Cuba celebrates revolution's 50th anniversary
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?"