mary Milliken, Jeffrey Benkoe and Chris Reese)