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White House names officials to attend Castro's funeral as leftist leaders gather in Cuba

Venezuela's first lady Cilia Flores, from left, her husband President Nicolas Maduro, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales, visit the memorial site for Fidel Castro at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Schools and government offices will be closed Tuesday for a second day of homage to Fidel Castro, with the day ending in a rally on the wide plaza where the Cuban leader delivered fiery speeches to mammoth crowds in the years after he seized power.At left is Venezuela's First Lady Cilia Flores. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Venezuela's first lady Cilia Flores, from left, her husband President Nicolas Maduro, and Bolivia's President Evo Morales, visit the memorial site for Fidel Castro at Revolution Plaza in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2016. Schools and government offices will be closed Tuesday for a second day of homage to Fidel Castro, with the day ending in a rally on the wide plaza where the Cuban leader delivered fiery speeches to mammoth crowds in the years after he seized power.At left is Venezuela's First Lady Cilia Flores. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)  (Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

How do you pay your respects to a person who has made a point of antagonizing the United States for so long?

In the case of Barack Obama and the service for late Cuban President Fidel Castro, you send a high-ranking presidential adviser and the top diplomat to Cuba.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said that deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes and Jeffrey DeLaurentis – who  is awaiting Senate confirmation to be U.S. ambassador to Cuba – would represent the United States at Castro's funeral on Sunday.

Earnest emphasized that the two are not part of a formal delegation to the service, but the presence of  shows a commitment to an "ongoing, future-oriented relationship with the Cuban people." 

Schools and government offices were closed Tuesday for a second day of homage to Fidel Castro, with the day ending in a rally on the wide plaza where the Cuban leader delivered fiery speeches to mammoth crowds in the years after he seized power.

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Hundreds of thousands of Cubans have been bidding farewell to Castro, pledging allegiance to his socialist ideology and paying tribute before images of the leader as a young guerrilla gazing out over the country he would come to rule for nearly a half century.

On Tuesday they were joined by two of Castro's firmest ideological allies, presidents Nicolás Maduro of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, who spent several moments paying their respects before a picture of Castro as a young, bearded rebel.

"Cuba is going through a moment of profound shock," Morales said when he arrived the previous evening. "I came to be present during a moment of pain from the loss of my brother, my friend."

Cuban state media reported that an urn containing Castro's ashes was being kept in a room at the Defense Ministry where his younger brother and successor, Raúl Castro, and top Communist Party officials paid tribute the previous evening.

Lines stretched for hours outside Havana's Plaza of the Revolution, the heart of government power. In Havana and across the island, people signed condolence books and an oath of loyalty to Castro's sweeping May 2000 proclamation of the Cuban revolution as an unending battle for socialism, nationalism and an outsize role for the island on the world stage.

"I feel a deep sadness, but immense pride in having had him near," said Ana Beatriz Pérez, a 50-year-old medical researcher who was advancing in the slow-moving line with the help of crutches. "His physical departure gives us strength to continue advancing in his ideology. This isn't going away, because we are millions."

"His death is another revolution," said her husband, Fidel Díaz, who predicted that it will prompt many to "rediscover the ideas of the commander for the new generations."

Tribute sites were set up in hundreds of places across the island as the government urged Cubans to reaffirm their belief in a socialist, single-party system that in recent years has struggled to maintain the fervor that was widespread at the triumph of the 1959 revolution.

Many mourners came on their own accord, but thousands were sent in groups by the communist government, which still employs about 80 percent of the working people in Cuba despite the growth of the private sector under Raúl.

Inside the memorial, thousands walked through three rooms with near-identical displays featuring the 1962 Alberto Korda photograph of the young Castro in the Sierra Maestra mountains, bouquets of white flowers and an array of Castro's medals against a black backdrop, framed by honor guards of soldiers and children in school uniforms. The ashes of the 90-year-old former president did not appear to be on display.

Signs read: "The Cuban Communist Party is the only legitimate heir of the legacy and authority of the commander in chief of the Cuban Revolution, comrade Fidel Castro."

"Goodbye, commander. Your ideas remain here with us," 64-year-old retiree Etelbina Pérez said between sobs, dabbing at her eyes with a brown handkerchief. "I feel great pain over his death. I owe my entire life to him. He brought me out of the mountains. I was able to study thanks to him."

The scene was played out on a smaller scale at countless places across the country.

After 10 years of leadership by Raúl Castro, a relatively camera-shy and low-key successor, Cuba has found itself riveted once again by the words and images of the man who dominated the lives of generations. 

Since his death on Friday night, state-run newspapers, television and radio have run wall-to-wall tributes to Fidel Castro, broadcasting non-stop footage of his speeches, interviews and foreign trips, interspersed with adulatory remembrances by prominent Cubans.

The reception to the news of Castro's death among Cuban-Americans in Miami, on the other hand, has been joyous, and a number of politicians have been careful not to appear to be praising the communist strongman too eagerly.

In announcing the administration figures attending the service, Earnest was at pains to point out that Rhodes was already scheduled to be on the island this week. He said that Rhodes' and DeLaurentis' attendance is "an appropriate way to show respect," while acknowledging the differences that remain between the two nations.

Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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