SANTIAGO DE CUBA, CUBA — Longtime Cuban leader Fidel Castro's ashes were buried here early Sunday during a private, secretive funeral ceremony in a cemetery along the country's southeastern coast.
Despite the 7 a.m. hour, rows of people gathered along the streets outside the Santa Ifigenia cemetery where Castro's ashes were interred alongside the remains of other past Cuban figures, such as war of independence hero José Martí.
The area surrounding the cemetery had seemingly been groomed in anticipation of the expected crowds. Nearby apartment buildings boasted fresh coats of pastel green and pink paint, and a stretch of land next to the cemetery had been cleared and landscaped with young trees and a cement path. Along the road, new-looking color signs with messages like "Por Siempre Fidel" (Forever Fidel) had been installed.
Three lines of people blocked the public and press from entering the road leading to the cemetery: a group of young people holding posters of Castro and wearing "¡Ordene!" T-shirts, a thin row of military members in green, and a final, larger wall of people working security in plainclothes.
Even an hour after Castro's ashes rode by in a military caravan, a few hundred people stood in front of the human barrier in the hot morning sun, chanting popular rallying cries such as "Viva Fidel!" and the occasional "Viva Raúl!" — praise of Fidel's brother, who now leads the country.
Among the crowds, tourists and members of the foreign media snapped photos and recorded small circles of locals as they sang their love for the late president.
But those outside the cemetery were unsure who attended the funeral or what happened inside.
"It's a secret. I don't know," said 29-year-old Santiago native Jorge Duharte, a former cook who arrived at around 8 a.m. to see if he could get into the cemetery after the funeral to get a glimpse of Castro's resting place.
"I loved him a lot," Duharte said. "He was a good man."
Sunday's display was tiny in comparison to an organized mass rally for Castro on Saturday night in Santiago's Antonio Maceo Revolution square. More than 20,000 people carrying Cuban flags and enlarged photos of Castro assembled to hear government officials and Raúl Castro speak about "el Comandante."
Foreign leaders, including Venezuela's Nicolás Maduro and Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe, also attended the celebration, and on Sunday dignitaries watched as the sitting Cuban president interred his brother's ashes with one final salute.
Since Castro's death last weekend, Cuba has been in an official state of mourning. His ashes were escorted across the country, from Havana to Santiago, where his socialist revolution began in the 1950s.
Love for Castro — who remained in power for nearly 50 years — is not widespread outside Cuba, though. Many have called him a dictator who disregarded human rights and caused the Cuban people to suffer. Cuban-Americans took to the streets in Miami after news first broke of his death, celebrating the end of a man they had long despised.
By the time the road to the cemetery reopened, only about 100 people, many of them foreigners, remained and walked toward Castro's resting place. The crowd was again blocked by security once beyond the cemetery's white gates, but a small group of people could be seen surrounding a large rock with a simple plaque on its face inscribed with one word: Fidel.
Meanwhile, life in Santiago appeared to go on.
On the nearby Paseo de Martí, a busy road that cuts east to west through the city, Cubans shot by on motorcycles as the smell of exhaust saturated the hot air. A vendor sold candles and fresh flowers, and men gathered on park benches under trees to chat.
Castro had been buried only a few hours, yet much seemed the same in the city where his revolution began decades ago.