Fidel Castro's ashes begin final journey across Cuba to the cradle of his revolution

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro led tributes on Tuesday night in Revolution Square

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The normal clatter and music of its streets quieted, Havana came together on Wednesday morning to give Fidel Castro a final send-off as his ashes began their long, symbolic journey eastwards across the island nation back to Santiago de Cuba, the cradle if his revolution.

Thier last chance to see the departed comrade, residents of the delapidated capital formed a solid and hushed line along both sides of the seafront Malecon – a curving boulevard of once-gracious, now mostly crumbling homes facing the Caribbean sea – as his cedar-wood coffin passed slowly by, borne by a simple flat-bed trailer fringed with white flowers, drawn by a green, military jeep.

Earlier, after sunrise, the simple caravan had emerged from the Ministry of Defence, to start the symbolic journey that will take the remains of Cuba’s legendary leader for five decades almost the full length of the island nation from the capital to its eastern tip. 

Set to cover 550 miles and take three days, it will be the reverse of the same journey Mr Castro and his bearded band of fellow revolutionaries took when they marched in victory to Havana in 1959. It will not be lonely with Cubans expected to turn out to line the route for all of its length, many from rural parts, newly impoverished by the collapse of its once mighty sugar industry. 

After his death late on Friday at 90 years of age, Mr Castro, known simply as El Commandante, was cremated on Saturday. Following nine days of official mourning during which everything from loud music to the sale of alcohol has been banned, his ashes will be interred on Sunday.  

Crowds on the Malecon wait for a glimpse of Castro's coffin beneath the iconic National Hotel (AP)

Meanwhile, on Tuesday evening the people of Havana had their moment to pay tribute to a figure who still divides emotions on the island and around the world. He was an icon of the left who stood up to the United States for fifty years, withstanding economic bullying and even assassination attempts, and a dictator who trampled human rights and freedoms.

At Revolution Square, hundreds of thousands joined long lines to lay flowers and hear foreign allies of the left pay tribute to Mr Castro and watch grainy, black-and-white film clips dating from the birth of his reign. Those were the first days when Che Guevara was at his side and they had seized the Havana Hilton as their makeshift headquarters, a hotel once again, filling its rooms with the new surge of foreign tourists unleashed in part by the new thaw with the United States.

“He more than fulfilled his mission on this earth,” declared Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, whose government supports Cuba's ailing economy with oil sold at a steep discount, a policy of socialist solidarity introduced by the late Hugo Chavez and a crutch for Cuba that was all the more vital as it struggled to survive the loss of patronage from the collapsed Soviet Union. “Few lives have been so complete, so bright,” President Maduro added. “He has left unconquered.”

The simple cortege on the Malecon, the flatbed trailer fringed with flowers (AP)

Left behind is a Cuba where the average wage is $25 a month and where even basic internet connections are mostly unavailable to its still isolated population. But standing on the main dais, President Jacob Zuma of South African praised the other legacy Mr Castro left behind: a record on education and healthcare mostly unmatched in many of the hemisphere’s other poorer nations. 

Fidel Castro, President Zuma told the massive crowd, will be remembered as “a great fighter for the idea that the poor have a right to live with dignity”.

While the world is invited to attend a final memorial service on 4 December in Havana, few other leaders will attend, a reflection of the ambiguity felt for Mr Castro’s mixed record of benign populism and unbending authoritarianism. The United States – which under President Barack Obama this year began a slow process of diplomatic and economic normalisation that may or may not be continued by President-elect Donald Trump – is to be represented only by a top foreign policy aide in the White House, Ben Rhodes. Neither Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain nor Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are expected to attend. 

When the interment has taken place, Cuba finally will be without a figure whose stature has not been matched by the brother who took over the reins in 2008, Raul Castro, or by the man who is expected to succeed him in just 15 months’ time, Miguel Diaz-Canel, who has been first Vice President since 2013. What will remain, at least for the foreseeable future, is the Communist apparatus that has kept Cuba apart from its neighbours, including the US, for so long.

That, at least, was the promise the government made with giant banners strung up in Revolution Square on Tuedsay night. They 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.”