Fidel Castro, former leader of Cuba, dies at age 90

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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. He was 90.

A towering figure of the second half of the 20th Century, Castro stuck to his ideology beyond the collapse of Soviet communism and remained widely respected in parts of the world that had struggled against colonial rule.

He had been in poor health since an intestinal ailment nearly killed him in 2006. He formally ceded power to his younger brother Raul Castro two years later.

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Fidel Castro's life in photos
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Fidel Castro's life in photos
The caption describing Fidel Castro in his 1945 high school yearbook reads: "Distinguished student and a fine athlete. Very popular. Will study law and we have no doubt he will have a brilliant future." (AP Photo)
Castro, the young anti-Batista Guerilla leader, center, is seen with his brother Raul Castro, left, and Camilo Cienfuegos, right, while operating in the mountains of eastern Cuba, March 14, 1957. (AP Photo/Andrew St. George)
Cuban rebel leader Fidel Castro and his son, Fidel Jr., are shown in their apartment in the Hilton Hotel in Havana, Cuba, February 6, 1959. (AP Photo)
Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro (seated above numbers 732) rides in public bus from presidential Palace to the University of Havana stadium for the second half of a two part address, March 16, 1959. Castro first addressed crowd in front of the palace, later continued his speech at the stadium. The occasion was the second anniversary of the March 13, 1957 invasion of the palace by university students in attempt to assassinate then President Fulgencio Batista. Twenty-seven students were killed during the attack on the palace. (AP Photo)
Fidel Castro, Prime Minister of Cuba, smiles as he walks into the Cuban Embassy in Washington, D.C., after an enthusiastic reception at the National Airport on April 15, 1959. The leader of the Cuban revolution is on an unofficial visit to the United States. (AP Photo)
Fidel Castro, Cuban Prime Minister, answers a question from a panel on the NBC television program, "Meet the Press," in Washington April 19, 1959. He said at one point that Cuba would be committed to the West in event of any struggle between Democracy and Communism. At left is Ned Brooks, the moderator. (AP Photo)
Cuban Premier Fidel Castro extends his hand as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly in New York, September 26, 1960. (AP Photo)
Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro replied to President Kennedy's naval blockade over Cuban radio and television, October 23, 1962. This picture of Castro during his speech was copied from a television monitor in Key West, Florida. To defuse the Cuban missile crisis, President Kennedy promised not to invade the island nation, but newly declassified documents show he later retreated from the pledge, fearing Cuba could become an `invulnerable base.'' The change of heart meant that the U.S.-Soviet understandings that resolved the 1962 crisis were never made permanent. (AP Photo)
Cuban Premier Fidel Castro gets ready to pitch to the first batter as he opens the 1965 National Baseball Championship at Havana's Latin-American Park, in Cuba, on January 31, 1965. (AP Photo)
Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro responds to a question from American NBC reporter Barbara Walters during a news conference granted to members of the U.S. press covering Senator George McGovern's trip to Cuba, in Havana, May 7, 1975. (AP Photo)
King Jigme Singye Wangchuk of Bhutan, left, and Cuban President Fidel Castro stand for the playing of the National Anthems of the two countries as the King arrived for the upcoming 6th Non-Aligned Meeting in Havana, Cuba, Saturday, Sept. 1, 1979. (AP Photo)
Cuban President Fidel Castro waves to a crowd in Montego Bay, Jamaica, after being introduced by Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley during a state visit by the Cuban leader Fidel Castro in September 1977. Manley led Jamaica to the forefront of the developing world's non-aligned movement in the 1970s. (AP Photo)
FILE -- This is a July 10, 1977 file photo of Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro taken in Havana, Cuba. The National Security Agency, in declassified documents released Tuesday August 19, 1997 reported that Castro feared the United States would use the Kennedy assassination as an excuse to oust his communist government. An ``emotional and uneasy'' Fidel Castro mobilized his armed forces and went on Cuban national television after President Kennedy's assassination out of fear the United States would blame him and invade in retaliation, government documents say. (AP Photo/File)
U.S. Presidential candidate Jesse Jackson, left, and Cuban President Fidel Castro shake hands as they say goodbye in Havana, Cuba, June 27, 1984. At center is Juanita Vera, Castro's personal interpreter. Jackson will return to Havana after his trip to Nicaragua to pick up the released American prisoners to take with him to Washington, D.C. Jackson and Castro met over two days seeking solutions to better U.S.-Cuba relations. (AP Photo/Scott Applewhite)
Cuban Prime Minister Fidel Castro exhales cigar smoke during a March, 1985 interview at his presidential palace in Havana. Castro, a Havana attorney who fought for the poor, overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista's government on Jan. 1, 1959. He defeated a U.S. attempt, known as The Bay of Pigs invasion, to overthrow his revolutionary regime on April 19, 1961. Afterwards, Cuba armed itself with Soviet nuclear missiles aimed at the United States which almost brought the world to the brink of nuclear disaster. Castro's communist regime still exists in Cuba, 90 miles from the U.S., at the close of the 20th century. (AP Photo/ Charles Tasnadi)
Cuban President Fidel Castro, right, and African leader Nelson Mandela gesture during the celebration of the "Day of the Revolution" in Matanzas Saturday, July 27, 1991. Cubans celebrate 38th anniversary of the revolution. (AP Photo/Alejandro Balaguer)
Cuban President Fidel Castro holds on to his cap during a windy welcome Sunday, Oct. 15, 1995, upon his arrival at San Carlos de Bariloche, some 1,060 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, Argentina, where he, along with several other heads of state, is to attend the Ibero-American Summit which officially begins Monday. Education is the official summit subject. But Castro's presence is likely to prompt both condemnation of the U.S. trade embargo of the Caribbean island and calls for Castro to continue opening Cuba's socialist economy. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)
Cuban President Fidel Castro waves to thousands of supporters in the square facing the municipal palace where he received the keys to the city, Saturday, Oct. 14, 1995 in Montevideo, Uruguay. Castro said he was proud to have resisted U.S. efforts to topple his communist regime and vowed that Cuba would survive the American trade embargo. Castro is in Uruguay on a short visit before attending the 5th Ibero-American Summit in neighboring Argentina. (AP Photo/Carlos Gonzalez)
Cuban leader Fidel Castro talks with Pope John Paul II during their historic meeting at the Vatican Tuesday, November 19 1996. Castro invited the Pope to visit Cuba next year. The Pontiff accepted, but no date for the visit has been set. (AP Photo/Arturo Mari)
Cuba leader Fidel Castro speaking to journalists on his arrival in Geneva Wednesday, May 13 1998, to participate in the 50th anniversary of the WHO (World Health Organisation) on Thursday, May 14, and also the 50th anniversary of the WTO (World Trade Organisation) on Monday, May 18. (AP Photo/MARTIAL TREZZINI)
Newly named Cuban Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, right, is shown with Fidel Castro during May Day celebrations in Havana, Cuba in this May 1, 1999 photo. Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina, has been replaced by Perez Roque Castro's 34-year-old chief of staff, the government announced Friday May 28, 1999. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia)
Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures Thursday Sept.14, 2000, at the Revolution Palace in Havana, Cuba as he welcomes Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani, Emir of Qatar. Following on from visit to New York for the U.N. Summit Castro continues with his program of intense diplomatic activity. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia)
Cuban leader Fidel Castro observes an aircraft arriving for South African President Thabo Mbeki, at the Varadero Airport , 74 miles east of Havana, Cuba, Thursday March 29, 2001. Mbeki leaves the island aftr a four-day visit to Cuba. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia)
Cuban leader Fidel Castro gestures as he delivers a speech about terrorism during the end of the year session of the Cuban National Assembly Thursday Dec. 20, 2001 in Havana, Cuba On the right: Cuban Army chief and Castro's brother Raul Castro. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia)
Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan Hugo Chavez talk in Pampatar Bay near Caracas, Venezuela Tuesday Dec, 11, 2001 where they participate at a rally to dedicate a new economic project to help poor Venezuelan fishermen. Castro is in Venezuela to attend a Caribbean association summit. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia)
Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, left, speaks as Cuban President Fidel Castro, center, and former first lady Rosalynn Carter listen during a visit to a center for genetic engineering and biotechnology in Havana, Cuba, Monday, May 13, 2002. Carter is the first U.S. head of office, in or out of office, to visit communist Cuba since the 1959 revolution that put Castro in power. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)
Cuban President Fidel Castro is seen waving a Cuban flag during a rally in front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Monday, Nov. 18, 2002. Castro led tens of thousands of people in a rally outside the American mission to protest the U.S. government's decision to free eight Cubans who left the island last week on a stolen crop-duster plane. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia)
Cuban President Fidel Castro shakes hands with Li Changchun, member of the Chinese Politburo Standing Committee, looks on prior to a meeting at the Cuban State Council in Havana Monday July 7, 2003. Cuba and China are holding meetings to strengthen political and commercial ties. (AP Photo/Rafael Perez, Pool)
Cuban President Fidel Castro delivers a speech during a meeting of the Latin American Council of Social Sciences, Thursday Oct.30, 2003 in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia)
Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures during his 5-hour-speech at the ending meeting of the the anti Free Trade of the Americas (FTAA) summit in Havana, Cuba, Jan. 29, 2004. (AP photo/Jose Goitia)
Cuban President Fidel Castro is seen on a wheel chair as he welcomes Chinese President Hu Jintao Monday Nov. 22, 2004, in Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Jose Goitia)
Cuban President Fidel Castro puts his hand on the head of Elian Gonzalez Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2005, in the coastal city of Cardenas Cuba. Gonzalez. Gonzalez, wearing his school uniform, sat next to Castro at the political event recalling the island's successful campaign to gain custody of the boy from the United States. The Cuban boy thrust into the center of an international custody battle six years ago, celebrated his 12th birthday Tuesday listening to a two-hour speech by Castro. (AP Photo/Jorge Rey)
Bolivian President-elect Evo Morales listens as Cuban President Fidel Castro, wearing a miner's helmet given to him by visiting miners, speaks to Bolivian students in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Dec. 30, 2005. Morales and an ebullient Fidel Castro gathered late Friday with scores of young Bolivians studying in Cuba as the Indian nationalist began reaching out to other government leaders even before he takes office. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
Cuban President Fidel Castro shakes hands with Sergei Sidorsky, Prime Minister of Belarus, at the Revolution Palace in Havana,Cuba, Friday, April 21, 2006. Sidorsky was launching an official visit to Cuba to discuss trade and cooperation programs with Castro. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano, Pool)
Cuba's leader Fidel Castro gestures before delivering a speech during the 50th anniversary of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, CDR, in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday, Sept. 28, 2010. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
Fidel Castro makes a surprise appearance at the 6th Communist Party Congress in Havana, Cuba, Tuesday April 19, 2011. Raul Castro was named first secretary of Cuba's Communist Party on Tuesday, with his brother Fidel not included in the leadership for the first time since the party's creation 46 years ago. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)
In this photo released by the state media website Cubadebate, Cuba's leader Fidel Castro speaks during a meeting with intellectuals and writers at the International Book Fair in Havana, Cuba, Friday, Feb. 10 2012. (AP Photo/Cubadebate, Roberto Chile)
Cuba's leader Fidel Castro talks to reporters at a polling station after casting his ballot in parliament elections in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Feb. 3, 2013. More than 8 million islanders are eligible to vote and will approve 612 members of the National Assembly and over 1,600 provincial delegates. (AP Photo/Ismael Francisco, Cubadebate)
Cuba's Fidel Castro, center, meets with Russia's President Vladimir Putin, right, in Havana, Cuba, Friday, July 11, 2014. Putin began a Latin American tour aimed at boosting trade and ties in the region with a stop Friday in Cuba, a key Soviet ally during the Cold War that has backed Moscow in its dispute with the West over Ukraine. (AP Photo/Alex Castro)
Pope Francis (L) and former Cuban President Fidel Castro hold hands in Havana, Cuba, September 20, 2015. Picture taken September 20. REUTERS/Alex Castro/AIN/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. IT IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.
Former Cuban president Fidel Castro and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill meet in Havana February 13, 2016. REUTERS/JUVENTUD REBELDE/Handout via Reuters ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS PICTURE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. REUTERS IS UNABLE TO INDEPENDENTLY VERIFY THE AUTHENTICITY, CONTENT, LOCATION OR DATE OF THIS IMAGE. THIS PICTURE IS DISTRIBUTED EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS.NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVE TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
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Wearing a green military uniform, a somber Raul Castro, 85, appeared on state television on Friday night 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," he said, using the slogan of the Cuban revolution.

Tributes came in from allies, including Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Venezuela's socialist President Nicolas Maduro, who said "revolutionaries of the world must follow his legacy."

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.

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

He did not meet Barack Obama when he visited Havana earlier this year, the first time a U.S. president had stepped foot on Cuban soil since 1928.

Days later, Castro wrote a scathing newspaper column condemning Obama's "honey-coated" words and reminding Cubans of the many U.S. efforts to overthrow and weaken the Communist government.

The news of Castro's death spread slowly among Friday night revelers on the streets of Havana. One famous club that was still open when word came in quickly closed.

Some residents reacted with sadness to the news.

"I'm very upset. Whatever you want to say, he is a public figure that the whole world respected and loved," said Havana student Sariel Valdespino.

But in Miami, where many exiles from Castro's Communist government live, a large crowd waving Cuban flags cheered, danced and banged on pots and pans.

Castro's body 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.

After Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in 1990, he repeatedly thanked Castro for his firm efforts to weaken apartheid.

In April, in a rare public appearance at the Communist Party conference, Fidel Castro shocked party apparatchiks by referring to his own imminent mortality.

"Soon I will be like all the rest. Our turn comes to all of us, but the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain," he said.

Castro was last seen by ordinary Cubans in photos showing him engaged in conversation with the Vietnamese President Tran Dai Quang earlier this month.

Transforming Cuba from a playground for rich Americans into a symbol of resistance to Washington, Castro crossed swords with 10 U.S. presidents while in power and outlasted nine of them.

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 the exiles in Miami who fled his rule and saw him as a ruthless tyrant.

"With Castro's passing, some of the heat may go out of the antagonism between Cuba and the United States, and between Cuba and Miami, which would be good for everyone," said William M. LeoGrande, co-author of a book on U.S.-Cuba relations.

However, it is not clear if U.S. President-Elect Donald Trump will continue to normalize relations with Cuba, or revive tensions and fulfill a campaign promise to close the U.S. embassy in Havana once again.

Castro's death - which would once have thrown a question mark over Cuba's future - seems unlikely to trigger a crisis as Raul Castro is firmly ensconced in power.

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.

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.

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Pope Francis with Fidel Castro 9/20
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Pope Francis with Fidel Castro 9/20
Pope Francis and Cuba's Fidel Castro shakes hands, in Havana, Cuba, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. The Vatican described the 40-minute meeting at Castro's residence as informal and familial, with an exchange of books. (AP Photo/Alex Castro)
Backdropped by sign showing, from left, Fidel Castro, Jose Marti, Simon Bolivar and Hugo Chavez, people watch Pope Francis pass by in his popemobile from the airport to Havana, Cuba, Saturday, Sept. 19, 2015. The sign reads in Spanish "Example of true brotherhood." Pope Francis began his 10-day trip to Cuba and the United States, embarking on his first trip to the onetime Cold War foes after helping to nudge forward their historic rapprochement. (Ismael Francisco/Cubadebate Via AP)
In this aerial photo, a giant portrait of former Cuban leader Fidel Castro drawn with a tractor and plough on a 27,000 square meters (6,67 acres) corn field by Italian artist Dario Gambarin, in Castagnaro, Italy, Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. Gambarin said the portrait of Castro was celebrate the historic visit of Pope Francis to Cuba. (AP Photo/Dario Gambarin)
HAVANA, CUBA - SEPTEMBER 20: Pope Francis shakes hands with a member of the media as he arrives at Havana Cathedral on September 20, 2015 in Havana, Cuba. Pope Francis is on the first full day of his three day visit to Cuba where he will meet President Raul Castro and hold Mass in Revolution Square before travelling to Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and El Cobre then onwards to the United States. (Photo by Carl Court/Getty Images)
HAVANA, CUBA - SEPTEMBER 20: People look on as Pope Francis performs Mass on September 20, 2015 in Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba. Pope Francis is on the first full day of his three day visit to Cuba where he will meet President Raul Castro and hold Mass in Revolution Square before travelling to Holguin, Santiago de Cuba and El Cobre then onwards to the United States. (Photo by Carlos Becerra/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Pope Francis arrives to celebrate Sunday Mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion in Havana, Cuba, on Sunday, Sept. 20, 2015. (Al Diaz/Miami Herald/TNS via Getty Images)
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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.

REVOLUTIONARY ICON

A Jesuit-educated lawyer, Fidel Castro led the revolution that ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista on Jan 1, 1959. Aged 32, he quickly took control of Cuba and sought to transform it into an egalitarian society.

His government improved the living conditions of the very poor, achieved health and literacy levels on a par with rich countries and rid Cuba of a powerful Mafia presence.

But he also tolerated little dissent, jailed opponents, seized private businesses and monopolized the media.

Castro's opponents labeled him a dictator and hundreds of thousands fled the island.

"The dictator Fidel Castro has died, the cause of many deaths in Cuba, Latin American and Africa," Jose Daniel Ferrer, leader of the island's largest dissident group, the Patriotic Union of Cuba, said on Twitter.

Many dissidents settled in Florida, influencing U.S. policy toward Cuba and plotting Castro's demise. Some even trained in the Florida swamps for the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.

But they could never dislodge him.

Castro claimed he survived or evaded hundreds of assassination attempts, including some conjured up by the CIA.

In 1962, the United States imposed a damaging trade embargo that Castro blamed for most of Cuba's ills, using it to his advantage to rally patriotic fury.

Over the years, he expanded his influence by sending Cuban troops into far-away wars, including 350,000 to fight in Africa. They provided critical support to a left-wing government in Angola and contributed to the independence of Namibia in a war that helped end apartheid in South Africa.

He also won friends by sending tens of thousands of Cuban doctors abroad to treat the poor and bringing young people from developing countries to train them as physicians.

'HISTORY WILL ABSOLVE ME'

Born on August 13, 1926 in Biran in eastern Cuba, Castro was the son of a Spanish immigrant who became a wealthy landowner.

Angry at social conditions and Batista's dictatorship, Fidel Castro launched his revolution on July 26, 1953, with a failed assault on the Moncada barracks in the eastern city of Santiago.

"History will absolve me," he declared during his trial for the attack.

He was sentenced to 15 years in prison but was released in 1955 after a pardon that would come back to haunt Batista.

Castro went into exile in Mexico and prepared a small rebel army to fight Batista. It included Argentine revolutionary Ernesto "Che" Guevara, who became his comrade-in-arms.

In December 1956, Castro and a rag-tag band of 81 followers sailed to Cuba aboard a badly overloaded yacht called "Granma".

Only 12, including him, his brother and Guevara, escaped a government ambush when they landed in eastern Cuba.

Taking refuge in the rugged Sierra Maestra mountains, they built a guerrilla force of several thousand fighters who, along with urban rebel groups, defeated Batista's military in just over two years.

Early in his rule, at the height of the Cold War, Castro allied Cuba to the Soviet Union, which protected the Caribbean island and was its principal benefactor for three decades.

The alliance brought in $4 billion worth of aid annually, including everything from oil to guns, but also provoked the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis when the United States discovered Soviet missiles on the island.

Convinced that the United States was about to invade Cuba, Castro urged the Soviets to launch a nuclear attack.

Cooler heads prevailed. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and U.S. President John F. Kennedy agreed the Soviets would withdraw the missiles in return for a U.S. promise never to invade Cuba. The United States also secretly agreed to remove its nuclear missiles from Turkey.

'SPECIAL PERIOD'

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, an isolated Cuba fell into a deep economic crisis that lasted for years and was known as the "special period". Food, transport and basics such as soap were scarce and energy shortages led to frequent and long blackouts.

Castro undertook a series of tentative economic reforms to get through the crisis, including opening up to foreign tourism.

The economy improved when Venezuela's late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who looked up to Castro as a hero, came to the rescue with cheap oil. Aid from communist-run China also helped, but an economic downturn in Venezuela since Chavez's death in 2013 have raised fears it will scale back its support for Cuba.

Plagued by chronic economic problems, Cuba's population of 11 million has endured years of hardship, although not the deep poverty, violent crime and government neglect of many other developing countries.

For most Cubans, Fidel Castro has been the ubiquitous figure of their entire life.

Many still love him and share his faith in a communist future, and even some who abandoned their political belief still view him with respect. But others see him as an autocrat and feel he drove the country to ruin.

Cubans earn on average the equivalent of $20 a month and struggle to make ends meet even in an economy where education and health care are free and many basic goods and services are heavily subsidized.

It was never clear whether Fidel Castro fully backed his brother's reform efforts of recent years. Some analysts believed his mere presence kept Raul from moving further and faster while others saw him as either quietly supportive or increasingly irrelevant.

(Reporting by Daniel Trotta and Marc Frank; Editing by Kieran Murray and Simon Cameron-Moore/Hugh Lawson)

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