SANTA CLARA, CUBA // Fidel Castro’s ashes were taken Thursday to a symbolic reunion with his fallen comrade-in-arms Ernesto “Che” Guevara in Santa Clara, the first stop in the late Cold War titan’s last trip across Cuba.
After two days of tributes in Havana, hundreds of thousands of flag-waving Cubans lined the streets to bid farewell as a military jeep began a four-day journey on Wednesday morning with the cedar urn in tow.
Crowds chanted “I am Fidel!” as the convoy started retracing the victory tour that Castro’s guerrilla took in 1959 to celebrate their defeat of US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The flag-covered urn, which rested under a glass case on a small olive-green trailer, arrived in Santa Clara after midnight and entered a complex with a mausoleum and museum dedicated to Guevara.
“It’s a historic meeting, two comandantes who change the history of Cuba and humanity,” said Agnier Sanchez, a 33-year-old medical imaging technician.
A sombre guitar, song and dance show played across a giant statue of Guevara as the “caravan of freedom” paused a third of the way into its 950-kilometer trek across the island.
The convoy will heading to other cities before a final ceremony on Sunday in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, where Castro’s ashes will be laid to rest next to 19th century independence hero Jose Marti.
Cubans were observing the fifth of nine days of mourning for Castro following his death on Friday at age 90. Castro ruled from 1959 until an illness forced him to hand power to his brother Raul in 2006.
Dissidents call Castro a dictator who jailed opponents but others in Cuba praise his legacy of providing free education and health care to Cubans while defying the US “empire.”
“I come from a poor family. I am black. In another era, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to be who I am today,” said Maria Gonzalez, a 31-year-old computer engineer.
Castro met Guevara in 1955 while in exile in Mexico, and the young doctor joined Fidel and Raul on the boat that took them to Cuba a year later.
Guevara won a crucial battle in Santa Clara in 1958, derailing an armoured train and taking the city.
Guevara was given high-ranking positions in the government but he left in 1966 to lead a guerrilla expedition in Bolivia, where he was captured and executed a year later.
His remains were recovered three decades later and taken to Santa Clara, now home to a huge statute of Che and a museum dedicated to the revolutionary icon.
“His death seemed like something incredible to me. In fact, I don’t know, something that one can never get used to,” Fidel Castro once told a Spanish journalist, admitting that he occasionally had dreams in which he spoke with Guevara.
As the country ponders its future without Fidel Castro, attention is turning toward Raul and whether he will undertake deeper economic reforms after enacting modest changes in recent years.
The 85-year-old general, who has vowed to step down in 2018, has also restored diplomatic relations with his brother’s eternal enemy, the United States.
“If Fidel’s death results in reforms in Cuba speeding up a little, the rapprochement with the United States could be energised,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue think tank.
“It’s an opportunity to strengthen bilateral relations, but a lot will depend on what happens within the Cuban government,” he said.
US president-elect Donald Trump threatened this week to halt the detente that was begun by US president Barack Obama if the Castro government doesn’t offer a “better deal” to the Cuban people.
Obama did not join other foreign leaders at a massive rally for Fidel Castro in Havana on Tuesday, instead sending aides as the White House voiced concerns about the human rights situation in Cuba.
Along the caravan’s route, Fidel Castro’s supporters were confident his revolution would go on.
“Cuba won’t change,” said Jany de la Caridad, 20, who had the face of a young Fidel painted on her face. “Look at all these people waiting for hours for Fidel’s ashes. You think that Cuba will deviate from its socialist path with the death of one man — even if it was commander in chief Fidel Castro?”