THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Castro's grip firm as Cuba's revolution turns 50

New activists emerging to challenge regime

A man walked past the ruins of a home in Havana yesterday. Cubans are hopeful President-elect Barack Obama will lift some US restrictions on travel to the impoverished country. A man walked past the ruins of a home in Havana yesterday. Cubans are hopeful President-elect Barack Obama will lift some US restrictions on travel to the impoverished country. (Javier Galeano/ Associated Press)
By Anita Snow
Associated Press / December 21, 2008
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HAVANA - In the palace of a fallen dictator, the grade-school children in their red Communist Pioneer bandanas are getting their mandatory introduction to the glories of the revolution.

Clattering from one display case to the next, they gaze wide-eyed at an antique gun, a fighter's bloodied shirt, the engine of a downed US spy plane. Moving on, they stare at the yacht named Granma that carried Fidel Castro back from exile to launch his guerrilla war, and the combat boots his brother-successor wore as a ponytailed 27-year-old rebel.

The palace of Fulgencio Batista, the ruler whom Castro overthrew, is now the Museum of the Revolution, and these 6- and 7-year-olds are the heirs to a communist government about to turn 50 - a system that may be softening at the edges but appears determined to crush any threat to its grip on power, lest it crumble like the Soviet Union.

Since Castro declared victory on New Year's Day, 1959, the day after Batista fled the country, his rule has prevailed through 10 US presidents, the US-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, a world-shaking missile crisis, the US embargo, the Soviet collapse, and the onslaught of globalization.

Now 82, he is ailing and out of sight but still the head of the Communist Party of Cuba. Raul Castro, his successor as president, is taking baby steps toward change and vowing to fend off any challenge to his brother's legacy.

But today, between the extremes of enforced communist dogma and the die-hards of the Cuban diaspora still dreaming of bringing down the Castro regime, other faces of Cuba are emerging: dissident bloggers, rappers, installers of pirate satellite dishes, and the women who call themselves Las Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White - who march weekly to demand the release of their husbands from political imprisonment.

Activists have a new way to reach the outside world - blogging. Yoani Sanchez, 33, gets her message out by dressing like a tourist and slipping into a hotel with Internet access for foreigners. She works quickly at a computer terminal and gets out before someone notices her.

In a posting this month, Sanchez noted that the government, which used to send gays to labor camps, now accepts homosexuality. So why not political opposition? she asked. "Why does the adjective 'counterrevolutionary' continue to be used for those who think differently?"

But few of Cuba's 11.2 million people have access to the Internet, and anyway are preoccupied with staying afloat in a sclerotic economy where basics like toilet paper often disappear from store shelves and most people eat meat only a few times each month.

In such conditions, the slightest hint of new thinking at the top can be electrifying.

Cubans felt it after Castro stepped down and his brother Raul, now 77, took over in February, cutting a much lower-key, more pragmatic figure than the bearded, expansive Fidel.

He has lifted a ban on cellphone service for ordinary Cubans and allowed them to stay in tourist hotels that hitherto were off-limits. He has let them buy DVD players, computers, and coveted kitchen appliances. He has legalized some home ownership, upped payments to farmers, acknowledged that state salaries are too small to live on, and rebuked bureaucrats who don't properly serve the public.

Now Cubans are excited by the prospect of Barack Obama becoming the US president, offering to talk to the Cuban leadership and promising to immediately lift US restrictions that strictly limit how often Cuban-Americans can visit their relatives and how much money they can send them.

A Havana billboard portraying George W. Bush as a bloody-fanged vampire was taken down this autumn. No official reason was given, but Cubans were happy to read it as a goodwill gesture to Obama as he campaigned for the presidency.

A tumultuous crowd greeted a 32-year-old Fidel Castro when he and his commanders reached Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, just a week after their victory in eastern Cuba spelled the end of the Batista government. Ernesto Plasencia, a bony 76-year-old ex-rebel, remembers that day on the Malecon, a seaside highway.

"It was a fiesta, like carnival! We were so happy! The tyrant was gone!" he said.

He augments his disability pension of 140 pesos (about $6.70) a month by selling candy on the Malecon and has no major complaints. The government's broad social safety net ensures him and all other Cubans free medical care and heavily subsidized services, including a very cheap monthly food ration that provides about a third of the average dietary needs. Education through university level is free.

Like his government, Plasencia blames Cuba's hardships on the US embargo, imposed after Castro embraced communism and nationalized Western-owned industries.

Plasencia is grateful for the communists' agrarian reform that gave his family a patch of farmland. "I had to leave school when I was 10 to shine shoes," he recalls. "My mother had to wash and iron rich people's clothes."

On the other side of Havana Bay, looms the Spanish fortress where Ernesto "Che" Guevara, a top Castro commander, directed executions of several hundred Batista police and army officials accused of torturing and killing opponents.

The last time Cuba carried out executions was in 2003, when three men went before a firing squad for trying to hijack a passenger ferry to the United States.

In jails scattered across the island, Cuba holds 219 political prisoners, according to Elizardo Sanchez, of the independent Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation. In 1964 Fidel Castro acknowledged holding as many as 15,000 political prisoners.

Sanchez, 60, is a former professor of Marxism who broke with the system nearly 30 years ago and spent eight years in Cuban prisons. For him, the bottom line of the revolution is sad and simple: "After 50 years, the government still cannot guarantee any civil or political rights."

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