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1 Jan, 2009 01:14

Cuban revolution’s anniversary marked

Cuba is celebrating its 50th anniversary of the revolution which brought Fidel Castro to power. RT recalls the build up toward that fateful New Year’s Eve of 1959 and sees what has changed in the country.

After a century or two of passing from hand to hand between various maritime powers in modern history, Cuba entered the twentieth century under the rule of the one closest to them – the U.S. The early years of the twentieth century were marked by a relentless struggle to get rid of U.S. control over the island country.

Undermining U.S. authority

Cuba’s first communist politician entered the country in 1925. Fears of a Soviet scenario were fresh, so when General Fulgencio Batista’s group toppled the provisional government in 1933 and took control over the country, they were quick to ban the Communist party, which existed illegally till 1938.

Cuba became one of the first countries of Western Hemisphere to declare war on Germany, Japan, and Italy in 1941. In 1943 it got its Soviet embassy. Communism started to gain momentum in the country, accelerating in 1952 by another coup by Batista, who had lost his President’s mandate in the 1944 election and sought to regain power.

Batista was elected President for the second time, but never lived to step off into a democratic framework.

Heroes assaulting their own country

Fidel Alejandro Castro Ruz, a lawyer and the son of a small sugar plantation owner, was introduced to the Cuban elite’s lifestyle through his wife’s wealthy family, but strangely wasn’t content with his own quite privileged position in the society, and instead became eager to restore social justice.

After an unsuccessful attack on a military compound he went to Mexico for training and met there Ernesto Che Guevara. There he learned some knowledge of guerilla warfare, and started plotting his assault on Batista.

His campaigns of 1956-58 were ever more successful, eventually leading up to the Cuban Revolution.

In 1956 Castro and Guevara with their forces arrived at the Southern part of Cuba on the ‘Grandma’ yacht and slowly advanced northwest, eventually capturing the key town of Santa Clara. After it was taken on December 31, 1958, Castro’s victory was all but ensured, just like Daniel Ortega’s victory after his forces took the town of Leon during the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979.

All that was left for Castro to do was to triumphantly march to Santiago and the capital Havana, meeting no opposition at all.

Voices of revolution and its results

A pirate radio station sending out the revolutionary call played a major part in their triumph. Fifty years on its original staff celebrate.

“We're still participating. Everyone leaves, but not us. We're just revolutionaries, plain and simple. For us to be revolutionaries is the greatest thing of all, because the Revolution has given us everything.” Alcides La O’Zamora, an ex-staff member recalls.

An almost complete adult literacy and a lavish free healthcare system were amongst the early successes of Castro's Communist Cuba. Less than a hundred miles from the American shore rose a beacon of defiance that endured numerous U.S. sanctions and a coup attempt.

Socialist utopia

Cuba forged alliances with the USSR and China, which gave it training and financial support. Cuba wasn't just an ally – it was an ideological symbol.

However, as the Soviet Union collapsed, the tide turned. The last two decades have been less than rosy.

Now Cuba's foreign debt stands at an unmanageable $US 20 billion, and its official GDP per capita is less than a tenth of that of its big neighbour to the north.

Reliant on tourists for income, Cuba has become a centre for foreigners looking for cheap healthcare or sex. The living embodiment of the revolution – Fidel Castro himself – hasn't been seen in public in two years.

There are still no free elections, but even the current leader, Fidel's younger brother Raul, says reform must be implemented.

“We must be aware that in order to gradually fix the existing distortions in the salary system, undue gratuities and excessive subsidies must be eliminated. Otherwise the numbers simply don't add up. We have to be realistic and adjust all our dreams to real possibilities,” Raul Castro says.

As a socialist utopia, or an authoritarian economic basket case, Cuba still divides opinion across the world.

Ruben Zarbabyan, RT