December 3, 2016 / 4:21 PM / 8 months ago

Castro's last goal? A soccer field for neighborhood kids

3 Min Read

The caravan carrying the ashes of Fidel Castro pass along a street in Bayamo, Cuba, December 3, 2016 on its way to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.Enrique De La Osa

HAVANA (Reuters) - Fidel Castro is remembered around the world as a charismatic revolutionary or a ruthless tyrant, but in his neighborhood he was also a friendly old man who used his influence to build a soccer field for kids two weeks before his death.

Castro, who led Cuba's 1959 revolution and for five decades defied U.S. efforts to topple him, died on Nov. 25 at age 90, a decade after ceding power to his brother Raul Castro.

Castro lived on the western edge of Havana in a large complex hidden from view by trees and adjacent to a typical Cuban neighborhood called Jaimanitas.

Horse-drawn carts pass through occasionally and people socialize 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 soccer field built for youth in Jaimanitas, where he periodically stopped his car to talk with the people, according to neighbors.

On the surface, support for Castro seems particularly strong in Jaimanitas, where two women who spoke to Reuters teared up when asked about him a week after his death.On Nov. 9, Castro stopped his car in the neighborhood to greet kids playing soccer in the street, according to several neighbors who spoke separately.

The caravan carrying the ashes of Fidel Castro pass along a street in Bayamo, Cuba, December 3, 2016 on its way to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.Enrique De La Osa

"There's no other place to play. He was interested in this, asking, 'What do you mean there's nowhere to play soccer?' 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 his car alongside his wife, Dalia Soto del Valle.

The caravan carrying the ashes of Fidel Castro pass along a street in Bayamo, Cuba, December 3, 2016 on its way to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba.Enrique De La Osa

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 soccer field for us, and he did it. They're working on it now."

Interior Ministry officials cut short a Reuters visit to the neighborhood, saying the area was off limits to journalists, but not before neighbors could express appreciation for one last order from "El Comandante" (The Commander).

"And just like that it was done," said Miriam LaValle, 62, a retired telecommunications worker. "He kept his word."

Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Marc Frank; Editing by Mary Milliken

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