Thousands of Cubans pay respects to late dictator Fidel Castro

Thousands of Cubans walked through Plaza of the Revolution in Havana on Monday to pay their respects to a man who inspired both loyalty and loathing throughout his almost half-century of complete political control of the island.

The memorial, which included a 9-story image of a young Fidel Castro mounted alongside flowers, kicked off a week of services bidding farewell to the longtime dictator.

Uniformed Cuban soldiers fired off 21-gun salutes to mark the start of the services at 9 a.m. from the Morro fort in Havana and from a fort in the eastern city of Santiago, where Castro launched his revolution in 1953.

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One of the first in line was Tania Jimenez, a 53-year-old mathematician who arrived at 4 a.m. carrying a rose.

“Fidel is everything to us, the soul of this country who gave everything, all his life,” she said in tears.

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

"There's a genuine feeling of mourning, that's not a formality, that's not showy, that's not outward-focused, but rather completely intimate," former National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon said on state television Sunday.

However, for some young Cubans, Fidel’s death barely registered into their daily lives.

“Even if I’m obligated to go, I’m not doing it,” 20-year-old student Yankemell Barrera said, adding that the ex-leader, who gave up leadership to his younger brother Raul about 10 years ago, wasn’t a strong presence in his life.

He said studying for finals would be a better use of his time.

The ashes of the 90-year-old former president did not appear to be on display inside the monument. Many Cubans were given time off from work to attend the memorial and virtually all schools and government offices were closing for the homage to Castro, which will stretch for 13 hours on Monday and take place again on Tuesday, ending in a rally echoing those that Castro addressed on the plaza for most of his time in power.

"It's a terrible sadness. Everyone's feeling it here," said Orlando Alvarez, a 55-year-old jeweler. "Everyone will be there."

On Wednesday, Castro's ashes will begin a three-day procession east across Cuba, retracing the march of his bearded rebel army from the Sierra Maestra mountains to the capital. Castro's ashes will be interred on Sunday in Santa Ifigenia cemetery in Santiago, Cuba's second-largest city.

Monday also marked the arrival of the first U.S. commercial flight to Havana just three months after the first flight to Cuba in five decades landed in the central city of Santa Clara.

Several airlines began routes to other Cuban cities earlier this year; Monday morning's flight was the first of the new Havana-bound service and the first of four daily flights American Airlines plans out of Miami International.

The Miami Herald reports JetBlue will start twice-daily service from Orlando on Tuesday and Fort Lauderdale on Wednesday. On Thursday, Spirit Airlines and Frontier Airlines begin flying from Fort Lauderdale and Delta flights will take off from Miami, New York's JFK airport and Atlanta. Southwest starts daily service from Fort Lauderdale on Dec. 12.

More than 3 million tourists visited Cuba last year, and the government expects even more this season as interest explodes due to detente between Havana and Washington.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.