Cuban president Raul Castro has led tens of thousands of citizens in a pledge to defend the socialist legacy of his brother Fidel Castro, who died last week aged 90.
His ashes will be interred in the city where they launched the Cuban Revolution on Sunday but Fidel’s image will not be immortalised with statues nor will public places be named after him, the president said, noting that this was in keeping with his older brother’s wishes.
“This is the unconquered Fidel who calls us with his example,” Raul Castro, dressed in his four-star general’s uniform, told a crowd that had burst into chants of “I am Fidel.”
"Yes, we will overcome any obstacle, turmoil or threat in the building of socialism in Cuba, " the 85-year-old said in a speech before Santiago's packed central plaza.
Fidel Castro's ashes will be entombed near the remains of Cuba's independence hero Jose Marti in a simple ceremony beginning on Sunday at 7am local time (noon GMT), concluding nine days of national mourning.
Raul Castro was joined on the stage by leftist foreign dignitaries and the Cuban political leadership to bid farewell to the man known to most Cubans as “El Comandante” - the commander.
“The loss of El Comandante does not mean we will go stagnant,” said Ansel Hechavarria (61), a mechanic hoisting a large Cuban flag just before the 90-minute ceremony began. “We are going to continue his legacy.”
After two days of events in Havana, Fidel Castro's funeral cortege departed on a three-day, 1,000km journey east, retracing the route that the triumphant, bearded rebels took upon overthrowing the US-backed Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Raul Castro said “millions” had come out to pay tribute. Crowds have greeted the caravan along the whole route, with volunteers sprucing up bridges and houses with fresh paint in the late leader’s honour.
Fidel Castro’s critics have kept a low profile during the official nine-day mourning period which ends Sunday, but dissident writer Yoani Sanchez criticised the tributes.
“The reality has gone from ‘delirious’ to ‘hallucinatory,’ like a nightmare that does not end and worsens if we turn on the TV,” she said in a Twitter post.
Although billboards with Fidel Castro quotes stand throughout the country and his portrait hangs from numerous government buildings and in private homes, there are no statues or landmarks named after him.
“The leader of the revolution rejected any manifestation of a cult of personality,” Raul Castro said, adding that a law banning such homages would be presented to the National Assembly when it meets later this month.
With his brother at his side, Fidel Castro began his revolution on July 26th, 1953, with a failed assault on the Moncada barracks in the eastern city of Santiago.
He went on to build a Soviet-sponsored Communist state 145 km from the United States and survived a half century of US attempts to topple or kill him.
His socialist government survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, but at the cost of more than a decade of great economic hardship that was relieved by the largesse of his political disciple, the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
“In the unipolar world, the one of transnationals that arose after the fall of the socialist bloc, the permanent lesson of Fidel is that, yes, it can done, man is capable of overcoming the most difficult conditions,” Raul Castro said.
Over the past two decades a clutch of leftist governments rose to power in Latin America inspired by his ideas and fierce opposition to the United States. Several have now been defeated at the ballot box.
High-profile friends of Castro, including Bolivian president Evo Morales and former Brazilian presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, arrived for the evening sendoff.
Lula was a close ally of Cuba when he was president from 2003 to 2010, as was his successor Ms Rousseff until she was impeached this year.