Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have paid their last respects to former President Fidel Castro, packing Havana's streets to mourn the fiery revolutionary who clung to power for nearly a half-century, outlasting 11 U.S. presidents, as well as his main Cold War backer, the Soviet Union.
The two-day public farewell in the Cuban capital began on November 28, where crowds stood in lines for hours to pay tribute to the revolutionary leader. Many chanted "Viva Fidel!"
Many mourners came on their own, but thousands of others were sent in groups by the communist government, which still employs about 80 percent of working people.
Castro, who died at age 90 on November 25, often won praise from socialists for leading a revolution in 1959 that toppled a corrupt government and extended health care and education to ordinary citizens.
But those achievements came at the cost of crushing his fellow citizens' right to voice criticism or form political parties without fear of imprisonment, according to activist groups and Cuban exiles.
In Havana’s Revolution Square, a massive nine-story image of a young Castro carrying a rifle was hung on the front of the National Library.
Castro effectively stepped down for medical reasons in 2006, leaving the running of the country to his brother, Raul.
He died of causes that were not disclosed but had long suffered from serious intestinal illness. He was cremated on November 26.
Many foreign leaders are expected to attend a public rally on November 29. Those not attending include U.S. President Barack Obama, whose decision to end decades of U.S. trade restrictions and animosity may do more to unwind Castro's legacy than any other phenomenon.
Also not attending is Russian President Vladimir Putin. Moscow was Cuba’s closest ally during the Cold War, though that relationship waned with the Soviet collapse in 1991.
PHOTO GALLERY: Castro -- A Life In Pictures
The government declared a nine-day period of mourning that will include transporting his ashes in a procession across eastern Cuba before they are interred on December 4 in the southeastern city of Santiago.
The man Cubans called "El Commandante" came to power at age 32 when he led a revolution to topple U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. He eliminated hundreds of members of the toppled government in a series of show trials and summary executions.
Admirers saw Castro as a visionary who stood up to the United States, brought health care and education to the poor, and inspired socialist movements across the globe.
Show Trials, Executions
Critics say he was a tyrant who jailed his opponents and destroyed the islands’s economy with a failed socialist experiment that caused economic hardship and sparked an exodus of hundreds of thousands of Cubans to Florida to seek a better life.
Castro survived a failed U.S.-backed invasion attempt by Cuban exiles seeking to overthrow his rule in 1961, an event that contributed to Castro’s close ties with the U.S.S.R.
In 1962, Moscow’s dispatch of missiles to Cuba, and Washington’s demand that they be removed, escalated into one of the biggest crises of the Cold War and brought the world the closest it has come to nuclear war.
Younger brother Raul officially became president of the one-party state in 2008.
Dissidents in Cuba said they would stay home during the mourning period and expected political repression to continue on the island despite Fidel Castro’s death.
Cuba’s dissident Ladies In White movement called off its regular weekly protest on November 27, with its leader Berta Soler saying she wanted to avoid being accused of committing acts of “provocation.”
According to a 2016 report by HRW, thousands of dissidents continue to be jailed in Cuba each year.
Obama's cautious rapprochement with Cuba in his second term could be reversed under his successor, Donald Trump, who has threatened to abandon the opening with Havana unless Cuban officials offered "a better deal for the Cuban people."
With reporting by Reuters TV, AFP, and AP