by Raimundo Urrechaga
HAVANA, Aug. 8 (Xinhua) -- Many Cubans are too young to remember Fidel Castro's heyday as a revolutionary firebrand and influential elder statesman, yet they admire and look up to the historic figure.
Ten years after retiring from office and just a few days short of his 90th birthday, Castro continues to serve as a role model for Cuban youth, who benefit on a day-to-day basis from his lasting legacies in education, healthcare, sports, science and other areas.
For architecture student Maria de Jesus Gonzalez, Castro is a somewhat paternal presence and genuine celebrity, despite having lived largely out of the limelight for a decade.
"It is difficult to explain what I feel for Fidel Castro, because it is a pure and sincere emotion that goes beyond what we are taught at home or at school about him. Fidel is a beloved family member for Cubans, he's not the authoritarian figure many want to portray," she said.
"He is a source of deep admiration for many Cubans and he transformed this country like no other leader," she added.
Gonzalez said she has always dreamt of meeting the Caribbean leader, who was famed for giving long, passionate and frequent speeches on national and international affairs. The chances now are remote.
After nearly half a century in power, Fidel Castro stepped down as head of state in July 2006 due to a severe illness, making way for his brother Raul. Two years later, he formally retired.
He so rarely appeared in public that occasionally rumors have circulated about his death, only to be followed by news of his meeting with a visiting dignitary or publishing an editorial.
In one of his rare public appearances, Fidel Castro addressed the closing session of the Cuban Communist Party Congress on April 19. In a surprise speech, he backed reforms spearheaded by his successor, Raul, to modernize the Cuban economy.
He also referred to his reaching 90, and the possibility that he may not be around to mark the milestone.
"Soon I will be 90 and my turn (death) will come like everybody else. But the ideas of Cuban communists will live on to prove that if a country works with dignity and fervor, we can produce the necessary goods for our nation," he said.
College student Maylin Marrero, 23, agrees.
"Fidel is old and like any other human being he will die one day, but his ideas have endured for generations and many young people in Cuba want to continue along the path he started many years ago," said Marrero.
The larger-than-life public figure may have faded, but his social achievements, such as instating universal education and healthcare, and building a biotechnology sector envied by many developed countries, continue to bear fruit.
"He is ... an important figure, even though there are people who are against him and people who are not in favor of him," Daylin Crespo, a 29-year-old doctor, told Xinhua.
Fidel Castro is still a source of inspiration for young Cubans, even as they face imminent economic changes and rapid transformations sparked by reforms and the country's restored ties with the United States.
"We must face the future with Fidel's ideas about our country's independence and sovereignty, but we must open up to a whole new world of economic opportunities," said Livan Hierrezuelo, 19.
Castro's 90th birthday is on Aug. 13.