MEXICO CITY -- When Fidel Castro and his band of bearded rebels entered Havana just after New Year's Day 1959, Dwight Eisenhower was president of the United States, and few people questioned U.S. hegemony in Latin America.
Castro declared himself a Communist, and nearly every government in the region joined the U.S. in condemning his regime. Two generations and nine American presidents later, Castro is finally stepping down as Cuba's leader - widely admired, even if his policies are not widely emulated.
Castro did not win his battle against what he called U.S. "imperialism," a struggle that has impoverished and isolated his people. But he did stick around long enough to see America's grip on the region weaken.
The ailing 81-year-old leader ended his 49-year rule of the Caribbean nation when he resigned Tuesday as president.
Most expect Castro's brother Raul, five years his junior, to succeed him. Raul Castro has been acting president since his brother fell ill in July 2006.
Fidel Castro's revolution was, in many ways, the defining event of Latin American history in the 20th century, said Lorenzo Meyer, a professor at the Colegio de Mexico here. "There is no other leader who was able to confront the United States for half a century and survive."
For decades, Latin America was one of the front lines in the Cold War confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. As Moscow's ally, Castro's Cuba stood at the opposite end from Washington of the ideological tug-of-war for the region.
Today, every Latin American government except Cuba's has a democratically elected head of state. Falling trade barriers allow cash and commodities to flow across the region as never before, and the dollar even circulates as the official currency in El Salvador and Ecuador.
But the U.S. is far from triumphant. In some places, new players have emerged to challenge U.S. influence, including the oil-rich government of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.
Even if they do not mirror Castro's policies, many of the region's leaders feel free to look elsewhere to ensure their countries' interests and embrace the same defiant rhetoric that marked Castro's early career. It was a rhetoric that attacked an "oligarchy" servile to foreign interests, most famously expressed in a 1953 speech Castro made while on trial for a failed uprising against the dictator Fulgencio Batista. "We were born in a free country that our parents bequeathed to us," Castro said. "And the island will first sink into the sea before we consent to being the slaves of anyone."
The Cuban regime, while imprisoning dissidents and transforming the island into a one-party state, also built model education and health programs.
To stop the spread of Castro's "Communist menace" to other countries, the U.S. backed some of the most violent dictatorships in the region's history, including the military junta responsible for 10,000 deaths in Argentina in the 1970s and 1980s. The CIA orchestrated a campaign to undermine the democratically elected leftist government of Salvador Allende in Chile, a Castro ally overthrown in a 1973 coup.
Chile's brutal military ruler, Augusto Pinochet, adopted free-market polices of the "Chicago School" of economics. By the time he left power in 1990, Chile had South America's most vibrant economy. But other countries failed badly trying to implement the economic and political reforms backed by the U.S. and the International Monetary Fund. Argentina saw its economy collapse in 2001, and Bolivia's attempts to privatize its economy sparked popular uprisings that brought to power Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian with radical roots.
At the same time, the Soviet collapse robbed Castro of money, power and influence, and Castro had to spend the early 1990s implementing modest economic reforms of his own, just to survive.
Given his age and his country's precarious economic status, Castro is no longer feared much by the region's conservatives.
Instead, in his final years, he has been embraced by even center-left leaders including former President Nestor Kirchner of Argentina as a grandfatherly symbol of Latin American independence.
"Fidel is the only living myth in the history of humanity," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the day Castro announced he would step down as president. "The myth lives on."
Hector Tobar writes for the Los Angeles Times.