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Posted January 06, 2004 by publisher in Castro's Cuba

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By Anita Snow | Associated Press

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Cuban President Fidel Castro, right, and his brother, Defense Minister Raul Castro, attend the first day of the ordinary session of the National Assembly, at the Convention Palace last week, in Havana, Cuba. (AP/Cristobal Herrera)

HAVANA (AP) - With many of his most vocal critics silenced or in prison and island’s tourism industry on the mend, 77-year-old President Fidel Castro had much to celebrate on the eve of the anniversary of the revolution that brought him to power 45 years ago on New Year’s Day 1959.

The bearded, one-time guerrilla leader now shows his age, but still has the stamina to give a speech lasting eight hours, as he did at a parliamentary session earlier this month.

A major address by Castro was considered likely over the next few days, although nothing had been announced by Wednesday. Numerous concerts and other cultural gatherings were scheduled around the island on Thursday and Friday, both official holidays.

But while Castro’s government trumpeted its economic turnaround, political opponents complained that they are more oppressed than ever.

But while Castro’s government trumpeted its economic turnaround, political opponents complained that they are more oppressed than ever.

“If we wanted to classify 2003 we could say, without doubt, it has been a year of repression,” anti-Castro activist Claudia Marquez wrote for the Miami-based web site Cubanet.

“Not only against dissidence and the independent press, but against the populace in general,” added Marquez, wife of imprisoned dissident Osvaldo Alfonso.

More than two generations have passed since Castro and his fellow rebels marched down from Cuba’s Sierra Maestra mountains to celebrate the hurried departure of U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Bastista from the island on Jan. 1, 1959.

Today, Castro is the world’s longest serving head of government and president of one of only four surviving Socialist systems and one that is unique in the Western Hemisphere. His leadership over this Caribbean country of 11.2 million people remains unchallenged.

There were gleeful predictions in the United States a decade ago that Cuba’s Socialist system would collapse after the Soviet Union broke up and withdrew its aid and trade.

But Castro’s Communists have survived and in 2003 the country prospered with an economic growth of 2.6 per cent, much higher than the average of 1.5 per cent for all of Latin America and the Caribbean.

United, we struggle. United, we triumph, read the 45th anniversary posters around Havana that feature a historic photograph of Castro and fellow rebel leader Camilo Cienfuegos back in January 1959.

But while Castro’s Communist government celebrates its survival and exhorts its people to unity, a potent dissident movement still bubbles beneath the surface - even after the roundup that jailed 75 independent journalists, opposition party leaders and other activists in March.

Many Cubans, including 73-year-old Mauro Sampera, publicly support Castro’s government.

“For the new year, my hope is for health and that the revolutionary process continues,” said Sampera, a retired teacher selling used books Wednesday in Old Havana. “Without the revolution, my four children would not have gone to university.”

But there is an increasing sense that not everyone agrees.

“My wishes for the new year? We Cubans have a lot of wishes for the new year. But we cannot talk about them here in public,” said a younger bookseller who declined to give his name.

Oswaldo Paya, probably Cuba’s best known dissident, remains free and continues to push for deep changes in Cuba’s centralized political and economic systems.

In mid-December, Paya called for a national dialogue, providing a detailed document he says could be used as a guide for a democratic transition.

The government publicly ignored that document, just as it earlier shelved Paya’s Varela Project, an effort that delivered to the Cuban parliament more than 25,000 voter signatures seeking an initiative on rights such as freedom of speech and assembly.

Many of the 75 dissidents sentenced to prison terms of six to 28 years were Varela Project volunteers, accused of being mercenaries working with U.S. diplomats to undermine the Castro government - charges they denied.

Human rights groups around the globe and democratic leaders condemned the spring crackdown, as well as the firing-squad executions of three men who tried to hijack a passenger ferry to the United States.

U.S. President George W. Bush used the crackdown as a reason for further tightening long-standing restrictions on American trade with and travel to the island.

But Cuba continues to thumb its nose at Washington and has opened its arms to American farmers, buying hundreds of millions of dollars of U.S. agricultural goods under an exception to trade sanctions that were first imposed in 1960 by then-president Dwight Eisenhower.

That means that this year, Cubans will be ringing in the new year with meals comprised largely of American-produced food: chicken, beans, rice and holiday apples and pears.

Communist officials say that over two years they have contracted to buy more than $500 million US in American farm goods, even as Bush heads into an election year promising allies in Miami’s Cuban exile community that he will further tighten the screws on the island’s economy.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on May 02, 2004 by James Tozza

    Dear Castro I read lot about you.I think you are great President. I like your policy and like what you stand for. I beleave if you do the crime what ever it is and you are found guilty. you should be shot the next day for murder.or rape. no apeals.that what wrong with the USA is that we take our freedom for granted. We shpud trade with your country. Jimmy Carter I didn’t care for him as president but when came over to your country I thought it was a great move.We should have the freedom to come and go to your country. you out live every president we had. The cold war is over a long time ago. Russia is not what it use to be. I would love to visit your country and there are ways to come over. And Americans come over all the time. I hope you live untill your 100 years old.


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