By Nelson Acosta and Simon Gardner
Flag-waving Cuban students broke into a mass chant of “I am Fidel” to salute Fidel Castro as nine days of mourning began for the combative Cold War icon, who dominated the Communist island’s political life for generations.
Alcohol sales were suspended, flags flew at half-staff and shows and concerts were cancelled after his younger brother and successor, President Raul Castro, told the country on Friday that Fidel had died at 10:29 p.m., without giving a cause of death.
Giant rallies are planned in Havana’s Revolution Square and in the eastern city of Santiago to honour Castro, who died aged 90, six decades after the brothers set out from Mexico to overthrow US-backed Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Newspapers on the island of 11 million people were printed in black ink to mourn Fidel, instead of the usual red of the official Communist Party daily Granma, and the blue of Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), the paper of the Communist youth.
“For me, it’s my mother first, my children, my father, then Fidel,” father-of-five Rafael Urbay, 60, said as he manned a government photo and printing store in downtown Havana, remembering his early years spent on a remote island off the mainland with no drinking water.
“We weren’t just poor. We were wretched,” he said. “Then came Fidel and the revolution. He gave me my humanity. I owe him everything.”
There was no heightened military or police presence to mark the passing of the epochal revolutionary leader, and at Havana University, Castro’s alma mater, hundreds of students gathered to wave huge Cuban flags and shout “Viva Fidel and Viva Raul.”
“Fidel isn’t dead because the people are Fidel,” shouted a local student leader dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt. “I am Fidel,” he continued, a refrain quickly adopted by the crowd.
“Fidel put Cuba on the map, and made Cuba a paradigm for the people of the world, especially the poor and the marginalized,” said another university student, Raul Alejandro Palmeros.
Castro studied law at the university in the late 1940s and early 1950s, when it was a hotbed of leftist politics, setting him on the path that led to his toppling of Batista in 1959.
Under Castro, bitter diplomatic conflict with the United States followed and Cuba quickly became a firm ally of the Soviet Union, sparking the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.
Yet, despite years of ideological strife and increasing hardship under a US economic embargo, Castro’s Cuba became renowned for high education standards and world-class doctors.
“What Fidel did with education and free health stands out on the world stage. It was unique,” said Rene Perez, 78, a retired accountant and Communist Party member. “It’s his main legacy.”
Apart from the chanting students, Havana life went on largely as normal, only quieter and more subdued following the news of Castro’s death. Street vendors sold food and handcrafts from stalls to passers-by, while 1950s Chevrolets full of dents and held together by makeshift repairs cruised by, crammed with passengers.
Nevertheless, it was a day for reflection.
“Usually we’re full, but today only tourists have come and maybe a few Cubans. Usually it’s the other way around. It seems Cubans feel funny about enjoying themselves so soon after Fidel died,” said Raul Tamayo, a doorman at La Roca, a popular restaurant in Havana’s central Vedado district.
Castro’s remains were cremated, and his ashes will be taken around Cuba until a state funeral on Decemebr 4. Western diplomatic officials said foreign dignitaries will arrive by Tuesday for a memorial service to be held in Revolution Square that evening.
There will be no top level games of baseball - Castro’s passion after politics - for the nine-day period of mourning, the sport’s national federation declared.
Cuban state television, student associations and the women’s federation had organised smaller rallies to mourn Fidel Castro and pledge their support to the revolution.
Standing well over six feet (1.8m) tall, the bearded Castro was for years a cigar-chomping bulwark of ideological resistance to the United States, decked out in green military fatigues and cap.
But the man long known as Cuba’s “Maximo Lider” (Maximum Leader) largely disappeared from the public eye after a 2006 intestinal illness that almost killed him.
Formally handing over power to Raul in 2008, he remained a major presence on the island, and regularly warned the Cuban population about the perils of giving in to the United States.
“Everyone here is sad. Everyone is a Fidelista,” said Anaida Gonzales, a retired nursing professor in central Camaguey province. “People are just going about their business, but sad. Me, I’m very sad for my Comandante, it really took me by surprise.”