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Castro revolution turns 50

Cuba’s revolution turns 50 Saturday with a leader just as defiant today as when he started half a century ago.
/ Source: NBC News correspondent

Cuba’s revolution turns 50 Saturday with a leader just as defiant today as when he started half a century ago. Fidel Castro will lead the celebration by returning to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba where he launched his armed struggle in 1953. In fact he will be speaking not far from the courtroom where he went on trial for his life after being captured during his first armed attack against the Batista dictatorship.

FOR FIVE DECADES Castro has used the anniversary to laud the benefits of an egalitarian socialist system, emphasizing his programs that benefit the forgotten members of society, while skirting criticisms of his abuse of basic individual rights. This year Cubans expect more of the same from a president who often quotes national hero José Martí: “To be educated is to be liberated.”

Castro began his revolution with a literacy campaign that sent 200,000 young people into the countryside to teach farm families to read and write. Although Cuba’s adult literacy stands at 96 percent and its primary schools rate the highest marks when compared to the rest of Latin America, education today is fighting to stay top of the class. Cuba’s biggest problem? No one wants to teach. With Cuba’s economic meltdown over a decade ago, teachers left the profession in droves to seek more lucrative salaries.

Disgruntled professionals, in fact, make up a bulk of the Cuban workforce whose salaries increasingly fall short of meeting Cuba’s high cost of living. Raquel Hernandez quit the army for a job with the tourism company Gran Caribe. Part of Cuba’s privileged class, she earns a portion of her salary in US dollars. “School and health care are free but I still have to buy shoes and food for my daughter.” Even with her hefty salary of 400 pesos and 20 dollars a month, the single mother finds “everything so expensive. My salary just doesn’t stretch far enough.”


InsertArt(1978121)Despite a slight bounce in tourist earnings, Cuba’s economy continued to sag this year. For the third year running, economic growth — expected at a modest 1.5 percent before the year’s end — has dropped below government expectations.

Cuban watchers don’t expect Castro to address those concerns at Saturday’s rally before 10,000 ardent supporters but to look instead at the global political picture. They expect harsh words for his traditional enemy, the United States, but are not looking for any action that could change the status quo. Much like what people heard on May 20 from President George W. Bush who criticized Castro for a crackdown on the dissident movement but stopped short of penalizing the island by either suspending the direct flights between both countries or canceling the 1994 migratory agreements.

The opposite, in fact, is the case. While European tourism generally remains in its post Sept. 11 slump, terminal two at Havana’s main airport is the busiest its been all year with as many as ten flights a day arriving from Miami and carrying Cuban Americans home to visit family.

InsertArt(1978124)Castro has also signaled Washington that he won’t permit a wave of illegal migration to muddy the waters of the Florida Straits this summer. Some observers expected Cuba’s worsening economic picture to spark a repeat of the 1994 immigration crisis that brought 38,000 rafters to U.S. shores. Instead of opening the floodgates, Castro moved quickly and severely against all illegal attempts to flee his island when he upheld a court decision to execute three men found guilty of terrorism for hijacking a commuter ferry with 30 passengers aboard. And Washington, enmeshed in its own battle against terrorism, recently took two steps to support Castro’s efforts when a Florida court handed down a stiff sentence to a plane hijacker and the U.S. Coast guard returned hijackers and a state-owned vessel to Cuba after it reached Bahaman waters.

You can also expect Castro to defend his April law and order campaign that sentenced 75 independent journalists and human rights activists to prison terms that range from six to 28 years. Castro will most likely repeat his claim that the dissidents are mercenaries in cahoots with the U.S. government to undermine his regime - charges both the activists and the State Department have denied. Government moles that infiltrated the dissident movement here will be prominently seated when Castro delivers what could be his major foreign and domestic policy address this year.

Just by walking up to the podium on Saturday, the firebrand communist, who will turn 77 next month, will dispel this summer’s storm of rumors that he might be either gravely ill or dead. Like past rumors, these began when Castro was absent from public view for a few weeks and ended when he handed out diplomas at a graduation ceremony earlier this week. And, as in the past, government officials here blamed Castro’s enemies in South Florida’s exile community for starting and spreading the scuttlebutt.

Portia Siegelbaum contributed to this report.