Cuba celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution Thursday, marking when armed rebels, led by Fidel Castro, victoriously transformed the island nation into a communist country by overthrowing the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista on Jan. 1, 1959.
But the milestone event, whose theme was one of perseverance of the values and ideals for another 50 years, comes at a pivotal time in Cuba: Fidel Castro was officially succeeded by his younger brother in February, after an undisclosed illness left him too weak to govern. Cubans across the country have expressed hope that President Raul Castro, known as the more practical of the two, will usher in reforms across the island.
Subdued celebrations were staged throughout Cuba. In Santiago de Cuba, where Fidel Castro addressed the nation five decades ago, Raul Castro told Cubans the revolution is as strong as ever but warned of the need to continuously fight the enemy, referring to the US. "It is time to reflect on the future, on the next 50 years when we shall continue to struggle incessantly," he told a crowd. " I'm not trying to scare anyone, this is the truth."
President Castro hailed his brother's role in creating and sustaining the revolution, quoting from several speeches over his nearly half century in power. "We know that a man alone doesn't make history. But some men are indispensable, as they can have a decisive influence in the course of events. Fidel is one," he said.
"Viva Fidel, viva the revolution, viva free Cuba!" he shouted.
But Fidel Castro was not there, and his ongoing absence – he not been seen publicly since mid-2006 – cast a shadow over the celebrations. For now he continues to voice his views through columns in the state-run newspaper Granma. In a message published Thursday he praised "our heroic people" for 50 years of revolution.
Fidel Castro's legacy is a mixed bag. Cuba is praised worldwide for an education system that has stamped out illiteracy and its universal healthcare system. But critics worldwide just as loudly condemn the controls on freedom of expression and the continued harassment of dissidents.
Cuba's economy was nearly decimated after the fall of the Soviet Union in the 1990s. Even though Venezuela has stepped in, sending some 100,000 barrels of subsidized oil a day, Cuba's economy has been hurt this year by three hurricanes causing $10 billion in damage and high food prices.
Cuba continues to place blame squarely on the US, and its trade embargo that has been in place for 46 years. The embargo is not expected to be lifted any time soon. But with the incoming administration of US President Barack Obama, there is a renewed sense of hope that he'll ease restrictions – including family travel and remittances for Cuban Americans – and that more dialogue can open between the two nations.