Aging Castro still rules 50 years after revolution

HAVANA (AP) -- In the palace of a fallen dictator, the grade-school kids 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 U.S. 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 its one-time godfather, 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 U.S. presidents, the U.S.-backed Bay of Pigs invasion, a world-shaking missile crisis, the U.S. 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 from deep underground: rappers, gays, dissident bloggers, installers of pirate satellite dishes, teenagers with tattoos and pierced belly buttons, and the women who call themselves Las Damas de Blanco, or Ladies in White.

Each Sunday, these women deliver a muted counterpart to the official cry of "Viva Fidel! Viva la revolucion!" by marching down Quinta Avenida, a busy Havana thoroughfare, each dressed in white and carrying a gladiola, silently demanding the release of their husbands from political imprisonment.

Dissidents 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 Web 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 cell phone 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 U.S. president, offering to talk to the Cuban leadership and promising to immediately lift U.S. 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.

"They say with Obama tourism should improve, that he'll let family members come whenever they want and maybe all Americans. That would be good for business," says Roberto Garcia, who paints pictures of old American cars, topless women and bottles of Havana Club rum.

Garcia sells his acrylics for up to $60 on the Malecon, the four-mile stretch of seaside highway that runs through Havana and has witnessed some of revolutionary Cuba's most dramatic moments.

Here a tumultuous crowd greeted a 32-year-old Fidel Castro when he and his bearded fellow 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.

"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 U.S. 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."

Old-timers in eastern Cuba, where Castro fought his guerrilla war, are similarly grateful.

"I have what I have to have: my house, my wife, my salary," said Ruben Lao, a 73-year-old former rebel who lives in the Sierra Maestra mountains, where Castro led his troops. "I don't lack food, or a refrigerator or television, which I couldn't have had back then."

Back in the capital, 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 U.S. Their deaths followed a crackdown that condemned 75 government critics to long prison terms, dashing hopes of any relaxation following Jimmy Carter's visit, the first by a former U.S. president to Castro's Cuba.

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."

If Cuba is sometimes frozen in the 1950s, small signs of the 21st century are popping up along the Malecon, which was built in 1901 when American forces occupied Cuba following the Spanish-American war.

The boom-BAH-boom-boom-boom of reggaeton music pours out from windows above once-elegant colonnades, and some long-neglected buildings are getting a foreign-funded facelift in funky yellow, green or apricot, reminiscent of the art deco style seen in Miami Beach, where many Cuban exiles live.

Wheeled transport on the coastal highway is a timeline of Cuba since the revolution: Oldest are the 1950s Chevrolets and Fords that chug along on Soviet tractor engines; next are Russian-made Ladas, then spanking new Chinese buses, and Cuba's first Fiat dealership, which happens to be next to a Malecon cafe where Havana's gays congregate.

The Malecon's seawall today is a long concrete couch, where the crashing waves occasionally spray canoodling couples, pole-casting fishermen, rum-swigging workers, and a lone saxophonist playing a mournful tune that floats toward the Florida Straits.

Since few people can afford a boat, or legally own one lest they use it to escape, the most common craft in view are a few bobbing inner tubes and fishermen's plastic foam rafts. Occasionally a freighter arrives, or a cruise ship carrying European tourists who will spend a few hours here, mingle with the kids in the museum, drink a few minty mojito cocktails while listening to salsa music, buy a few trinkets and then sail on.

The bay used to be jammed with Russian freighters bringing oil or canned beef, while Soviet arms shipments arrived discreetly at a military port to the west. In March 1993 a Russian ship carried away 1,500 former Soviet soldiers and their families, ending a three-decade Soviet presence on the island which included $5 billion a year in aid.

In late 2001 a freighter brought 500 tons of frozen chicken parts - the first U.S. commercial food shipment in 38 years.

On Aug. 5, 1994, drama erupted on the Malecon as thousands of Cubans gathered to cheer a ferry hijacking and grew angry as authorities intervened, throwing rocks at police and shops catering to foreigners only.

Fidel Castro arrived in a military jeep, waded into the melee, and calmed the rioters by announcing he would not stop anyone wanting to leave.

People hugging inner tubes and rickety rafts hurled themselves from the seawall and struck out for Florida, 90 miles away. "They'd just get out of cars and jump into the water," recalls Wilfredo Mason, a Malecon barber. "Some left motorcycles behind!"

As many as 40,000 Cubans left. But for Luis Gonzalez, 41, the West held little attraction. "Born after the revolution, I don't have anything to compare it with," he says. "But the revolution gives us free medicine and education, and capitalism doesn't deliver those things."

Another Cuba-U.S. crisis came in 1996, when Cuban fighter pilots shot down two planes flown by exile pilots, killing four people. Whether the planes invaded Cuban airspace is disputed, but the U.S. Congress swiftly passed the Helms-Burton Act, which banned the embargo's removal as long as either Castro was in power.

Castro was last seen in public on July 26, 2006, at a major celebration in eastern Cuba - five days before he had intestinal surgery and ceded power to Raul.

His health today is a state secret. He doesn't appear in public and looks increasingly gaunt in occasional official photographs. But he keeps writing essays that are read in full on state TV.

In one essay he responded to Obama's willingness to talk by saying "a conversation can be held wherever he wants."

Although his brother permanently replaced him as president in February, state media continue to refer to Fidel as "Leader of the Revolution," and many ordinary Cubans still call him El Comandante.

It's telling that apart from celebratory slogans in Havana store windows, there is no indication that authorities are planning much hoopla for the 50th anniversary. Raul Castro will lead the main celebration Jan. 1 in the eastern city of Santiago, but the leadership reportedly toned down its plans after three hurricanes this year caused more than $10 billion in damage.

That may be another sign of the younger Castro's pragmatic, unshowy style. But blogger Sanchez maintains that the revolution died long ago and needs no birthday bash.

"Let it rest in peace," she wrote in a Dec. 14 posting, "and we will soon begin a new cycle: shorter, less pretentious, more free."

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