Castro is cheered on by crowds on Jan. 1, 1959, during his victorious march to Havana after ousting the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista

As the Soviet Union was collapsing in 1991, Fidel Castro met with a group of journalists on a visit to Mexico. We pressed him repeatedly about the fall of communism until, chafing in his olive fatigues and the Yucatán humidity, he stopped stroking his beard and instead pounded his fist.

“Instead of asking me why communism failed in Russia,” Castro shouted, “why don’t you ask me why it hasn’t failed in Cuba?” Here’s why: we all acknowledged the successes of Cuban communism, especially health care and education. But we were all too aware of its larger failures, evidenced by Castro’s dictatorship and the harrowing economic hardships crippling the island during that post-Soviet “special period.” Communism hadn’t survived in Cuba. Fidel had. His paternal charisma and paranoid security apparatus—an alloy that couldn’t be broken by 10 U.S. Presidents, one of whom Castro even took to the brink of nuclear war in 1962—stifled any urge Cubans may have had to tear down their own Berlin Wall during his 49-year-long rule. Intestinal surgery forced him in 2006, at age 79, to hand the presidency to his younger brother Raúl, a transfer of power that became official in 2008. But Fidel and his regime still lingered, faded yet sun-baked into Cubans’ lives like the pastel colors on an old Havana mansion.

Fidel Castro died at age 90, President Raúl Castro announced on state television on Nov. 25. In the immediate aftermath, the world waxed nostalgic about the younger, 20th century Fidel—the torrid icon who did perhaps more than

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