HAVANA — Fidel Castro’s international allies and leftist leaders from around the world paid their respects to the deceased Cuban ruler Tuesday night at a massive outdoor farewell ceremony, honoring him with effusive praise that cut a stark contrast with his negative reputation in the United States.
Castro’s death Friday at age 90 brought jubilant celebrations among Cuban exiles in Miami, but the solemn event here was a reminder that his socialist idealism and clash with the United States made him a powerful symbol in many other nations, and especially in the global south.
The event stretched late into the night as presidents and foreign dignitaries from Russia, Iran, China, South Africa, Vietnam and across Latin America came to the podium in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution, praising Castro as a towering figure and tireless advocate for the world’s poor and downtrodden.
“His will could never be broken, nor the will of the Cuban people,” said Vyacheslav Volodin, the speaker of Russia’s parliament, who came on behalf of Vladimir Putin. “Fidel’s strength has been an example for all the people of the world who want to choose their own path of development.”
The sea of Cubans who came to say goodbye was massive, spilling out of the capacious plaza into the surrounding boulevards. Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, whose revolution Cuba supported in the 1970s, told the crowd that Castro would live on in all of them. “I am Fidel! I am Fidel!” they chanted.
It was the final act of government-scripted tributes in the Cuban capital, after two days during which hundreds of thousands filed past memorials to say goodbye. On Wednesday, Castro’s ashes will travel by caravan to the eastern end of the island, retracing the journey he and his rebel army made in triumph after seizing power in 1959.
Castro will be buried Sunday morning in Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city.
Tuesday’s event had the feel of an international rally as much as a remembrance. It comes at a time of growing uncertainty for many Cubans, who fear that President-elect Donald Trump will roll back President Obama’s rapprochement with the island.
Obama national security adviser Benjamin Rhodes, who carried out the negotiations to reestablish relations with Cuba, was the high-ranking U.S. official sent for the ceremony, but not as a speaker.
Castro’s “struggle will carry on with every young idealist,” said Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa, one of the many Latin American leftists who celebrated the leader as a kind of spiritual and political “father.”
Correa blasted the U.S. economic embargo against the island, calling it “a permanent war” against Cuba. “Any capitalist country would have collapsed after a few months,” he said. “We can never allow Cuba to become an imperialist colony again.”
South African President Jacob Zuma credited Castro’s military interventions in Africa with helping to usher in the demise of apartheid. “We join the progressive forces of the world in mourning and celebrating the life of a nationalist and anti-imperialist who defended those who are exploited,” said Zuma.
In his remarks, Zuma recalled that Castro died on the 60th anniversary of the day he and 81 expeditionaries left Mexico on the Granma yacht to launch their Cuban uprising, and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto said that “the waters of the Caribbean have linked us for centuries.”
“Fidel Castro loved Mexico,” he said.
Some in the crowd waved Cuban flags and the banners of other nations, but most stood quietly, watching on large screens. Children in the crowd batted balloons in the air, which, as is often the case in a country with chronic shortages, had been fashioned from condoms that are given away virtually free by Castro’s socialist health-care system.
“I came to say goodbye to one of the greatest figures in history,” said Jose Hernandez, 50, a veterinarian. “He’s a father to all of us.”
Luis Alberto Grillo, a 29-year-old accountant wearing a Nike Air Jordan T-shirt said someone like Castro “only comes along once in a century.”
“In spite of what people in some countries might think of Fidel, he was a great figure,” he said.
“For Cubans who are my color, he made us human,” said Jose Garcia, 53, a tall Afro-Cuban athletic trainer with two flags stuck in his hat. “He gave us the possibility to grow and to be whoever we wanted to be.”
Castro’s younger brother and successor in power, Raúl, 85, ended the ceremony nearly four hours after it began with a brief speech, thanking “the extraordinary solidarity of the world.”
“We will follow his immortal example,” he said.