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Fidel Castro's death caught many in Havana by surprise

HAVANA -- The nightly news had started as usual on Cuban state television when suddenly something changed. 

President Raul Castro appeared, seated before a desk in military uniform and delivered somber news: His brother Fidel Castro had died, nearly 58 years after leading a rebel army to a victory that led to one of the globe’s most durable socialist states.

The president said his brother’s remains would be cremated on Saturday, and closed with his brother’s decades-old slogan: “Toward victory, always.”

Castro’s death caught many people in Havana by surprise.

“There will be no one else like him,” said Mariela Alonso, a 45-year-old doctor who calls the retired Cuban leader “the guide for our people.”

“We will feel his physical absence,” she said.

Mechanic Celestino Acosta, who was sitting on a porch in the capital’s central neighborhood of Vedado, called the news of Castro’s death “a painful blow for everyone.”

In the early hours of Saturday morning, Cuban state television carried special programming celebrating Castro’s life, including footage from years past of Castro giving speeches on revolutionary struggle.

Castro stepped down from the presidency provisionally in 2006 due to a severe illness, and left office permanently two years later.  He was succeeded by his younger brother Raul.

The Cuban government has declared nine days of national mourning, ending when Castro’s remains are interred on Dec. 4 in the eastern city of Santiago -- a city that was key to his early life and his revolution.

Public activities and events will be canceled, and the Cuban flag will fly at half-mast. The Council of State says state radio and television “will maintain informative, patriotic and historic programming.”

State media said Cubans throughout the country will be invited to pay homage to Castro on Monday and Tuesday by signing a “solemn oath of complying with the concept of the revolution.” There will then be a mass gathering in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution, where Castro often addressed huge crowds.

His ashes will make a cross-country tour starting Wednesday from Havana to Santiago, retracing in reverse the route Castro took when the revolution triumphed in 1959.

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