HAVANA (Reuters) - When 70-year-old Communist Party member Amanda Gonzalez recalls life before the Cuban revolution, bitterness creeps into her voice.
She chokes back tears as she remembers her parents working long hours at dead-end jobs in a stratified society where the odds seemed hopelessly stacked against the poor and the rich showed little concern for their plight.
“Poor people at that time had nothing, and there were many poor. The rich only cared about profits and wealth,” she said, sitting at a table in her peeling, 19th century home in central Havana.
Now, five decades after the triumph of the revolution that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista and put Fidel Castro in power on January 1, 1959, the rich are gone and a social safety net is in place, but economic hardship remains.
Like many Cubans, Gonzalez is anxious for it to end.
“On balance, the revolution has been positive, but what hits me is the economic situation. We are forced to do illegal things to improve our lives,” she said.
As their country prepares to mark the revolution’s 50th anniversary on Thursday, Cubans complain about some things and praise others in their remade society.
They like the free health care and education which have helped make Cubans some of the longest-living, best-educated people in the Americas. They also appreciate the low crime rate and absence of dire poverty.
But they say that, despite the revolution’s lofty goal of economic justice, it is a struggle to survive on salaries that average $20 a month.
“I can’t live on my salary. I have to ‘invent’ because it can’t be done,” said teacher Pedro Perez, using a Cuban term for bending the rules to make ends meet.
Inventing means finding ways to augment one’s salary or to make it go further by buying goods, often stolen, on the black market where prices are cheaper than in the state-run stores.
It is not uncommon for vendors to go to offices or homes peddling goods either stolen from government enterprises or purchased for sale at a higher price. They have no trouble finding buyers.
Gonzalez said she uses the subsidized monthly food ration the government gives all Cubans to buy cigarettes for two pesos (8 cents), then sells them for 5 pesos (20 cents).
In a country where most private enterprise is forbidden, she said that trick to earn a few more pesos is against the law. “Everything is illegal,” she said.
The government staged a crackdown against the black market for food after three hurricanes wiped out 30 percent of Cuban crops this year, but the peddling goes on.
Officials blame many of Cuba’s economic problems on the U.S. trade embargo against the island, put in place in 1962 to drive Castro and communism from power. But they also say Cuban productivity needs to improve and President Raul Castro called on Saturday for new austerity measures, including fewer subsidies for workers.
When asked what changes they would like to see, most Cubans say they do not want a return to the capitalism in place before the revolution. Mostly they call for tweaks to the socialist system, focusing on economic needs, not political reforms.
Many say they’d like to be able to open their own business and have the right to buy homes and cars, all now mostly prohibited.
“I’d just like to make enough money to live off my salary,” said Perez.
But some call for broader changes such as multi-party elections, greater freedom of expression and more freedom to travel.
“We Cubans want freedom. Changes mean freedom,” dissident Oswaldo Paya said recently. “To deny changes is to close the doors of the future to the Cuban people.”
Younger Cubans, for whom the events of 1959 are ancient history, express greater dissatisfaction than their elders.
Prominent blogger Yoani Sanchez, 33, and rock musician Gorki Aguila, 39, have run afoul of Cuban authorities for their outspoken criticism of the government, and many younger Cubans are frustrated by the lack of opportunities.
Apart from the improved social services, 32-year-old Manny Garcia said “everything else about the revolution has been bad in my opinion.”
He scoffed at reforms Raul Castro initiated after officially replacing Fidel Castro as president in February. The changes included letting Cubans buy cell phones and computers for the first time.
“To allow Cubans to have cellular phones, I don’t see that as a change. When you lack everything else, a cellular is a luxury. I have to save for months if I just want to buy a pair of tennis shoes,” Garcia said.
Fidel Castro retired due to poor health but is still a powerful figure behind the scenes and his younger brother is not expected to push through radical reforms.
Argelio Gonzalez, a 61-year-old gardener with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth and a machete in his hand, said the young critics should not forget the conditions that created the revolution.
“The rich had everything and the poor had nothing, only misery,” he said.
As for change, “I don’t want any,” he said. “I want everything to stay like Fidel wants it.”
Editing by Kieran Murray