TUXPAN, Mexico (Reuters) - Now frail from illness and out of sight, Cuban President Fidel Castro was remembered on Saturday as a dashing young revolutionary who set sail 50 years ago from this sleepy Mexican port to a place in history.
In the stuff of leftist legend, Castro and a band of armed comrades left the Gulf coast town of Tuxpan in the leaky “Granma” yacht for Cuba in the early hours of November 26, 1956 to start the revolution that ousted dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The 82 insurgents, including left-wing icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara, overcame rough seas to land in Cuba a week later and against the odds overthrew the Batista government in 1959.
After ruling uninterrupted since then, Castro stepped down in July following stomach surgery and handed power to his brother Raul while he recovers.
Images of a gaunt-looking Castro, 80, on Cuban television last month are a far cry from the stocky fighter who left Tuxpan without the heavy beard that later became his trademark.
“He never got tired, especially mentally. He was always looking to the future, to tomorrow, organising everything,” said Mexico City gun dealer Antonio “The Friend” del Conde who bought Granma from an American couple for the Cubans and loaded it with weapons and fuel.
Castro, who secretly trained his revolutionaries for months in the Mexican highlands before heading for Cuba, slept only one or two hours a night and had a hearty appetite, said Del Conde, also 80.
The yacht, only supposed to hold a handful of people, was said to have been named after the grandmother of its original owner. It has since given its name to Cuba’s Communist Party newspaper.
Town authorities in Tuxpan paved streets and installed drainage in 1988 when Castro visited. But his bad health prevented him from travelling for a ceremony in the town on Saturday to mark his voyage.
“It’s a real shame he can’t be here. He represents the strength of a person who holds onto their ideals, who will not be moved,” said Dalia Cuervo, director of the town’s museum.
Schoolchildren, many in cheerleader uniforms, waved Mexican and Cuban flags as dignitaries from both countries gave speeches praising Cuba’s communist revolution.
Critics accuse Castro of human rights abuses and trapping his people in poverty, but he is admired by others in Latin America for standing up to a U.S. embargo and improving health care and education in the Caribbean island.
Rumoured to have cancer despite official denials, Castro has made no public appearances since July. It is not clear whether he will appear at a military parade in Cuba on December 2 to mark the 50th anniversary of his landing.
Cuba’s military attache in Mexico, Lt-Col Luis Molina, was defiant. “The force of the revolution is even greater because it’s being taken forward by the youth,” he said on the balcony of a waterside house where the Granma left from.
A Cuban musician sang protest songs and fireworks exploded in celebration.
Time appears to have distorted memories in Tuxpan. Stories abound from townsfolk about guitar-playing Cubans flirting with girls in 1956 and partying in bars before they set off.
But scholars say that version of events is untrue.
“Fidel’s group was discreet, and he led his movement with utmost discretion,” said local historian Obed Zamora.
A Tuxpan fisherman said he remembers seeing rifles for the Cubans stockpiled in a house, but Del Conde said the guns were never kept there.