Supporters saw Fidel Castro as a tireless defender of the poor; critics say he drove his country into economic ruin.
Fidel Castro is remembered around the world as a charismatic revolutionary or a ruthless tyrant, but in his neighbourhood, he was also a friendly old man who used his influence to build a football field for kids, two weeks before his death.
Castro, who led Cuba’s 1959 revolution and for five decades defied US efforts to topple him, died on November 25 at age 90, a decade after ceding power to his brother Raul Castro.
The revolutionary leader’s ashes arrived in his hometown of Santiago on Saturday. He will be laid to rest at 7am local time on Sunday in Santiago’s cemetery next to Cuba’s independence hero Jose Marti.
Castro lived on the western edge of Havana, in a large complex hidden from view by trees and adjacent to a typical Cuban neighbourhood called Jaimanitas.
Horse-drawn carts pass through occasionally and people socialise outside the dispensary for basic goods on the government’s ration card. The modest homes are a little worn.
One of Castro’s final acts was to order a football pitch built for youth in Jaimanitas, where he periodically stopped his car to talk to the people, according to neighbours.
On the surface, support for Castro seems particularly strong in Jaimanitas, where two women who spoke to Reuters news agency teared up when asked about him a week after his death.
On November 9, Castro stopped his car in the neighbourhood to greet kids playing football in the street, according to several neighbours.
“There’s no other place to play. He was interested in this, asking, ‘What do you mean there’s nowhere to play [football]?’ And the next day they were clearing the field,” said Rafael Sierra, 56, a veteran of Cuba’s 1980s involvement in the war in Angola, who said he worked for Castro in logistics.
Jennifer Diaz, a 14-year-old ninth-grader, was able to get a picture of Castro. She proudly displayed the image on her iPad of Castro seated in the back seat of his car alongside his wife, Dalia Soto del Valle.
Yossiel Calvo, a 13-year-old eighth-grader, grew excited when talking about his brush with Castro.
“I spoke with him about a month ago,” he said. “He said he was going to make a [football] field for us, and he did it. They’re working on it now.”
Interior Ministry officials cut short a Reuters visit to the neighbourhood, saying the area was off limits to journalists, but not before neighbours could express appreciation for one last order from “El Comandante”.
“And just like that it was done,” said Miriam LaValle, 62, a retired telecommunications worker. “He kept his word.”