HAVANA (Reuters) - Fifty years after Fidel Castro led a band of rebels to victory over a U.S.-backed dictator, his revolution goes on, Cuba firmly in its grip, in what some view as a triumph and others a tragedy.
That it has survived may be its greatest accomplishment, given five decades of unstinting opposition and an economic embargo from the nearby United States.
Fidel Castro, 32 when he took power on January 1, 1959, has become a sick old man, many of his fellow Cold War leaders have died and Communism has almost disappeared around the world.
Yet Cuba’s revolution continues and despite the desperate hopes of exiles on the other side of the Florida Straits, people on the Caribbean island see no end to its rule.
In February, Cuba managed a smooth succession of power when Raul Castro, 77, officially replaced his older brother as president. Fidel Castro, 82, has not been seen in public since undergoing intestinal surgery in July 2006, but is still thought to wield considerable power.
Fidel Castro and his rebels were greeted by ecstatic crowds when they rolled into Havana after chasing dictator Fulgencio Batista from power. But the early euphoria faded as Castro and the United States became locked in a Cold War showdown and he allied with the Soviet Union, imposing communism on Cuba.
The bitterness generated in those early years never went away as Castro opponents fled to Miami, unsuccessfully plotted his demise and waited in vain for the long-standing U.S. trade embargo against the island to topple him.
As the 50th anniversary of the revolution approaches and the government prepares modest celebrations for next week, Cubans are divided on whether it has all been worth it.
“History will absolve me,” Castro said in a famous 1953 courtroom speech as Batista tried to end his rebellion by jailing him, but there is little agreement on his legacy.
To supporters, Castro threw off the yoke of tyranny and brought economic justice and benefits such as free education and health care for all.
Opponents say he simply imposed a new dictatorship that impoverished a once-prosperous nation and robbed its people of opportunities.
Almost everyone chafes at monthly salaries that average $20 a month. Government food rations meet part of their dietary needs, but many if not most Cubans participate in a thriving black market to make ends meet.
“Fifty years in this struggle and there’s no progress,” said 46-year-old security guard Gabriel Mata as he took a break under a tree in Havana’s Vedado district. “We see other countries advancing, but not our own. There just aren’t any options here.”
Others say Cuba is a better place, and will continue to improve.
“People don’t remember what Cuba was before the revolution. Cuba was a country sold out to the United States, where poor people had no opportunities,” said a 61-year-old public employee who gave his name only as Robert. “The revolution brought equality of opportunity.”
The support of many people like him and a strong security apparatus are two reasons the revolution looks to be solidly in place. Only a small number of dissidents speak out publicly, and 200 of them have been jailed. The government views dissidents as mercenaries working for the United States.
Most Cubans who are unhappy with the government shrug their shoulders as if to say “why bother?” when asked why there is not more dissent. The better option, some say, is to leave the country, as at least 1 million Cubans have since 1959.
The inefficiencies of a centrally-planned economy, lack of incentive for greater productivity and a general malaise surrounding the aging revolution have held back the economy.
A taxi driver, discussing the pluses and minuses of modern Cuba as he wound through Havana’s uncrowded streets, summed it up in a positive way, saying, “The great thing about this country is that if you don’t want to work, you don’t have to.”
The government places much of the blame for the country’s woes on the U.S. embargo, imposed in 1962 in hopes of strangling the economy and bringing down Castro.
But critics say Castro’s pursuit of social equality turned what was one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations into a basket case dependent on benefactor countries like the Soviet Union before its 1991 collapse and now Venezuela.
“They dealt with inequality by basically making all the people poor. They’ve equalized poverty, if you will,” said Frank Mora at the National War College in Washington.
Fidel Castro makes no apologies for what Cuba has become, saying it was required because the fight for socialism is ultimately against an opponent more formidable than any one man or country.
“In the hard battle for those objectives, the worst enemy is the selfish instinct of the human being. If capitalism means the constant utilization of that instinct, socialism is the incessant battle against such natural tendency,” he said recently in one of the newspaper columns he regularly writes.
Many Cubans were excited about the prospect for change when the more pragmatic Raul Castro took power in February and instituted reforms that allowed them for the first time to buy computers, cell phones and DVD players and to go to hotels and stores previously open only to foreigners.
Since then, most reforms have come to a halt for reasons no one outside the government really knows.
In a slight reversion to their pre-revolutionary past, some Cubans now say their best hope for change may come from the United States, where President-elect Barack Obama has promised to ease the embargo and possibly pursue talks with Cuba.
Additional reporting by Esteban Israel; Editing by Kieran Murray