By Jeff Franks Jeff Franks – Wed Dec 31, 8:26 am ET
HAVANA (Reuters) – Against a backdrop of economic gloom and the frail
health of former leader Fidel Castro, Cuba will mark on Thursday the
50th anniversary of the revolution that turned the island into a
communist state and Cold War hot spot at the doorstep of the United States.
President Raul Castro will speak in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba
from the same balcony where his older brother, Fidel Castro, proclaimed
victory after dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country in the early
morning hours of January 1, 1959.
The elder Castro, 82, in semi-seclusion since July 2006 after surgery
for an undisclosed intestinal ailment, will not attend, officials said.
Due to his absence and the economic difficulties plaguing Cuba, what had
been expected to be a major celebration of the revolution's longevity
will be a no-frills event in a tree-shaded square with room for about
only 3,000 people, the officials said.
Concerts are planned throughout the country, with the major one in
Havana where popular Cuban band Los Van Van will play at the
Anti-Imperialist Tribunal in front of the U.S. Interests Section.
The Interests Section was the embassy for the United States until it
broke off diplomatic relations in January 1961 after U.S.-owned
properties were nationalized by Fidel Castro.
Officials have said this was not a time for lavish celebration because
Cuba is struggling from the effects of three hurricanes this year that
caused $10 billion in damages, as well as the global financial crisis.
Government leaders gave a gloomy assessment of the economy last week,
telling the National Assembly the country's trade and budget deficits
had ballooned due to rising import costs and falling prices for exports.
Raul Castro called for more belt-tightening and an end to handouts he
said discouraged people from working.
'A NEW STAGE'
"The victory of the 1st of January did not mark the end of the struggle,
but the start of a new stage," he said. "There has not been a minute of
respite during the past half century."
Should he not show up, Fidel Castro's absence will raise new speculation
about his condition, to which many believe Cuba's future is closely linked.
Although he has not been seen in public for 2-1/2 years, he still has a
behind-the-scenes presence in the government and a public voice via
opinion columns he writes regularly.
He remains a world figure who made his name thumbing his nose at the
United States, just 90 miles away, and forging close ties with its Cold
War enemy, the Soviet Union.
Many Cubans believe that as long as Fidel Castro is alive, his more
pragmatic brother will not be able to reform the Cuban economy or
political system in a meaningful way.
Others doubt Raul Castro wants to make many changes and that early
reforms he implemented, such as opening computer and cell phone sales to
Cubans, were meant chiefly to gain favor with Cubans skeptical he could
fill his brother's shoes.
Cuba's revolution arrives at its 50th anniversary in a time of transition.
Fidel Castro is on the sidelines after ruling Cuba for 49 years and his
archenemy, the United States, may be on the verge of change in its Cuba
President-elect Barack Obama, who replaces President George W. Bush on
January 20, has said he wants to ease the 46-year-old U.S. trade embargo
toward Cuba, is open to talks with Cuban leaders and will consider steps
toward normalizing relations.
Both Castros have warily said talks were possible.
Changes are not just occurring at the top.
In Cuba, people, especially the young, clamor increasingly for an end to
five decades of economic hardship and see improved U.S.-Cuba relations
as a way out.
In the United States, a recent poll showed that for the first time a
majority of Cuban-Americans in Miami, center of the Cuban exile world
and anti-Castro sentiment, favor ending the embargo.
As Raul Castro told the National Assembly, "We are living in a radically
different period of history."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)