Fidel Castro
Late Fidel Castro

Reuters

Fidel Castro, the Cuban revolutionary leader who built a communist state on the doorstep of the United States and for five decades defied U.S. efforts to topple him, died on Friday, his younger brother announced to the nation. He was 90.

A towering figure of the second half of the 20th Century, Castro had been in poor health since an intestinal ailment nearly killed him in 2006. He formally ceded power to his younger brother two years later.

Wearing a green military uniform, Cuba’s President Raul Castro appeared on state television to announce his brother’s death.

“At 10.29 at night, the chief commander of the Cuban revolution, Fidel Castro Ruz, died,” he said, without giving a cause of death.

“Ever onward, to victory.”

The streets were quiet in Havana, but some residents reacted with sadness to the news, while in Miami, where many exiles from the Communist government live, a large crowd waving Cuban flags cheered, danced and banged on pots and pans, a video on social media showed.

“I am very upset. Whatever you want to say, he is public figure that the whole world respected and loved,” said Havana student Sariel Valdespino.

Castro’s remains will be cremated, according to his wishes. His brother said details of his funeral would be given on Saturday.

The bearded Fidel Castro took power in a 1959 revolution and ruled Cuba for 49 years with a mix of charisma and iron will, creating a one-party state and becoming a central figure in the Cold War.

He was demonized by the United States and its allies but admired by many leftists around the world, especially socialist revolutionaries in Latin America and Africa.

“I lament the death of Fidel Castro Ruz, leader of the Cuban revolution and emblematic reference of the 20th Century,” Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto said on Twitter.

Transforming Cuba from a playground for rich Americans into a symbol of resistance to Washington, Castro outlasted nine U.S. presidents in power.

He fended off a CIA-backed invasion at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 as well as countless assassination attempts.

His alliance with Moscow helped trigger the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, a 13-day showdown with the United States that brought the world the closest it has been to nuclear war.

Wearing green military fatigues and chomping on cigars for many of his years in power, Castro was famous for long, fist-pounding speeches filled with blistering rhetoric, often aimed at the United States.

At home, he swept away capitalism and won support for bringing schools and hospitals to the poor. But he also created legions of enemies and critics, concentrated among Cuban exiles in Miami who fled his rule and saw him as a ruthless tyrant.

In the end it was not the efforts of Washington and Cuban exiles nor the collapse of Soviet communism that ended his rule. Instead, illness forced him to cede power to his younger brother Raul Castro, provisionally in 2006 and definitively in 2008.

Although Raul Castro always glorified his older brother, he has changed Cuba since taking over by introducing market-style economic reforms and agreeing with the United States in December 2014 to re-establish diplomatic ties and end decades of hostility.

Six weeks later, Fidel Castro offered only lukewarm support for the deal, raising questions about whether he approved of ending hostilities with his longtime enemy.

He lived to witness the visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to Cuba earlier this year, the first trip by a U.S. president to the island since 1928.

Castro did not meet Obama, and days later wrote a scathing column condemning the U.S. president’s “honey-coated” words and reminding Cubans of the many U.S. efforts to overthrow and weaken the Communist government.

In his final years, Fidel Castro no longer held leadership posts. He wrote newspaper commentaries on world affairs and occasionally met with foreign leaders but he lived in semi-seclusion.

His death – which would once have thrown a question mark over Cuba’s future – seems unlikely to trigger a crisis as Raul Castro, 85, is firmly ensconced in power.

Still, the passing of the man known to most Cubans as “El Comandante” – the commander – or simply “Fidel” leaves a huge void in the country he dominated for so long. It also underlines the generational change in Cuba’s communist leadership.

Raul Castro vows to step down when his term ends in 2018 and the Communist Party has elevated younger leaders to its Politburo, including 56-year-old Miguel Diaz-Canel, who is first vice-president and the heir apparent.

Others in their 50s include Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez and economic reform czar Marino Murillo.

The reforms have led to more private enterprise and the lifting of some restrictions on personal freedoms but they aim to strengthen Communist Party rule, not weaken it.

“I don’t think Fidel’s passing is the big test. The big test is handing the revolution over to the next generation and that will happen when Raul steps down,” Cuba expert Phil Peters of the Lexington Institute in Virginia said before Castro’s death.