Cuba celebrates the Revolution’s 50th anniversary under a shadow of doubt

Fifty years after Fidel Castro’s guerrillas claimed control of Cuba, the country’s communist leadership will celebrate Thursday’s landmark anniversary amid a deepening economic crisis and speculation about the frail health of the father of that revolution.


Cuba celebrates the Revolution's 50th anniversary under a shadow

Cubans stand in line in front of a shop, next to the image of ailing Cuban Revolution leader Fidel Castro


Castro’s younger brother Raul, 77, who replaced the veteran dictator as president in February, will lead the main celebrations in the eastern city of Santiago, addressing a crowd from the same balcony where Fidel proclaimed victory on Jan 1, 1959.

Concerts are planned throughout the country, with the major one in Havana where popular Cuban band Los Van Van will play at the so-called Anti-Imperialist Tribunal in front of the US Interests Section, America’s de facto embassy.

But despite the triumphant slogans displayed in store windows, the new leader has scaled back plans for more lavish festivities after three back-to-back hurricanes in 2008 hammered the already enfeebled centralised economy.

Fidel, 82, will not make an appearance at the anniversary party – he has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. But he still remains an imposing presence and few Cubans expect significant political or economic reforms while he is alive.

At the weekend, his brother was forced to announce fresh austerity measures, including a 50 per cent cut in overseas government travel, after officials admitted the economy had suffered its worse year since the collapse of their old Soviet benefactors in 1991.

The regime fears tougher times ahead this year as the collapse in world oil prices is likely to undermine the petrodollar fuelled largesse of firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Cuba’s main financial backer currently supports Havana with subsidised oil supplies worth up to $3 billion (£2.1 billion) a year.

Many Cubans, tired of half a century of hostility with Washington, have pinned their hopes for change on the election of Barack Obama. Indeed, the US President-elect has promised to ease tough restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting their relatives and sending cash remittances to the island.

Havana for its part this autumn quietly removed a prominent billboard near the US Interests Sections depicting George W. Bush as a bloody-fanged vampire in what was regarded as a goodwill gesture towards its long-time foes.

But the incoming US president has made clear that he has no immediate plans to lift the controversial US trade embargo until the regime releases dissidents from jail and introduces political reforms.

And Roger Noriega, a former assistant secretary of state for the Americas in the Bush administration, predicted that Mr Obama’s stance on the embargo will have hardened after a recent proposal by Raúl Castro to free political prisoners in return for the release of Cuban spies jailed in Florida.

“Trying to equate Catholic laymen, independent journalists and democracy activists with criminals and spies shows a real lack of respect for Mr Obama’s intelligence,” he told The Daily Telegraph. “It is typical of the doctrinaire approach of the Castros and it is very insulting to the new president.”

Cuba’s left-wing cheerleaders in the West point to its impressive literacy and child mortality rates – the highest and lowest respectively in Latin America – as evidence of the successes of the revolution after the pro-US dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the island on Jan 1, 1959.

But Fidel Castro’s refusal to countenance economic or political liberalisation has crippled the country’s progress. While much of its agricultural land lies uncultivated, Cuba imports 60 per cent of its food at a cost of about $2 billion a year.

Last year’s barrage of hurricanes inflicted an estimated $10 billion in damage and wiped out about a third of domestic agricultural production. And prices for one of its main foreign currency earners, nickel, have slumped in recent months.

The financial bright point for last year was tourism, which brought in about $2 billion. But the global economic slump is expected to lead to a significant decline in international travel this year – another cause for alarm for the regime’s economic planners.

Raúl Castro has introduced minor market reforms, including allowing farmers to sell some produce for profit as well as symbolic moves such as easing rules for mobile phone and video recorder ownership. But the economy is still shackled by an oppressive system of state controls.

“The nonsense that there has to be some trade-off between food and freedom has long been disproved as Cubans don’t have either,” said Mr Noriega. “And what good is a high literacy rate if you have to look over your shoulder the whole time while you’re reading?”

The two-tier currency system is a cause of particular bitterness. For while skilled Cubans such as doctors and teachers are paid in local pesos with paltry average monthly salaries of less than $25, workers in the tourism industry can earn convertible pesos whose value is pegged to the US dollar. The consequence of this fiscal apartheid has been a brain drain from the professions to jobs as barmen and taxi drivers.

Among older Cubans accustomed to the state providing jobs, health service and food rations for five decades, there will be some nostalgia at Thursday’s celebrations. But younger Cubans, well aware of the greater freedoms just 90 miles away across the Straits of Florida despite some of the world’s most restrictive internet access laws, are increasingly frustrated by the failures of the Revolution.

However disputed, the legacy of Fidel Castro is inescapable. The slavish state media still loyally refers to him as “Leader of the Revolution”. To many Cubans, he remains simply “El Commandante”, just as he was when he emerged from the mountains half a century ago.


Comments are closed.

image image image