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Daily struggle tests Cuban revolution

Word on the streets: It's been 50 years since Fidel Castro came to power

(Reuters)

Fifty years ago on Thursday Fidel Castro and his rebel forces entered the Cuban capital, Havana, declaring "tyranny has been overthrown".

Swiss Cuba experts examine the impact and future challenges of Cuba's revolution at a time when islanders are struggling to cope with uncertainty and financial hardship.

The very fact that this anniversary is being celebrated "is almost a miracle, a triumph for an island which has faced open hostility from the world's biggest power over the past half century", said Beat Schmid, Swiss coordinator for Oxfam in Havana.

Claude Auroi, president of the Swiss-Cuban Association and a Latin American expert at Geneva's Graduate Institute, shares this viewpoint.

"It's admirable that Cuba has survived a difficult internal and external economic situation caused by the embargo," he told swissinfo.

But, as is often the case when talking about the Caribbean island, views on Cuba's revolution can differ quite significantly.

No future

For Auroi the Cuban political system is dead and buried.

"It's impossible to get it back on its feet. Everyone inside Cuba knows it's an illusion. Young people are either trying to leave the island or are highly critical, but are unable to speak out because there is no freedom of expression," he said.

For the Latin American expert, Cuba is living through a period similar to the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

"Everyone knew that that system had no future, but nobody wanted to say it out loud so as to avoid the consequences. It's the same thing here. I think it's too late to try and revive Cuba's revolution from inside and to generate widespread enthusiasm," said Auroi.

For Schmid two aspects stand out.

"Changes are taking place within the system. But there is no internal debate over the Cuban system itself; society isn't ready to question things," Schmid said.

"The government and the system enjoy fairly wide public support, but this doesn't mean people are not critical. Certain things should be improved in the public's eyes, but when it comes down to it, they simply toe the line."

Down but not out

"The Cuban government has probably been knocked down more times than any other regime but it has never been counted out. On many occasions people have said Fidel is dying or dead, yet he's still with us," said Schmid.

For the past 50 years the Cuban revolution has not only overcome the challenges of the United States embargo but also the collapse of a major trading partner.

"I admire Cuba's political energy with respect to the major powers, like the Soviet Union, which supported the regime but then collapsed, or America, which simply wanted to do away with and crush the revolution," said Auroi.

Since its early beginnings in the Sierra Maestra Mountains and during the past half century there has been no let-up for the Cuban revolution: battles against illiteracy and poor health, and the current struggle against globalisation and the economic crisis.

An economy in tatters

Today, without help from its Soviet supporters and crippled by the US embargo, the island is tending to its wounds after a major onslaught by Mother Nature.

Last year during the worst hurricane season in the island's history, Cuba was hit three times and suffered $10 billion (SFr10.91 billion) in damages, or some 20 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP).

"The consequences will be felt for a long time," said Schmid. "Tens of thousands of families will continue to live in temporary housing for years."

"Also, Cuba cannot avoid the global economic crisis and the food crisis, which are hitting hard and affecting its ability to recover."

Hence the austerity of the 50th anniversary celebrations on January 1, 2009 – the date dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba as Castro and his revolutionaries seized control.

Although Cuba's revolution became a symbol of hope for many Latin American countries and appealed to many European leftwing intellectuals, the chosen economic path was inappropriate, said Auroi.

"The Cuban agricultural model was a failure; it still is. They've been rationing food for 50 years," he said.

"Adopting the Communist model to strengthen the Cuban revolution was not the island's sole option. The socialist model has survived, but at what cost?"

Cuba's conquests

In the government's defence, Cubans have access to free healthcare and education – the revolution's two main pillars.

Cuban health workers are recognised as being extremely competent. The newborn mortality rate stands at five deaths per thousand births - the best rate in Latin America, the US and Canada – and one million Latin Americans have had cataract operations carried out by Cuban doctors.

But, warns Schmid, for the younger generation these conquests are no longer major achievements, just natural rights. The challenge now for Cuba is to secure a certain degree of material well-being for its people.

This will obviously require the capacity to produce more, he explained.

"A number of steps are being taken in this direction, which should have an impact in the medium term. This will be crucial so that people can continue to identify with [the Revolution] and be willing to stake their future on it."

swissinfo, Marcela Águila Rubín

Key events of the past 50 years

January 1, 1959 - US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista flees Cuba as Fidel Castro and his revolutionaries seize control.
January 3, 1961 - The US breaks off diplomatic relations with Cuba in response to the nationalisation of US-owned properties.
April 16, 1961 - Castro declares that his revolution is socialist. The next day, Cuban exiles backed by the CIA try to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs but are defeated.
February 7, 1962 - The US imposes a complete commercial embargo against Cuba that remains in place today.
October 1962 - The US and the Soviet Union have a showdown that almost leads to war after the US discovers Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. The tense confrontation ends with the Soviets removing the missiles and the US agreeing never to invade Cuba and, secretly, pulling its missiles from Turkey.
April-October 1980 - Cuba allows 125,000 people to travel to the US from the port of Mariel in what becomes known as the Mariel Boatlift.
December 1991 - The Soviet Union, Cuba's biggest benefactor, collapses, touching off an economic crisis from which the island has not fully recovered.
August-September 1994 - More than 35,000 people leave Cuba in fragile boats, headed for the US.
July 31, 2006 - Fidel Castro provisionally turns over power to brother Raúl Castro after undergoing emergency intestinal surgery.
February 24, 2008 - Raúl Castro is elected president by the National Assembly to formally replace ailing Fidel Castro.

end of infobox

Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation

The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) has been working in Cuba since 1997 and supports projects mainly in the medical field.

The SDC began cooperation activities in Cuba at the end of 2000. In its work the SDC supports initiatives, which include seeking concrete solutions to improve living conditions and to help strengthen institutional structures.

For 2008 the Swiss government paid SFr4 million ($3.65 million) for activities in Cuba.

Bern has represented US interests in Havana since 1961 and Cuban interests in Washington since 1991.

Economic ties between Switzerland and Cuba are minimal and are mainly in tourism.

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