Crowds gather at Revolution Square in Santiago to farewell Fidel Castro.
Crowds gather at Revolution Square in Santiago to farewell Fidel Castro. ORLANDO BARRIA

Cuba's 'eternal comandante' returns home

FIDEL Castro's ashes have arrived in the eastern city of Santiago, concluding a four-day journey across Cuba.

Thousands of people gathered shouting "Fidel! I am Fidel!” as the jeep pulling a cedar urn containing his ashes rolled into the island's second- largest city.

The 90-year-old former president, who died on November 25, declared the victory of the Cuban revolution from a Santiago balcony in 1959.

Children in school uniform, veterans in military fatigues and entire families waved Cuban flags as a series of Castro speeches played on a giant screen, in scenes of public adulation seen elsewhere along the 900km trip from Havana.

Huge crowds have been shouting his name and lining the roads to salute the funeral procession across Cuba, particularly in rural eastern regions.

The caravan passed in front of the Moncada barracks - scene of his first armed uprising in 1953 - and headed to Revolution Square for an evening rally.

Castro has been hailed in almost religious terms since his death, with the communist party newspaper Granma calling him the "eternal comandante”.

His ashes will now be interred, ending a nine-day mourning period, and he will be remembered in a nationally televised service led by President Raul Castro, Fidel's brother.

Raul Castro, who took over when his brother fell ill in 2006, will deliver a much-awaited speech during the massive tribute with foreign dignitaries, ranging from presidents to Argentine football legend Diego Maradona, who called Castro his "second father”.

Castro's death has fuelled discussions about his divisive legacy and the direction the country may take without the omnipresent leader, who ruled for almost half a century.

Supporters have cheered him for the free education and health care he developed on the island, while detractors call him a brutal dictator who imprisoned dissidents and ran the economy to the ground.

After Fidel is laid to rest, all eyes will turn to Raul Castro's next move. He has implemented modest economic reforms, vowed to step down in 2018 and restored diplomatic ties with the United States.