Huge crowds turn out to pay tribute to former Cuban leader Fidel Castro

Schools and government offices in Cuba were closed for a second day as hundreds of thousands continued to pay tribute to Fidel Castro.

The day was set to end in a rally on the wide plaza where the late Cuban leader delivered fiery speeches to mammoth crowds in the years after he seized power.

Cubans have been bidding farewell to Castro, pledging allegiance to his socialist ideology and paying tribute before images of the leader as a young guerrilla gazing out over the country he would come to rule for nearly a half century.

On Tuesday they were joined by two of Castro's firmest ideological allies, presidents Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, who spent several moments paying their respects before a picture of Castro as a young, bearded rebel.

"Cuba is going through a moment of profound shock," Mr Morales said when he arrived the previous evening.

"I came to be present during a moment of pain from the loss of my brother, my friend."

Cuban state media reported that an urn containing Castro's ashes was being kept in a room at the Defence Ministry where his younger brother and successor, Raul Castro, and top Communist Party officials paid tribute the previous evening.

Lines stretched for hours outside Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, the heart of government power.

In Havana and across the island, people signed condolence books and an oath of loyalty to Castro's sweeping May 2000 proclamation of the Cuban revolution as an unending battle for socialism, nationalism and an outsize role for the island on the world stage.

"I feel a deep sadness, but immense pride in having had him near," said Ana Beatriz Perez, a 50-year-old medical researcher who was advancing in the slow-moving line with the help of crutches.

"His physical departure gives us strength to continue advancing in his ideology. This isn't going away, because we are millions."

"His death is another revolution," said her husband, Fidel Diaz, who predicted that it will prompt many to "rediscover the ideas of the commander for the new generations".

Tribute sites were set up in hundreds of places across the island as the government urged Cubans to reaffirm their belief in a socialist, single-party system that in recent years has struggled to maintain the fervour that was widespread at the triumph of the 1959 revolution.

Many mourners came on their own accord, but thousands were sent in groups by the communist government, which still employs about 80% of the working people in Cuba despite the growth of the private sector under Raul.

Inside the memorial, thousands walked through three rooms with near-identical displays featuring the 1962 Alberto Korda photograph of the young Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains, bouquets of white flowers and an array of Castro's medals against a black backdrop, framed by honour guards of soldiers and children in school uniforms.

The ashes of the 90-year-old former president did not appear to be on display.

Signs read: "The Cuban Communist Party is the only legitimate heir of the legacy and authority of the commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution, comrade Fidel Castro."

"Goodbye commander. Your ideas remain here with us," 64-year-old retiree Etelbina Perez said between sobs, dabbing at her eyes with a brown handkerchief.

"I feel great pain over his death. I owe my entire life to him. He brought me out of the mountains. I was able to study thanks to him."

The scene was played out on a smaller scale at countless places across the country.

After 10 years of leadership by Raul Castro, a relatively camera-shy and low-key successor, Cuba has found itself riveted once again by the words and images of the man who dominated the lives of generations.

Since his death on Friday night, state-run newspapers, television and radio have run wall-to-wall tributes to Fidel Castro, broadcasting non-stop footage of his speeches, interviews and foreign trips, interspersed with adulatory remembrances by prominent Cubans.

AP

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