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September 20, 2017

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Cuba begins weeklong farewell to leader

HAVANA -- Throngs are set to pay tribute to Fidel Castro at Havana's iconic Revolution Square on Monday, kicking off a weeklong farewell to Cuba's divisive Cold War titan.

After a subdued weekend following his death on Friday, hundreds of thousands are expected to flock to the plaza where Castro would often rail against the U.S. "Yankees" and "empire" during his legendary, marathon speeches.

"You'll see how the people of Cuba really are. You'll see how they are suffering, how they feel about a person they love," said Jorge Guilarte, a 50-year-old bike-taxi driver.

Castro, whose 1959 revolution toppled a dictatorship with the promise of bringing justice and equality to his Caribbean island, was a major 20th century figure.

While some saw him as a socialist hero who brought education and free health care to this country, others labeled him a "dictator" who caused economic hardship and sparked an exodus of Cubans to Florida seeking a better life.

In a sign of changing times, U.S. President Barack Obama visited the plaza during his historic visit to Havana in March, when he became the first U.S. leader since 1928 to step foot in Cuba.

In 2014, Fidel's brother and successor, Raul Castro, announced a diplomatic detente with Obama, who has lifted some trade barriers. On Monday, the first regular flights from the United States to the Cuban capital will resume.

Raul Castro has enacted modest, slow reforms that have slightly opened up the economy. Government opponents hope that Fidel's death will prompt him to launch bolder changes.

Fidel handed power to Raul Castro in 2006 after undergoing emergency intestinal surgery. His cause of death on Friday at age 90 has not been disclosed.

At the Revolution Square, famous for a government building adorned with the face of Argentine-born guerrilla Ernesto "Che" Guevara, organizers installed a giant photo at the National Library of the Fidel Castro carrying a rifle during the revolution that brought him to power.

Officials have yet to confirm whether an urn carrying his ashes will be placed on a platform so that Cubans can file in front of his remains.

"Fidel is the people. Everybody loves him here. I'm expecting the plaza to overflow with people, like when he would come to meet the people," said Ernestina Suarez, a 67-year-old housewife.

"Saying goodbye to Fidel will be beautiful," she said.

Dissidents who were repressed by his regime for years said they were happy that the "dictator" had died, but they called off regular demonstrations on Sunday out of deference to those in mourning.

"We are not happy about the death of a man, a human being. We are happy about the death of dictators," Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, told AFP.

In Miami, where so many flocked in the past decades, Cuban-Americans celebrated the death of the man they called a "tyrant" with street parties throughout the weekend.

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