HAVANA — On the first day of a week-long series of remembrances for former Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, thousands of people Monday walked past a memorial on the same spot where he delivered many legendary speeches.
Cuban officials arranged a collection of photos, flowers and writings by Castro at the top of the Plaza of the Revolution, the massive square surrounded by a monumental image of fellow revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara and a statue of Cuba's original independence leader José Martí.
The writings at the site include Castro's defenses of his 1959 revolution and the communist party in Cuba.
Castro, who died Friday at the age of 90, delivered countless speeches from that perch throughout his five-decade rule over the island. On Monday, it served as a quiet spot for Cubans to walk past and pay their respects.
Octavio Rivero, 61, a structural engineer who boasts that he met Castro twice, brought his 11-year-son to show him how many people were there to pay homage to El Comandante.
"We had the privilege of living in the era of a man who was truly historic, so it was important for him to see this," Rivero said as he waited in the blocks-long line, his wife holding a bouquet of flowers. "Yes, he made his mistakes. But what U.S. president hasn't made his mistakes?"
The procession would run late into the night Monday, starting again Tuesday morning. Officials plan a ceremony here Tuesday night before Castro's ashes — he had wanted to be cremated — are slowly transported to the eastern city of Santiago to be interred Sunday near Marti's grave.
In a popular area of Old Havana, Mirta Oramas arrived at a neighborhood physiotherapy clinic to sign a book of condolences for Castro’s death. A black-and-white photo of Castro standing pensive in the Sierra Maestra lies next to the book. A portrait of Che hangs on one of the walls.
Oramas, 63, said she is sad about Castro’s death. She credits him for her children's education, saying he was able to connect with the Cuban people. “His words reached the heart of every Cuban,” she said outside the clinic.
The old buildings around the clinic don’t display Cuban flags on the windows. And although some passersby look into the quiet hall of the clinic and keep walking, every now and then one or two Cubans enter in silence and sign the book. Sometimes the group is bigger.
Dachiel Gomez, 28, who works at the clinic, said nearly 700 Cubans had signed, as did many foreigners. He explained that places like this have been set up in Cuban neighborhoods so people who can’t get to the main plaza are still able to sign a condolences book. He said even children came in to sign.
“The people are sad,” Gomez added.
In the nearby Parque de la Fraternidad, a busy area where people waited for buses to go home from work, Liosbel Fernandez said he has already signed a book near his workplace.
He said Castro defended social justice during the revolution and that he owes him his years as a student and even his life. Fernandez said he was born with a heart problem, and because of Castro’s public health care policy, he got surgery at age 3.
“Thanks to him I can say that I am alive,” he said.