Fidel Castro, whose Cuban revolution turned his Caribbean island into a potent symbol of the world’s greatest ideological and economic divides of the 20th century, has died, Cuban state media announced late Friday. He was 90. The death was announced on Cuban state TV by Castro’s younger brother, Raul, who succeeded his sibling years ago as the country’s leader. The son of a prosperous sugar planter, Castro took power in Cuba on New Year’s Day 1959 promising to share his nation’s wealth with its poorest citizens, who had suffered under the corrupt quarter-century dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Castro, a romantic figure in olive-drab fatigues and combat boots, chomping monstrous cigars through a bushy black beard, became a spiritual beacon for the world’s political far left. To his legion of followers, Castro was a hero who demanded a fair deal for the world’s poor and wasn’t afraid to point his pistol at the powerful to get it. His admirers said he educated, fed and provided health care to his own people, as well as to the poor in other countries, more fairly and generously than the world’s wealthy nations, most notably what he called the “Colossus to the North.” But one of the world’s longest-serving heads of state was as loathed as he was loved. He was among the world’s most repressive leaders, a self-appointed president-for-life who banned free speech, freedom of assembly and a free press and executed or jailed thousands of political opponents. He abolished Christmas as an official holiday for nearly 30 years. While he dispatched Cuban-educated doctors and Cuban-developed vaccines to the poorest corners of Latin America, Cubans in central Havana found pharmacy shelves empty of medicine, and many lived in apartments in which they used buckets in their kitchens as toilets. Castro’s long reign began to unravel July 31, 2006, when he temporarily transferred power to his 75-year-old brother, Raul, after undergoing what he described as intestinal surgery (the precise nature of Castro’s health problems was an official state secret). The transfer of power came just weeks before Castro’s 80th birthday on Aug. 13, and Castro was not seen in public again for nearly four years. He formally resigned on Feb. 19, 2008, in a statement read on national television by a spokesman, ending his 49-year reign and giving George W. Bush the distinction of being the first U.S. president to outlast Castro in power. The National Assembly officially – and unanimously – named Raul Castro, the longtime head of the Cuban armed forces, as Cuba’s new president. The move was seen as deeply anti-climactic, an Earth-shaking political transition that registered barely a tremor, since Castro had gently stage-managed the shift to his brother for almost two years. With almost theatrical relish, Castro taunted 10 successive U.S. presidents, who viewed the Cuban leader variously as a potential courier of Armageddon, a blow-hard nuisance, a dangerous dictator, a fomenter of revolution around Latin America, a serial human rights abuser or an irrelevant sideshow who somehow hung on after the collapse of communism almost everywhere else. All of them maintained a strict trade embargo against the island nation, which Bush, in particular, vigorously tightened and enforced. By the time President Obama, the first U.S. leader elected in the post-Fidel era, announced efforts to re-establish full diplomatic relations with Havana in December 2014, Fidel Castro had virtually vanished from public life. U.S. officials said he played no role in the behind-the scenes negotiations with the Obama administration. As Raul Castro announced his new deal with Washington to the Cuban people, his older brother was apparently too ill to make any public appearances or statements. Tweaking the “imperialists” was always a Fidel Castro passion. He built an enormous public demonstration space – complete with stage lighting and sound – outside the U.S. diplomatic mission on the Malecon, Havana’s main seaside boulevard. There, he regularly led anti-American rallies and delivered the lengthy speeches for which he was famous. He was a particular thorn to President John F. Kennedy, whose clumsy Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in April 1961 by a ragtag group of CIA-trained fighters was a humiliating low point of his presidency. To his benefactors in the Kremlin during the height of the Cold War, Castro was the useful commander of a communist citadel 90 miles south of the United States. That point was drawn in terrifyingly stark terms during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, when Castro allowed the Soviets to base on his soil missiles that could carry nuclear warheads to Washington or New York in minutes. The resulting showdown between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war. Unlike the world’s few remaining communist leaders, Castro did not create monuments to himself or lend his name to streets and buildings. Instead, he erected billboards carrying patriotic slogans of the revolution: “We will overcome!” “Motherland or death!” Under Castro, Havana became something of a Marxist Disneyland – a shiny, happy veneer over something much uglier. Castro personally ordered the restoration of Old Havana, an architectural gem where tourists can savor $300 boxes of Cuban cigars, some of the world’s best music and sweet Havana Club rum – the proceeds of which went to Castro’s revolution. But just a block behind the restored facades, impoverished Cubans lived in crumbling homes on rationed food. Teenage prostitutes in tight spandex openly offered their services to tourists. While many Cubans expressed genuine and deep loyalty to Fidel – he was never called “Castro” in his homeland – others clearly feared a leader who imprisoned tens of thousands of his enemies over the years, often on little more than a whim.