Many who devoted their lives to Fidel Castro now line the streets for a final tribute

People line the street to watch the convoy of vehicles escorting the remains of Fidel Castro during a journey across the country to Santiago de Cuba where he will be buried Sunday.
People line the street to watch the convoy of vehicles escorting the remains of Fidel Castro during a journey across the country to Santiago de Cuba where he will be buried Sunday. Getty Images

With one arm raised, clutching a small Cuban flag in her hand, and the other cradling a palm frond and flowers she had plucked from her neighbor's garden, Eugenia Migalina Ramos Cobos patiently waited for el comandante to pass.

Despite her 72 years and hours on her feet, Ramos said she would persevere until Fidel Castro's ashes passed in a military convoy.

"I'm fulfilling my duty with my comandante," she said. "If I get tired with this arm, I raise the other. But being tired doesn't matter; it doesn't matter to me."

Castro's ashes are on a journey of some 600 miles across the island from Havana, where his death at the age of 90 was announced late Friday, to Santiago de Cuba, known as the cradle of the Cuban Revolution.

The so-called “Caravan of Liberty” left Santa Clara early Thursday morning headed for Ciego de Avila and Camagüey. Before dawn, hundreds of neighbors, some in wheelchairs or using walkers, began gathering at the corner of Colón and Central where the convoy made a turn around 7:20 a.m.

Castro's ashes spent the night at Santa Clara's Mausoleum of Che Guevara. It is here that the remains of Guevara and 16 others who fought and died with him in Bolivia are interred. Guevara's secret grave in the Bolivian highlands wasn't discovered until years after he was killed, and his remains weren't returned to Cuba until 1998.

Santa Clara also was the site of one of the most decisive battles in the waning days of the Cuban Revolution. Guevara and a group of rebels derailed an armored military train full of soldiers and weapons and then went on to take the city

En route to Santiago, where Castro's funeral will be held Sunday morning, the caravan is passing some of the most important sites of the revolution, prompting a retelling of old stories and drumming up revolutionary fervor in the process.

As a 15-year-old, Ramos said she was already helping Castro's July 26th Movement. It is named after the failed July 26, 1953 attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba. Dozens of young rebels were captured, tortured and killed in the attack and Fidel and his younger brother, Raúl Castro, were taken prisoner.

While Fidel Castro was imprisoned, he wrote his "History Will Absolve Me" speech. The posters that many people held aloft as they waited for Castro's ashes in Ranchuelo, a town in the sugar-producing region, memorialized his famous words: "Condemn me. It doesn't matter. History will absolve me."

When she was growing up in Santiago, Ramos said she lived near the barracks.

"I could hear the screaming at night when they pulled out their finger nails and tortured them," she said. Later, her family became supportive of the rebels, storing medicine, clothes and shoes that were transported to the rebel stronghold in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

"I sold bonds for the movement. And at 15 years old, I was throwing molotov cocktails," said Ramos.

Nearly four hours into her wait, Ramos was showing signs of fatigue and sat at the side of the road rubbing her shoulder. "Ahh, it hurts; it hurts," she said.

Violeta Mena, from nearby San Juan de los Yeras, had been waiting almost as long as Ramos. She arrived at 3:30 p.m. Wednesday. "It's really very little time that we're devoting. Fidel deserves much more," Mena said as she and a group of friends waved little Cuban flags and yelled "Venceremos!." (We shall overcome.)

Many of the men in the crowd looked like they had come directly from work at the nearby sugar mill. Others sported straw cowboy hats and occasionally a rider on horseback trotted down the road as a rooster crowed in the background.

Artemio Jiménez Ruiz was holding his 4-year-old granddaughter Daily as he patiently waited. "Where is Fidel?" he asked the little girl. "In my heart," she responded.

"From the time she was very small, we taught her about revolutionary leaders," said Jiménez.

But as dusk faded into night, Castro's ashes still hadn't arrived.

Around 6 p.m., a pickup truck with a woman at a microphone passed, giving rise to the hope that the caravan would soon come into view. "Fidel is with us," she yelled and led the crowd in chants of "Yo soy Fidel, Yo soy Fidel." [I am Fidel.]

And she admonished them: "Maintain order and discipline. Fidel will be here in fifteen minutes to a half hour."

But it was a false alarm and finally those who had been on their feet all day slid to the ground or sat down on the curb to await the caravan. Some listened to Radio Rebelde, which was giving minute by minute accounts of the caravan's progress and was being broadcast from large speakers set up in the bed of pickup.

Then at 7:40 p.m., a military jeep and a truckload of journalists came into view and the people were on their feet.

And then another jeep filled with four generals passed, followed by a jeep of military escorts. Hitched to the back of it was a trailer carrying a small casket draped with the Cuban flag and surrounded by white flowers. The remains of Fidel Castro Ruz.

Then just as quickly, the trailer was gone again -- and the crowd was left to contemplate a Cuba without Fidel Castro.