By Anthony Boadle | Reuters
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba will mark the 50th anniversary on Saturday of the initial assault that launched its revolution with growing uncertainty over the health of the country’s leader and the political future of the island.
President Fidel Castro, who will be 77 in August, was expected to speak at a rally in the eastern city of Santiago, which could help dispel recent rumors that he was ill.
Cuba watchers say the anniversary will do little to remove persistent questions about the future of a nation steeped in economic crisis since the collapse of Soviet communism.
“There is a sense of resigned expectation on the island, because no one really knows how Cuba is going to get out of this hole ... a resignation that things have to be accepted the way they are now but that this cannot go on for ever,” said Cuban-born Eusebio Mujal-Leon, professor of government at Georgetown University in Washington.
On July 26, 1953, Castro led a band of 130 rebels in a bold attack on Santiago’s Moncada army barracks, the second most important military base of corrupt U.S.-backed right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista.
The rebels were defeated, but prison and exile did not stop the bearded revolutionary and his guerrilla insurgency triumphed five years later. The tenacious Castro survived Cold War enmity and CIA assassination attempts and built a socialist society that achieved the health and education standards of industrialized nations.
Castro weathered a deep economic crisis in the mid-1990s after Cuba lost Soviet assistance and markets for its sugar. He opened up Cuba to tourism and foreign investment and allowed circulation of the U.S. dollar and room for limited private initiative in an effort to refloat the economy.
But persistent social hardship has brought discontent and the emergence last year of a nationwide dissident movement calling for reforms to Cuba’s one-party state.
CRACKDOWN ON DISSENT
With the Bush administration stepping up support for his opponents, Castro launched a crackdown in March that resulted in the imprisonment of 75 dissidents with sentences of up to 28 years.
The unprecedented repression, which included the execution of three men who hijacked a ferry to try to sail to the United States, heightened Cuba’s international isolation. The European Union condemned the crackdown and reduced political contacts. Cuba held protests outside the Spanish and Italian embassies.
“We could now ask those who maintain the infamy that human rights are violated in this country: Where are your schools and universities for social workers? Who deals with the problems suffered in those selfish, capitalist, alienated and alienating societies?” Castro said on Monday.
His 45-minute speech at a graduation ceremony for social workers in Havana’s Karl Marx theater was his first public appearance since the latest round of rumors that he was unwell or may have died. He looked cheerful.
Ever since Castro fainted briefly during a speech in June 2001, Cubans in and out of government have begun wondering what will happen when he dies. Dissidents call it the “biological solution” and few expect any changes to take place until then.
Political scientist Mujal-Leon believes the process of change began the day Cubans started asking, what next?
“The transition to the post-Castro era has already begun, in the same way that it began in Spain four or five years before Franco died,” he said.
“At some point people begin to ask—in the society, among the dissidents, within the regime—what is going to happen afterward. And that is a very debilitating question, because it raises doubts about what can be sustained,” he said.