HAVANA — Tens of thousands of Cubans streamed past a memorial to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in Havana on Thursday in a tribute to the island's most important international ally and a close friend of retired leader Fidel Castro.
The long, snaking, single-file line filed through Revolution Square for hours as islanders paid their respects two days after the Venezuelan leader succumbed to cancer.
Some made the sign of the cross or saluted an oversize photo of Chavez, perched above a bed of white flowers and flanked by an honor guard. Others cried "Long live Chavez!" on exiting the memorial.
A few wept.
"We are all here with him. I'm unable to say much. But I do want to say, `Always with Chavez,' " said 47-year-old Violeta Lugo.
Similar scenes played out nationwide.
In the eastern city of Santiago, President Raul Castro placed a white rose in front of a picture of Chavez and snapped off a military salute.
Castro called Chavez an important figure in the history not only of Venezuela but Cuba as well.
"What we were able to achieve with his influence in these few years will not be reversed," Castro said before flying to Caracas for Chavez's funeral. "The Venezuelan people will know how to defend their victories, and we will be with them as we have so far, knee on the ground."
Under Chavez, Venezuela has been a key supporter of Cuba, sending billions of dollars of oil to the island on preferential terms and becoming by far its largest commercial partner. The two countries did $8 billion in trade in 2011, the latest year for which figures are available.
Chavez, who was first elected in 1998, was instrumental in helping Cuba emerge from some of its darkest years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Flags flew at half-staff and official newspapers were publishing in black and white only during two days of mourning in his honor.
Newly named First Vice President Miguel Diaz-Canel, Castro's No. 2, presided over the ceremony in Havana. Also present were members of the diplomatic corps including the ambassadors of Argentina and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which has also been the recipient of Venezuelan oil largesse.
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