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World

Fidel Castro's Tightly Orchestrated Journey Draws Huge Crowds

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's go to Cuba next. Nine days of national mourning for the death of Fidel Castro continue. A military convoy is escorting the ex-leader's ashes through towns and cities and is now nearing the last leg of a four-day, 500-mile trek across that island. As NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, Castro's final journey, tightly orchestrated and packed with revolutionary fervor, is drawing huge crowds.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Blanca Rosa Hernandez stood patiently for hours in the main park in Cienfuegos, Cuba, to pay her final respects to the man she says was loved by all.

BLANCA ROSA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "He was one of a kind, a really good man," says the 77-year-old former schoolteacher. The box carrying Castro's ashes encased in glass rides atop a flatbed trailer surrounded by white flowers. It's slowly being pulled eastward across the country, retracing in reverse the former rebel leader's victory tour after the fall of the U.S.-backed dictator in 1959. Hernandez says she clearly remembers that day when Castro and his band of bearded fighters arrived in Cienfuegos.

HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Fidel spoke to all of us, greeting us," she says. "We just kept applauding and applauding." Hernandez then worked in one of Castro's literacy crusades where she taught four adults to read and write.

HUMBERTO MADERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: Eighty-year-old Humberto Madero, who's also been waiting in the town square for the procession to pass, says he was one of those poor sugar cane cutters who before 1959 could only write a few words.

MADERO: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "Like the L with the A for la and the M with the ma for mama, that was about all I knew. Thanks to Fidel, I can read, and I've lived long and well," he says. Such tributes have been nonstop since Castro's passing, many spontaneous at public gatherings, others canned and broadcast during nonstop state TV and radio-controlled coverage where little is left to chance.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).

KAHN: As the wait for Castro's ashes turns into hours, a small police car repeatedly drives through the streets, instructing the huge crowd to be orderly and disciplined. Soon, officials announce the convoy is approaching, and the huge crowd falls silent. A wave of applause rolls up the street.

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: The procession stops at the head of the park, Castro's ashes now in full view. The crowd begins to chant.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Chanting in Spanish).

KAHN: "I am Fidel. I am Fidel," many with tears streaming down their cheeks. The convoy lurches forward and leaves, and the crowd, within minutes, is soon gone too. The city reverts back to normal and the reality of Cuba today, much of it stuck in a stagnant economic past.

Horse-drawn carriages remain a mainstay of Cienfuegos' transportation system. More than a half century of one-party control has left the economy here in shambles. Small but painfully slow openings that now allow for private businesses has helped some, as well as a recent boom in tourism. A cruise ship now docks regularly at Cienfuegos' seaport. Rachel Ortegas quit her job as a government agronomist to sell Cuban ceramic trinkets to tourists. She makes four times now what the state was paying her.

RACHEL ORTEGAS: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "One day I would love to go on a cruise ship like that," she says, "but for us Cubans, it seems impossible." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Cienfuegos, Cuba. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.