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Castro's Cuba At 50

CBS News Foreign Affairs Consultant Pamela Falk is a professor of international law at the City University of New York. She has written and edited numerous books and articles on foreign policy and international law and trade.

The Cuban Revolution has just turned 50. That's if you count (as the Cubans do) back to the day of the failed rebel attack on Batista's barracks that launched the Revolution. Although it took six more years for Fidel Castro's rebel army to take power, Cubans celebrate their National Holiday, called the Day of National Rebellion, as Americans celebrate the 4th of July. Thus, this month, Cuba turned 50, two weeks before Castro turns 77.

Castro has been in power as President of Cuba through the terms of ten U.S. Presidents, from President Dwight D. Eisenhower to President George W. Bush. His David-fighting-Goliath image, reinforced after various U.S. assassination attempts in the 1960s and 1970s, the Bay of Pigs, and the Cuban Missile Crisis, make it all the more remarkable that he and his Communist rule have survived so long.

Fifty Years Ago

On the U.S. side, President Eisenhower had been in office for only six months. The Senate had almost completed the confirmation of the first cabinet appointees, among them Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Like Ike, and the vice president, Richard M. Nixon, Dulles thought inadequate the Truman policy of "containment" of Soviet expansion. At that time, few Washington policymakers took note of an event that occurred much closer to home, on July 26, 1953, in Cuba.

Following the annual sugar harvest festival (at a time when sugar was still the driving force in the Cuban economy), about 130 armed rebels, most wearing army uniforms, squeezed into cars to drive into Santiago de Cuba, Cuba's second largest city. At 5:15 a.m., they attacked several targets, including the Moncada barracks of President Fulgencio Batista's army.

Militarily, the raid was a fiasco. Some rebels got lost; 80 were taken prisoner. Yet the raid was a political success. Panicky troops killed nearly 70 of the captured rebels and a wave of repression began with protests from middle class Cubans and the foreign press.

The imprisoned leader of the Moncada attack, an obscure Havana University law graduate named Fidel Castro, was able to play both martyr and hero. At the sentencing of his trial, when he was given 15 years in prison, he concluded his two-hour oration with the words: "Condemn me, it doesn't matter. History will absolve me."

In fact, Castro was absolved by Batista, who 21 months later declared an amnesty for the jailed Moncada rebels. Then Batista's foes enjoyed another stroke of luck. In March 1958, responding to U.S. critics of human rights abuses in Cuba, the Eisenhower administration stopped the shipment of arms to Batista. By that time, Castro had returned from self-exile in Mexico with a small band of guerrillas on the motor yacht Granma to lead his "26th of July Movement." Thus began a revolution that would tear Cuba away from a long, unhappy relationship with its neighbor across the Straits of Florida.

Castro's opponents have not been as fortunate. Writing in the New York Times recently from Havana, one of Castro's fellow rebels in the 1953 attack, Gustavo Arcos Bergnes, secretary general of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, appealed to Castro to release some of the dissidents imprisoned in Cuba, "I have no reason to expect that Fidel Castro will show his political prisoners the magnanimity that he himself benefited from 50 years ago, or that he too will give them amnesty. I hope to be proved wrong. It would be the only fitting way to mark the anniversary."

He Bites The Hand That Feeds Him

This year, in his speech, Castro picked a fight with the European Union, Cuba's main trading partner and investor, the 15-nation union that sends Cuba just about half of its 1.7 million foreign tourists annually and which gives the Cuban government over $16 million in aid a year.

Castro called the EU America's "Trojan horse" and accused EU members of being a "group of old colonial powers historically responsible for slave trafficking, looting and even the extermination of entire peoples." "Cuba does not need the help of the European Union to survive, he added.

But it wasn't the first time Castro's dander was up in public. This fight just comes at a time when Castro's allies are few and far between. In June, the European Union announced it was reviewing its aid program in Cuba in response to human rights concerns and reduced diplomatic relations by limiting high level government visits and participating less frequently in Cuban cultural events. It also blocked Cuba's attempt to join the Cotonou Agreement (an aid agreement) and invited Cuban dissidents to embassy receptions.

At first, Castro just took on Spain and Italy, members of the E.U., likening Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to Adolf Hitler and the Italian fascists, respectively.

A Cuban Foreign Ministry statement in June said that the EU had "capitulated" to the U.S. in its policy toward Cuba. But Castro's speech this past weekend, to a crowd of 10,000 supporters, pointed fingers: "They are full of hatred against Cuba. They don't forgive that we have demonstrated that socialism is… a thousand times more humane than the rotten system which they have adopted."

Castro's name calling is not new. He once called Mao Zedong a "senile idiot" and John F. Kennedy an "illiterate millionaire." But in the context of an economic crisis the worst in a decade, Castro appears more self-destructive.

Cuba Today And Tomorrow

To his supporters, Castro broke Cuba from the cycle of rich and poor and gave an egalitarian opportunity in health care and education, where infant mortality is the lowest in the world and the U.S. is to blame for economic woes. To his critics, Castro is an oppressive dictator who has supported and built a compromised, corrupt system of neighborhood snitch committees, denying freedom and human rights, a system in which devotion to the Communist Party is the key to the few perks of the regime.

But either way, the picture of Cuba today is one of economic hardship and isolation. In April, 2003, while the world watched the Iraqi regime fall, Castro drew international criticism to Cuba from the European Union, the U.S., Latin America - and even the Pope - for a crackdown on dissent that imprisoned 75 journalists, dissidents, and librarians with sentences of up to 28 years in jail and witnessed the firing squad executions of three men convicted of hijacking a ferry.

Despite an increase in tourism, Cuba's economy is limping along, with the worst recession since 1994: rationing is still in place, the sugar industry is as bad as it's ever been, and investment is stagnant.

Cuba's economy is aided by an estimated $1 billion in cash remittances sent to relatives each year by Cubans living abroad, allowed under the embargo. Tourism has become a cash cow, with more revenue than sugar production.

Nonetheless, Cuba still maintains among the highest life expectancy in Latin America, highest literacy rates in the world, and among the lowest infant mortality rates. Because of shortages, the health care system, presented by Castro as one of the flagships of the Revolution, has deteriorated, with the exception of export-oriented advancements and tourism medical care.

U.S.-Cuban Relations

Today, U.S.-Cuban relations are as tense as they have been: Cuba worries that the Bush Administration might exercise its military muscle against Cuba, after Afghanistan and Iraq, and the Bush administration has tightened the embargo.

Castro's 50th anniversary speech repeated attacks against the U.S. and was set in Santiago de Cuba, a city rich with history of U.S.-Cuban history - mainly history that the U.S. is not particularly proud of. Teddy Roosevelt rode up San Juan Hill there with his Rough Riders after calling the Cuban people "that cheating ma ~ana lot." He, of course, was provoked by William Randolph Hearst's "yellow journalism." After all, Cuba had fascinated U.S. officials for more than a century. Over the decades, four presidents - Polk, Buchanan, Grant, and McKinley - tried to buy the island from Spain.

When I was in Santiago de Cuba several years ago, I was told by my Foreign Ministry hosts that the Barracks had actually burnt down and the segment of the building with the bullet holes was a replica - needed to keep revolutionary zeal alive. But no one mentioned that when, on July 26th, hundreds of Cuban schoolchildren re-enacted the events of 1953, with guns toted and flags waiving, shooting BB guns into the barracks to mark the 50th anniversary.

What and who is next after Castro? Who knows, but officially, Raul Castro, Fidel's younger brother and the current Defense Minister, is next in line when Castro leaves the scene. He has, during the past two years, had a more visible presence at events.

On July 26, Castro was in vintage fighting form, in green fatigues, as frozen in time as a 1951 Chevy truck that floated 40 miles south of Key West last week with 12 Cubans, attempting to flee to the U.S.

For Castro and for the world, history will be the judge.

By Pamela Falk By Pamela Falk

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