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Cubans Mark Half-Century of Revolution
Celebration Far More Subdued Than Triumphant Rallies in Past

By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 2, 2009

SANTIAGO, Cuba, Jan. 1 -- President Raúl Castro and the Cuban government celebrated the 50th anniversary of their revolution Thursday night in a nostalgic but low-key event that was far removed from the triumphant displays and mass rallies of their socialist glory days, as ordinary Cubans continue to struggle daily through hard times brought on by a sputtering state-run economy and a decades-long trade and travel embargo by the United States.

The main event, under tight security, took place in the heart of old Santiago, where 50 years ago Fidel Castro came down from the mountains and, standing on a balcony overlooking Cespedes Park, declared victory over the despised dictator Fulgencio Batista. At the time, Castro memorably warned: "The revolution will not be an easy task. The revolution will be a very difficult undertaking, full of danger."

Those words have proved true. The Cuban leader and his revolution have survived 10 mostly hostile U.S. presidents; a missile crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war; a U.S.-backed invasion by CIA-trained exiles at the Bay of Pigs; the fall of Cuba's protector, the Soviet Union; five decades of U.S. trade sanctions; and the flight of many of its own people, who have thrown themselves into leaky inner tubes to cross the 90 miles of ocean to Florida. In 2008, the challenges continued with three brutal hurricanes that damaged 500,000 homes and caused an estimated $10 billion in destruction.

An ailing Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since July 2006, when he underwent what is believed to have been intestinal surgery. His whereabouts and condition remain state secrets, though the government has released photographs of the 82-year-old comandante meeting with visiting heads of state. The most recent photographs show Castro standing erect, looking thin but not gaunt, wearing a track suit, his beard wispy and white.

His thoughts and words, however, continue to be delivered to the Cuban people. On Thursday, the front page of the state newspaper, Granma, contained a brief anniversary greeting along with his signature and the time and date, offered perhaps as a reminder or as proof that the aging leader of the Communist Party of Cuba is still around.

As in most things organized by the Cuban government, the ceremonies Thursday night began with an homage to the absent Fidel, including an 18-minute documentary that featured the leader of the revolution in starring role: fighting in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra, giving speeches before the multitudes. Occasionally, the 3,000 invited guests in leafy Cespedes Park would stand, raise their fists and shout as one, "Viva!"

If Fidel Castro speaks in volumes (his orations could last for hours), his younger brother Raúl Castro prefers a shorter, tighter script -- in this case, about six typed pages, single-spaced. The elder Castro officially turned over the presidency to the 77-year-old Raúl in February.

Dressed in green military khaki, with medals covering his left breast and gold stars on his shoulders, the new president declared: "Today, the revolution is stronger than ever. It has never failed to stand by its principles, not even in the most difficult circumstances."

Castro called the triumph of the revolution "twice as worthy, for it has been attained despite the unhealthy and vindictive hatred of the powerful neighbor." Though Castro spoke of the United States, he made no mention of President-elect Barack Obama or opportunities to move toward more normal relations, a move many Cubans would embrace. No foreign leaders attended the speech.

Castro spoke of the challenges ahead but did not offer any hints of possible reforms. Since taking office, Raúl has taken small steps to revive the economy and offer new opportunities to Cubans. He made it possible for farmers to work their own land -- a step seen as vital in a fertile country where many fields lay fallow and the government had to spend $2.6 billion in cash for food shipments from the United States in 2008.

The younger Castro also allowed ordinary Cubans to purchase once-forbidden DVD players, computers and cellphones. Unfortunately, many Cubans cannot afford the new luxuries. Purchasing a mobile telephone and setting up an account costs $150. The average monthly salary in Cuba is about $20, though the government provides food rations, medical care, housing and education.

In light of tough times ahead, Castro warned his fellow Communist Party leaders to maintain the support of the people.

"The enemy," Castro said, "will never cease to be aggressive, treacherous and dominant," but party members "should never distance themselves from our workers, our farmers and the people at large." Castro advised his fellow Communists, "Let's learn from history."

Speaking of his ailing brother, Castro said: "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 of them. Nobody doubts it. Not even his most bitter enemies."

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