Cuba marks revolution's anniversary

Posted in Latin America | 02-Jan-09 | Author: Simon Romero| Source: International Herald Tribune

Cubans chanted revolutionary slogans Thursday in Santiago. Fifty years after Fidel Castro led a band of rebels to victory, some view the revolution as a triumph, others as fraught with problems.

Cuba marked the 50th anniversary of its revolution on Thursday amid somber assessments of a struggling economy, even as its Communist leaders exalted the resilience of a political system that has endured 10 United States administrations.

Fidel Castro, 82, whose group of bearded rebels waged a guerrilla war that toppled the strongman Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, remained behind the scenes during the subdued festivities on the island nation, grappling with an undisclosed illness that forced him into seclusion more than two years ago.

"I congratulate our heroic people," Castro said in brief comments published by Granma, the newspaper of Cuba's Communist Party.

Castro's younger brother, President Raúl Castro, 77, addressed the nation Thursday night from the eastern city of Santiago. But instead of jubilation, the younger Castro, who officially became president in 2008, seems to have been preparing Cubans for more hardships as the revolution enters its sixth decade.

Speaking from beneath the same balcony where Fidel Castro declared victory over the Batista government, President Castro said the revolution would survive another 50 years.

But he also referred to a speech by his brother a few years ago, in which he warned that "this revolution can destroy itself," The Associated Press reported; if that occurred, Raúl Castro quoted his brother as saying, "it would be our own fault." Nearly all of the time since Fidel Castro seized control of the country has been spent under a United States economic embargo. Cuban officials said in December that the economy would grow 4.3 percent in 2008, about half the rate that had been expected.

Even though Cuba's economy has been stabilized in recent years by the provision of about 100,000 barrels a day of subsidized oil from Venezuela, it is dealing with a host of other problems.

Hurricanes wrought damage last year, while agricultural disarray heightened reliance on food imports. The younger Castro has introduced halting reforms like allowing Cubans to buy cellphones or stay at hotels set aside for foreign tourists, but average salaries of about $20 a month put such luxuries out of reach for most people.

Scattered flags and small banners with slogans appeared in recent days in the capital, Havana, but otherwise events surrounding the revolution's anniversary were in keeping with the somber economic mood.

Illustrating just how long the enmity between Cuba and the United States has persisted, the incoming United States president, Barack Obama, who is 47, was not yet born when President Eisenhower ordered the first sanctions against Cuba in 1960.

But while Obama has signaled the possibility of dialogue with Cuba's leaders and the lifting of some restrictions on travel to Cuba, other nations in Latin America and elsewhere have gone much further in efforts to make Cuba less isolated.

The presidents of Brazil, China and Russia have all visited Havana in recent months, pledging greater economic cooperation. At Mexico's initiative in December, Cuba was admitted to the Rio Group, a diplomatic association of Latin American and Caribbean countries. And in October, the European Union formally renewed ties to Cuba.

"While the U.S. is dithering, virtually every other major actor in world affairs is becoming more engaged with Cuba," said Daniel Erikson, director of Caribbean programs at the Inter-American Dialogue, a policy research group in Washington.

Still, Cuba's enduring revolution, which has secured advances in education and health care, faces other challenges. It has one the hemisphere's lowest birthrates, 1.6 children per woman, and one of its highest life expectancy rates, 77.3 years. Emigration of thousands of young people each year also erodes its population of 11.4 million.

Some Cubans find opportunity in a society in which revolutionary fervor wanes while other needs prevail. One 33-year-old resident of Havana said he studied international trade, but gave up a legitimate career in business because of a lack of job opportunities.

Now he works on the black market. "I have my own business; I sell Viagra pills," said the man, who did not want to be identified for fear of running afoul of authorities. "You can't buy them in Cuban shops, so that is a pretty good business considering that the Cuban population is growing older every year."