Fifty years after triumphant armed rebels descended from the eastern mountains, communist Cuba celebrated the revolution’s anniversary with toned-down festivities following a trio of devastating hurricanes and under the enduring public absence of an ailing Fidel Castro.
Although Fidel Castro continued convalescing in private, the festivities were filled with nostalgia and praise of the bearded rebel leader known as the “Leader of the Revolution.”
His brother, President Raul Castro, predicted the revolution would survive another 50 years, “that will also be of permanent struggle”.
The austere celebrations, including dances and concerts across the island, belied the start of a year infused with possibilities for increased cash and visitors, and other changes that might ease Cubans’ daily hardships.
Many here hope for improved relations with the United States when President-elect Barack Obama takes office on January 20 following declarations he would talk directly with Raul Castro and lift severe restrictions on family travel and remittances to the island.
“I hope he gets rid of the blockade,” 42-year-old Ana Luisa Mas said as she bought a pork leg for her family’s New Year’s Eve celebration, referring to decades-old US trade sanctions.
“We are very hopeful that with Obama our relatives will be able to visit us more, and send us more money,” she said, manoeuvring through hundreds of shoppers packed inside the enclosed Cuatro Caminos farmers market, rushing to buy black beans and rice, salad greens and other New Year’s Eve dinner standbys.
“We also hope that Fidel will stay with us a little bit longer,” Ms Mas added.
Raul Castro, who succeeded his older brother in February, quoted extensively from his brother as he spoke from below the same balcony where Fidel declared victory over dictator Fulgencio Batista’s government on January 1, 1959.
He pointedly cited from a speech his brother made at Havana University a few years before he got sick, warning “this revolution can destroy itself” and that if it occurred, “it would be our own fault”.
No foreign leaders were at the evening speech on a small, leafy plaza, with little fanfare beyond invitations to 3,000 Communist Party faithful. Outside the seaside US Interests Section in Havana, the popular group Los Van Van were performing.