HAVANA — Thousands of Cubans began lining up early near Havana's Plaza of the Revolution Monday carrying portraits of Fidel Castro, flowers and Cuban flags for the start of week-long services bidding farewell to the man who ruled the country for nearly half a century.
One of the first in line was Tania Jimenez, 53, a mathematician who arrived at 4 a.m. carrying a rose.
"Fidel is everything to us, the soul of this country who gave everything, all his life," Jimenez said in tears.
A nine-story image of a young Castro joined the towering images of fallen guerrillas overlooking the massive square where the government said Cubans would "render homage and sign a solemn oath to carry out the concept of the revolutionary expressed by the revolutionary leader."
After 10 years of leadership by Castro's younger brother Raul, a relatively camera-shy and low-key successor, Cuba finds itself riveted once again by the words and images of the leader who dominated the lives of generations. Since his death on Friday night, state-run newspapers, television and radio have been running wall-to-wall tributes to Fidel, broadcasting non-stop footage of his speeches, interviews and foreign trips, interspersed with adulatory remembrances by prominent Cubans.
"There's a genuine feeling of mourning, that's not a formality, that's not showy, that's not outward-focused, but rather completely intimate," former National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon said on state television Sunday.
Ordinary people have largely been staying at home, off streets hushed by a prohibition on music and celebration during the nine days of official mourning for Castro. For some, particularly younger Cubans, Castro's death barely registered.
Yankemell Barrera, a 20-year-old student, said Castro wasn't a strong presence in his life and that he wasn't much affected by his death or planning to go to any of the memorial events. He said studying for finals would be a better use of his time.
"Even if I'm obligated to go, I'm not doing it," he said.
Tens of thousands of others, though, were expected to return to the streets Monday after 9 a.m., when simultaneous 21-gun salutes will sound in the capital and in the eastern city of Santiago, where Castro launched his revolution in 1953. At the same moment, Cubans are expected to begin filing through the monument to national hero Jose Marti in the center of the plaza, where they were expected to sign the "concept of the revolution" oath.
The "concept of revolution" is a section of a 2000 speech in which Castro calls Cubans to believe in "the profound conviction that no force in the world is capable of crushing the force of truth and ideas."
The government did not say if the ashes of the 90-year-old former president would be on display inside the monument. Virtually all schools and government offices were closing during the homage to Castro, which will stretch for 13 hours on Monday and take place again on Tuesday, ending in a rally echoing those that Castro addressed on the plaza for most of his time in power.
"It's a terrible sadness. Everyone's feeling it here," said Orlando Alvarez, a 55-year-old jeweler. "Everyone will be there."
On Wednesday, Castro's ashes will begin a three-day procession east across Cuba, retracing the march of his bearded rebel army from the Sierra Maestra mountains to the capital. Castro's ashes will be interred on Sunday in Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city.
Juan Zamorano, Andrea Rodriguez and Christine Armario contributed.
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