Over a half-century, the rebels erased illiteracy and crafted a universal health care system. ...The Havana-based non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation last counted 219 political prisoners on the island, down from as many as 15,000 in 1964.
...''I hope he gets rid of the blockade,'' 42-year-old Ana Luisa Mas ''...We are very hopeful that with Obama our relatives will be able to visit us more, and send us more money.''
Cuba Celebrates Revolution's 50th Anniversary
Filed at 10:23 p.m. ET
SANTIAGO, Cuba (AP) -- Fifty years after triumphant armed rebels descended from the mountains, communist Cuba celebrated the revolution's anniversary Thursday with toned-down festivities following a trio of devastating hurricanes and under the enduring public absence of Fidel Castro.
Although the ailing Castro continued convalescing in private, the festivities were filled with praise of the bearded rebel known as the ''Leader of the Revolution.''
''We know that a man alone doesn't make history. But some men are indispensable, as they can have a decisive influence in the course of events. Fidel is one,'' President Raul Castro said of his older brother in a speech given beneath the balcony where Fidel declared victory over dictator Fulgencio Batista's government on Jan. 1, 1959.
The austere celebrations, including concerts across the island, belied the start of a year infused with possibilities for reforms that might ease Cubans' daily hardships. Many here hope for improved relations with the United States when President-elect Barack Obama takes office Jan. 20 following declarations he would talk directly with Raul Castro and lift severe restrictions on family travel and remittances to the island.
''I hope he gets rid of the blockade,'' 42-year-old Ana Luisa Mas said earlier at a Havana farmers market as she bought a pork leg for her family's New Year's celebration, referring to decades-old U.S. trade sanctions. ''We are very hopeful that with Obama our relatives will be able to visit us more, and send us more money.''
Raul Castro, who succeeded his older brother in February, quoted extensively from Fidel as he spoke for less than 40 minutes on a small, leafy plaza to 3,000 Communist Party faithful.
He cited from his brother's 2005 speech at Havana University, warning ''this revolution can destroy itself'' and that if it occurred, ''it would only be our own fault.''
The rebels' victory a half-century ago was doubly important ''for it has been attained despite the unhealthy and vindictive hatred of the powerful neighbor,'' Castro said, referring to the United States.
He cited the Bay of Pigs invasion by U.S.-trained exiles, the U.S. embargo, the Cuban missile crisis and assassination attempts against his brother.
''One way or another, with more or less aggressiveness, every U.S. administration has tried to impose a regime change in Cuba,'' he said.
No foreign leaders attended. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who originally was to attend, saluted the Cuban revolution and the older Castro from La Paz, declaring ''my respect, my admiration for Fidel.''
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez announced in Caracas that in honor of the 50th anniversary, the Cuban flag would fly permanently outside the Venezuelan tomb of South American independence leader Simon Bolivar.
For Raul Castro's speech, a huge red banner was hung from a colonial hotel on the plaza featuring a photograph of a 32-year-old Fidel Castro in guerrilla uniform and backpack. The celebration began with a short documentary featuring historic and more recent video clips of the revolutionary leader.
Fidel Castro's health is a state secret, and he remains out of sight after major intestinal surgery almost 2 1/2 years ago. But the 82-year-old still writes essays suggesting he maintains some say in government affairs.
On the anniversary's eve, he released a brief statement congratulating ''our heroic people.''
The 77-year-old Raul Castro, meanwhile, has yet to introduce any major reforms.
Officials initially planned a bigger celebration but scaled back after three hurricanes this year caused $10 billion in damages.
Over a half-century, the rebels erased illiteracy and crafted a universal health care system. But after Fidel Castro embraced communism in 1961, opponents were jailed.
The Havana-based non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation last counted 219 political prisoners on the island, down from as many as 15,000 in 1964.
Cuba's revolution was nevertheless admired by many in the developing world as Castro stood up to the ''Yankee imperialists.'' And the communist system persevered after the Iron Curtain collapsed, and communist China and Vietnam embraced free markets while still maintaining their political systems.
When President George W. Bush leaves office, the revolution will have outlasted 10 American presidents who maintained strict U.S. sanctions aimed at overthrowing the Cuban leadership.
While Castro's foes argue to maintain sanctions, others think rapprochement would be better.
''Engagement may show how weak (Cuba's) hand really is,'' Marifeli Perez-Stable of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington wrote in December. ''Which one is the real hard line?''
Sent: Wednesday, December 31, 2008 2:49 PM
Subject: Cuba No Big Rock Candy Mountain
It's rather odd that I'm seeing articles in the last few weeks pumping up the warm, friendly vacation spot of Cuba. I'm guessing this is a trial balloon for all those who want normalized relations as soon as Obama takes over. But even in this story from AP, some reality seeps through:
Juan Gonzalez loves Fidel Castro. But he is also a realist. ''The people do what they can. They don't just sit around and wait for the government to give them everything,'' the 59-year-old said, standing on his dusty front porch. ''If they waited for the government to keep all its promises, they would have to wait a long time. Fifty more years, maybe.'' ...as the revolution turns 50... electricity, running water and phone service are relatively new here.
There's a glimpse of our own future if we finish socializing medicine and banking and automobile manufacturing and insurance and... well, you get the idea. But people can read in this tropical paradise,
...said the 73-year-old, who fought in Castro's rebel army, ''Education is a gigantic weapon. Most people don't understand that, but Fidel does.''
Me, too. And the teacher's unions and politicians and lobbyists and activists and anyone who wants government control of education and everything else on which my life depends.
Shades of Atlas Shrugged.
In Communist Cuba, a Whiff of Rugged Individualism
Filed at 12:11 p.m. ET
SIERRA MAESTRA, Cuba (AP) -- Juan Gonzalez loves Fidel Castro. But he is also a realist.
''The people do what they can. They don't just sit around and wait for the government to give them everything,'' the 59-year-old said, standing on his dusty front porch. ''If they waited for the government to keep all its promises, they would have to wait a long time. Fifty more years, maybe.''
It sounds like the kind of rugged individualism that would resonate with Americans, but this is the mountainous Sierra Maestra of eastern Cuba, the cradle of the revolution that brought Castro to power 50 years ago New Year's Day, ushering in a communist era of promised egalitarianism under big, all-controlling government.
Here, more than 500 miles from Havana, people tend to speak their minds more freely, even grumble openly about their privations.
They also see a growing generation gap -- between elder Cubans who wholeheartedly support the communist system, and youngsters yearning for change, at a time when the ailing, 82-year-old Castro has been replaced by his younger brother, Raul, and Barack Obama is about to move into the White House.
The Sierra Maestra is where Castro and his guerrillas prevailed over 10,000 soldiers sent in by dictator Fulgencio Batista in May 1958 and eventually forced Batista to flee Cuba on Jan. 1 of the following year.
Gonzalez, from the village of Santo Domingo, was 9 when the rebellion Cubans universally call ''la revolucion'' triumphed.
Now, as the revolution turns 50, how does he feel about it? ''The people here feel good, but not everyone has the same amount of pride,'' he said.
That's because the promises of a shining future have not come as fast as they may have hoped. Electricity, running water and phone service are relatively new here. Some families still live in dirt-floored shacks and wash their clothes in rivers. Carts pulled by oxen, donkeys or horses outnumber cars and trucks.
Gonzalez is charged with the upkeep of his grandfather's homestead, now a historical site. The biggest problem, he says, is a lack of public transport. The area had a single ambulance but a few years ago ''it broke and some people died because of that.''
Soviet engineers only brought electricity to the area in 1986.
South of Santo Domingo lies Comandancia de la Plata, the hideout where Fidel Castro directed the final rebel push. He lived in a wooden hut with a roof of palm leaves. Outside, still encrusted with bullet fragments, is the tree on which he practiced his marksmanship.
Luis Angel Segura, 55, is a guide who leads tourists up a muddy mule trail to the hut. Spend a few hours with him, and long-held complaints begin to bubble to the surface. What makes him angry is not too little government but too much -- farmers can only grow what the state tells them to, and only sell their produce back to the government.
''There should be more autonomy,'' he said. ''But, as they tell us, 'we're all Cuba.'''
Still, no one here misses Batista. Like many Cubans in these parts, Segura calls the pre-Castro era ''the tyranny.''
About 600 people live in the isolated mountains around Comandancia de la Plata. Solar panels power tiny schoolhouses and health clinics. In the farthest regions, teachers live with pupils' families and doctors make house calls. Like nearly all Cubans, people here live rent-free and get monthly rations of basic food.
The government expanded a two-lane mountain highway through the area, but there's so little traffic that farmers dry their coffee beans on the asphalt. Goats, pigs, donkeys and dogs sleep on it undisturbed.
Many families have TVs bought with government credit, but few channels reach deep into the mountains. To fill the void there are ''video clubs,'' shacks that show pirated movies. Internet access is tightly controlled.
As in the cities, rural areas have ''Committees for the Defense of the Revolution'' which meet to discuss community problems. Public attendance is mandatory.
''Everything here is well organized,'' said Julia Castillo, a housewife in the Sierra Cristal, another eastern mountain range that was a rebel stronghold. ''But people complain and nothing happens.''
Ask Cubans to rate their education and medical care systems, and many will talk instead about Batista's day -- though few are old enough to have experienced it. An exception is Ruben La O.
''Before the revolution, I couldn't read,'' said the 73-year-old, who fought in Castro's rebel army. ''Education is a gigantic weapon. Most people don't understand that, but Fidel does.''
La O was 23 and from a reasonably well-to-do family of coffee farmers when the rebels recruited him as lead singer for a quintet that performed on Radio Rebelde, a propaganda station that Ernesto ''Che'' Guevara founded in the Sierra Maestra in 1958.
The musicians still don olive-green rebel uniforms and play songs denouncing Batista for tourists. They live in a row of concrete houses Castro ordered built for them in 1981, and, to honor the 50th anniversary of the revolution, each has been given a new mo-ped.
''In capitalism there are no schools. Socialism has solidarity, education, health and societal development that capitalism can't fathom,'' said Alejandro Molina, the quintet's 69-year-old founder and guitarist.
But La O's brother Alcides, a fellow quintet member, said the lesson is lost on many younger Cubans.
''There are lots of schools and lots of people who don't want to study,'' he said. ''They don't take advantage of all they have.''
Alejandro, a farm worker who lives nearby, says the problem is not apathy but a lack of freedom.
''Solidarity? Fine. But it is no substitute for political change,'' said the 26-year-old, who lives with his parents and didn't want to cause them problems by giving his surname. ''People are ready for new things. There's a lot of frustration.''