SANTIAGO DE CUBA — The tomb and final resting place of Fidel Castro is a hulking, 2.6-ton granite boulder set among the mausoleums of Cuba’s most exalted national heroes.
In a private ceremony Sunday, his brother and successor Raúl Castro placed a wooden box with Castro’s ashes in a hollow cavity inside the stone. The crypt was then sealed with an emerald-green plaque that simply reads “FIDEL,” a single word left to summarize the sprawling, divisive legacy of the man who ruled Cuba for nearly half a century.
The symbolism of the boulder — Castro as an enduring, immovable, geological force — is hardly subtle.
“I am Fidel! I am Fidel!” crowds chanted outside the cemetery, echoing the round-the-clock tributes to Castro on state television that insist every Cuban will stay true to his revolutionary vision.
But despite the public vows of unwavering loyalty to Castro’s one-party, socialist state, many Cubans enter the post-Fidel era harboring deep doubts about the country’s future. Economic growth is stalled, emigration is rising and President-elect Donald Trump is threatening to ice the diplomatic thaw charted by the Obama administration.
The stone monolith that now enshrines Cuba’s “maximum leader” is a stark reminder of the weight Castro will continue to exert on this country.
“I don’t think anything here will change because of his passing — if anything, we’ll be stronger,” said Mirta Vallart, 68, a history teacher waiting outside the gate of the cemetery for a glimpse of the tomb. “His example will always unite us,” she said.
Castro’s funeral ceremony was not broadcast on television, but photographs of the event were published several hours later by Cuban state media.
A military caravan carrying his ashes could be seen entering the Santa Ifigenia cemetery here in Cuba’s second-largest city just before 7 a.m., after tens of thousands of mourners staged an all-night vigil in the nearby Plaza of the Revolution.
The small, private funeral ceremony was attended by Castro’s family, including his wife Dalia Soto del Valle and their children, according to government news sites. Some 40 foreign leaders and guests were present, including Brazilian former presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, and Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro. The Argentine soccer star Diego Maradona, who called Castro his “second father,” also attended the farewell.
The boom of military cannons saluting Castro rumbled over the city during the morning.
The funeral Sunday ended the nine-day period of national mourning ordered by the government after his death Nov. 25 at age 90. He ruled Cuba from 1959 to 2006, when illness forced him to step aside and transfer power to his younger brother Raúl.
Castro’s ashes arrived in Santiago de Cuba on Saturday after a four-day journey across the island, as Cubans lined the highway waving flags in the hot sun and painted “FIDEL” on their foreheads and cheeks.
The government said 500,000 attended a final tribute to Castro on Saturday night, where Raúl Castro, 85, said the government would not erect statues or monuments in his brother’s honor, or rename parks and streets after him.
“He never wanted any kind of personality cult, and that was his wish up until his final moments,” Raúl Castro said of his brother. “He insisted that he didn’t want his name or his image used as the title of institutions, plazas, parks, avenues, streets or other public places, nor the construction of monuments, busts, statues and others forms of tribute.”
Raúl Castro added that he would propose laws to make sure his brother’s wishes were honored.
It was meant perhaps as a final, posthumous retort to the criticisms of Fidel Castro’s enemies, who depicted him as a power-hungry megalomaniac obsessed with his own public image.
The government has not revealed Castro’s cause of death, but his health had steadily declined in recent years, and his final public appearances were in a wheelchair.
During his speech, Raúl Castro also assured Cubans that his brother “never lost faith in victory” and that the country’s socialist system would endure.
“Few in the world believed in our ability to resist and overcome,” Raúl Castro said, recalling the worst years of Cuba’s post-Soviet economic crisis, when the country suffered food shortages and chronic blackouts. “Fidel showed us that it was possible.”
The public displays of emotion and sorrow seemed to intensify over the course of the week, as Cuban state media broadcast round-the-clock tributes.
The initial reaction to his death had been somewhat muted in the capital, Havana, with few spontaneous displays of grief. But here in Santiago, mourners gave tearful interviews to state television, hoisting poster-size photos of Castro as a child, as a guerrilla commander in the mountains and as a dour-looking commander in chief.
Silverio Maldonado, 54, a cook at a pizzeria and a veteran of Castro’s military intervention in Angola, stood outside the cemetery during the funeral with a crowd of several hundred others. A phalanx of plainclothes Cuban security agents blocked access to the site.
“Fidel had a way of penetrating the hearts of all Cubans,” Maldonado said. “When my parents died two years ago, I felt like I still had a father because he was there.”
He waved off the idea that Cuba might change more without Castro as a living symbol of the state. “What we need now is unity,” Maldonado said. “We need to be just like ants, carrying out the wishes of our commander.”
While Castro lived most of his life in Havana, Santiago is considered the “birthplace” of his Cuban Revolution. The prosperous Castro family estate was 60 miles to the north, and starting at age 7, Castro spent much of his childhood at Jesuit boarding schools.
The boulder containing Castro’s ashes is set immediately to the side of the towering mausoleum of Cuban national hero Jose Martí, and alongside the monument to the young insurgents who joined Castro’s botched 1953 assault on Santiago’s military garrison and were slaughtered by troops and police.
It was Castro’s first attempt to overthrow the government of dictator Fulgencio Batista. A trained lawyer, he used his own defense to deliver a four-hour indictment of Batista’s rule, famously telling the court: “Condemn me, it doesn’t matter. History will absolve me.”
The granite boulder is also meant to evoke the Sierra Maestra mountains where Castro’s bearded rebels launched a guerrilla war against Batista’s forces in December 1956. They finally drove him from power on Dec. 31, 1958, and Castro arrived in Santiago the next day to declare victory in the central square.
The cemetery was opened to the public late Sunday afternoon, and Cuban mourners filed past the tomb and placed flowers at the base of the stone.