SAN ANTONIO DE LOS BANOS Cuba All that's missing is the beard.
An 8-year-old Cuban boy who likes to dress up as Fidel Castro got to meet his idol after Cuba's 88-year-old retired leader invited him and his family to his Havana home for a chat.
"I felt a lot of emotion upon seeing Fidel," Marlon Mendez told Reuters on Monday from his home near Havana. "The whole family hugged him. It was my dream to meet Fidel, and I did it. ... My mother was shaking."
Marlon and his family went to visit Castro on Aug. 16, upon the invitation of the retired leader who is revered by some and detested by others for leading the Cuban revolution of 1959 and remaining in power for 49 years.
The boy likes to dress in green fatigues, army boots and cap as Castro once did. Marlon wore the costume to his meeting with Castro, but without Castro's trademark beard and cigar. Castro was frequently seen puffing on a Havana until he quit smoking in 1985.
Marlon was first featured on Cuban television on Aug. 12, a day before Castro turned 88. His bedroom wall is decorated with dozens of pictures of Fidel, in contrast to the bed made with Snoopy sheets.
After Marlon appeared in the media in his Fidel costume, first on Cuban television and later in Reuters photographs, his family received the invitation.
Marlon showed off pictures of his meeting with Castro and a hand-written note in which the aging revolutionary referred to "my great friend Marlon Mendez."
The boy's grandmother, Maria Elvira Hernandez, said they talked about agriculture and Venezuela, Cuba's close socialist ally.
"Eight-eight years are 88 years. But a lot of 88-year-olds would like to be like him," Hernandez said. "We want Fidel around for a lot longer."
While many Cubans love or respect Castro for standing up to the United States and leading the one-party state for so long, others dismiss him as a dictator.
Due to failing health, Castro handed power to his younger brother Raul Castro, at first provisionally in 2006 and then permanently in 2008. In retirement, Fidel Castro has traded his habitual military uniform for a track suit. He has mostly withdrawn from public view, occasionally writing columns or receiving foreign leaders.
(Reporting by Enrique de la Osa, Rodrigo Gutierrez and Nelson Acosta; Writing by Daniel Trotta; Editing by David Gregorio)