His words and image had filled schoolbooks, airwaves and newspapers since before many of them were born. Now Cubans must face life without Fidel Castro, the leader who guided their island to both greater social equality and years of economic ruin.
Across a hushed capital, people wept in the streets on Saturday as news of the 90-year-old revolutionary's death spread. While many mourned, others privately expressed hope that Castro's passing will allow Cuba to move faster toward a more open, prosperous future under his younger brother President Raul Castro.
Both brothers led bands of bearded rebels out of the eastern Sierra Maestra mountains to create a communist government 90 miles from the United States. But since taking over from his ailing brother in 2006, the 85-year-old Raul Castro has allowed an explosion of private enterprise and, last year, restored diplomatic relations with Washington. "Raul wants to do business, that's it. Fidel was still holed up in the Sierra Maestra," said Belkis Bejarano, a 65-year-old homemaker in central Havana.
In his twilight years Fidel Castro largely refrained from offering his opinions publicly on domestic issues, lending tacit backing to his brother's free-market reforms.
But the older Castro surged back onto the public stage twice this year critiquing President Barack Obama's historic March visit to Cuba and proclaiming in April that communism was "a great step forward in the fight against colonialism and its inseparable companion, imperialism."
Ailing and without any overt political power, the 90-year-old revolutionary icon became for some a symbol of resistance to his younger sibling's diplomatic and economic openings. For many other Cubans, however, Fidel Castro was fading into history, increasingly at a remove from the passions that long cast him as either messianic savior or maniacal strongman.
On Saturday, many Cubans on the island described Fidel Castro as a towering figure who brought Cuba free health care, education and true independence from the United States, while saddling the country with an ossified political and economic system that has left streets and buildings crumbling and young, educated elites fleeing in search of greater prosperity abroad.
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