By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
HAVANA - For Cuban President Fidel Castro, who will be 77 Wednesday, the slogan is still ‘‘socialism or death,’’ even though he has lost friends and allies in his 44th year in power.
After half a century in the public eye, the world’s longest serving leader is not about to give up the role of indefatigable revolutionary striving for an egalitarian society in one of the last five communist countries.
But in the last year, Castro has encountered emerging internal opposition calling for democratic reforms fueled by discontent over chronic economic hardship Cubans have endured since the demise of Soviet communism.
The sugar harvest this year was the worst since the 1930s and foreign investment has slowed to a trickle.
His one-party government has faced growing international isolation and condemnation over its human rights record following the mass jailings of 75 dissidents in March.
Since June, Castro has fallen out with the European Union, the cash-strapped Caribbean nation’s largest trade and investment partner and the main source of its tourism.
Following diplomatic sanctions by Brussels, the Cuban leader organized big demonstrations outside the Spanish and Italian embassies in Havana to denounce outside political interference.
This year’s political crackdown also lost Castro friends among left-wing intellectuals, such as Nobel prize-winning author Jose Saramago of Portugal and Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano.
Castro’s grip on power is unquestionable and he continues to hold the top three political leadership posts as head of state, head of government and the first secretary of the ruling Cuban Communist Party, as well as supreme commander the armed forces.
But the Cuban leader has slowed his pace noticeably in recent years, and doubts about his health have persisted since he fainted briefly during a speech under the sun in June 2001.
Castro dispelled a recent wave of rumors that he was ill or even dead with a defiant speech July 26 on the steps of the Moncada barracks in Santiago, where he launched his rebel uprising 50 years ago in a failed assault on right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista’s troops.
EUROPEAN AID REJECTED
Instead of attacking his longtime ideological enemy, the United States, Castro blasted the European Union and rejected humanitarian aid from Brussels, saying it was tied to unacceptable political conditions.
“Cuba does not need the aid of the European Union to survive, develop and achieve what they will never achieve,’’ he said, using the fiery rhetoric that has defined his tenure.
Blaming European colonialism for plunder and slavery, Castro defended the social gains of his revolution in education and health, on a par with industrialized nations. Illiteracy was down to 0.5 percent in Cuba, and the average life expectancy of Cubans will rise from 76 to 80 years within five years, he said.
Last week, opening a genetic medicine center in Havana, an undaunted and cheerful Castro said Cuba was on the right track to improving its population’s quality of life and said his country was ready to conduct human genome research.
In an interview with Hollywood director Oliver Stone, for a documentary portrait called “Comandante’’ that was released in Europe earlier this year, Castro said he would continue his fight until he was dead.
“I have never dedicated an instant of thought to how people regard me,’’ Castro told Stone during 30 hours of interviews. A retired U.S. naval officer, Adm. David Chandler, who spent nine hours with Castro three years ago, described the Cuban leader as “indefatigable.’‘
“He very much enjoys the role of senior statesman, of the communist leader who has survived all communist leaders,’’ Chandler said in an interview with America’s Defense Monitor broadcast on PBS stations in the United States in 2000.
“It seems to me that Fidel Castro is proud of his accomplishments, however much his state represents in my view a failed communist state.’’