Cuba marks 50th anniversary of Castro revolution


Cuba today celebrated the 50th anniversary of a 1959 revolution whose leader Fidel Castro transformed the island into a communist state that has survived despite long years of opposition from the nearby United States and the collapse of its Cold War benefactors.

The revolution's landmark anniversary comes at a time when the era of Fidel Castro, now 82 and ailing, is winding down and uncertainty hangs over the future of the Cuba he built into an improbable world player admired for its social gains but criticised for its human rights record.

A celebration that had been expected to be a major event has been subdued in a nation mired in economic problems and divided on what the revolution has wrought.

President Raul Castro, who officially replaced ailing older brother Fidel Castro last February, will speak this evening in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba from the same balcony which the elder Castro proclaimed victory after US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled on January 1st, 1959.

Fidel Castro, who has not been seen in public since undergoing surgery for an undisclosed intestinal ailment two and a half years ago, was not expected to attend, officials said.

In a brief message on the front page of Communist Party newspaper Granma today, Castro sent his congratulations to "our heroic people" for 50 years of revolution.

In a television interview on Wednesday night, Raul Castro said his speech would include the sombre message that, 50 years on, many difficulties and much work lie ahead.

"There are many positive things, but at the same there are new problems that we have to confront. We haven't had peace, we haven't had tranquillity," he said.

Last week in a speech to the National Assembly, Castro painted a gloomy picture of the Cuban economy which has been buffeted by three hurricanes that caused $10 billion (6.9 billion pound) in damages and by the global financial crisis.

As it has for decades, the government also blamed its woes on the United States' 46-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, which it says has cost the island $92 billion over time.

The embargo is the cornerstone of US policy that has sought the overthrow of the Castro government almost since the revolution's birth.

While most Cubans hail their government's achievements in education and health, many are weary of excuses and yearn for a better life and greater freedoms.

They suffered for years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's biggest benefactor, which threw the economy into a tailspin from which, with help from oil-rich ally Venezuela, it has only recently begun to recover.

They say they need more than the $20 they earn on average each month.

Cubans danced in the streets when Castro's bearded rebels toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista on January 1, 1959, but on Thursday people went about their business on streets quieter than usual as many slept in after late New Year's parties.

Cuban flags and banners extolling the revolution hung from buildings and light posts.