By Diego Oré and Sarah Marsh
SANTIAGO, Cuba (Reuters) - President Raul Castro led tens of thousands of Cubans on Saturday in a pledge to defend the socialist legacy of his brother Fidel Castro, who died last week aged 90 and will be interred in the city where they launched the Cuban Revolution.
But Fidel Castro's image will not be immortalized with statues nor will public places be named after him, Raul Castro said, in keeping with his older brother's wishes.
"This is the unconquered Fidel who calls us with his example," the president, dressed in his four-star general's uniform, told a crowd that had burst into chants of "I am Fidel."
"Yes, we will overcome any obstacle, turmoil or threat in the building of socialism in Cuba," the 85-year-old Castro said in a speech before Santiago's packed central plaza.
His ashes will be entombed near the remains of Cuba's independence hero Jose Marti in a simple ceremony beginning on Sunday at 7 a.m. (1200 GMT), concluding nine days of national mourning.
Raul Castro was joined on the stage by leftist foreign dignitaries and the Cuban political leadership to bid farewell to the man known to most Cubans as "El Comandante" - the commander - or simply "Fidel."
"The loss of El Comandante does not mean we will go stagnant," said Ansel Hechavarria, 61, a mechanic hoisting a large Cuban flag just before the 90-minute ceremony began. "We are going to continue his legacy."
After two days of events in Havana, Castro's funeral cortege departed on a three-day, 600-mile (1,000-km) journey east, retracing the route that the triumphant, bearded rebels took upon overthrowing the U.S.-backed Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
REJECTING 'CULT OF PERSONALITY'
Raul Castro said "millions" had come out to pay tribute. Crowds have greeted the caravan along the whole route, with volunteers sprucing up bridges and houses with fresh paint in Castro's honor.
Castro's critics have kept a low profile during the official nine-day mourning period that ends Sunday, but dissident writer Yoani Sanchez took to Twitter to criticize the hagiographical tributes.
"The reality has gone from 'delirious' to 'hallucinatory,' like a nightmare that does not end and worsens if we turn on the TV," she said.
Although billboards with Castro quotes stand throughout the country and his portrait hangs from numerous government buildings and in private homes, there are no statues or landmarks named after him.
"The leader of the revolution rejected any manifestation of a cult of personality," Raul Castro said, adding that a law banning such homages would be presented to the National Assembly when it meets later this month.
With his brother at his side, Castro began his revolution on July 26, 1953, with a failed assault on the Moncada barracks in the eastern city of Santiago.
He went on to build a Soviet-sponsored Communist state 90 miles (145 km) from the United States and survived a half century of U.S. attempts to topple or kill him.
Castro's socialist government survived the fall of the Berlin Wall, but at the cost of more than a decade of great economic hardship that was relieved by the largesse of his political disciple, the late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
"In the unipolar world, the one of transnationals that arose after the fall of the socialist bloc, the permanent lesson of Fidel is that, yes, it can done, man is capable of overcoming the most difficult conditions," Raul Castro said.
Over the past two decades a clutch of leftist governments rose to power in Latin America inspired by his ideas and fierce opposition to the United States. Several have now been defeated at the ballot box.
High-profile friends of Castro, including Bolivian President Evo Morales and former Brazilian Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff, arrived for the evening sendoff.
Lula was a close ally of Cuba when he was president from 2003 to 2010, as was his successor Rousseff until she was impeached this year.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Acosta; Writing by Daniel Trotta and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Tom Brown and Mary Milliken)