Cuban President Raul Castro on Saturday commemorated the 123rd anniversary of Cuba's War of Independence from Spain, and decorated three of the most senior leaders of the 1959 Revolution.
At a ceremony held in Havana's Capitol building, home of the National Assembly, Castro recalled the day national hero Jose Marti relaunched the independence struggle on Feb. 24, 1895, which eventually freed Cuba from Spanish rule.
In a rare speech, Castro highlighted Marti's determination. In the face of what seemed like insurmountable setbacks, he found alternatives and rallied people together.
"Marti appealed to national unity, articulated the best traditions of the past, without leaving out any of those who were willing to sacrifice and give their lives for a greater cause," Castro said.
Castro also bestowed the title of "Work Hero of the Republic" on three revolutionary veterans who fought alongside Fidel Castro and himself to overthrow dictator Fulgencio Batista: Jose Ramon Machado, current second secretary of the Communist Party, and commanders of the revolution Ramiro Valdes and Guillermo Garcia.
"As a common characteristic of these three liberators of our time, I can cite their loyalty to the revolution and Fidel, their dedication to work, modesty and humility, which have made them worthy of the recognition and the respect of Cubans," Castro said.
Valdes, 85, and Garcia, 90, are the only revolutionary commanders still alive today. Machado, 87, served as the country's first vice president between 2008 and 2013.
All three were previously honored with "Hero of the Republic," the highest praise awarded by the Cuban government.
On Saturday, Castro, 86, was initially set to hand over the presidency to a new leader, but the National Assembly extended his term by almost two months after general elections were pushed back due to the devastating aftermath of Hurricane Irma late last year.
Elections are set to take place on March 11 to choose more than 600 national lawmakers. The new parliament will then convene on April 19 to vote for a new Council of State, including its president.
In December, Castro reiterated his intention to hand over the presidency in April.
"When the National Assembly is constituted, I will have finished my second and last term leading the state and the government, and Cuba will have a new president," Castro said in a speech to lawmakers.
Castro will remain first secretary of the ruling Cuban Communist Party until the organization's next Congress in 2021.