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Cuba Marks 50 Years Since 'Triumphant Revolution'

GUY RAZ, host:

Today in Cuba, the government is marking the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro's Cuban Revolution. It was on January 1st 1959 that Castro's guerillas ousted U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Castro eventually imposed a hard line Marxist/Leninist regime on the island. Despite the fall of the Soviet Union and an ongoing U.S. embargo, Cuba remains one of the few communist nations left in the world. NPR's Jason Beaubien is in the eastern Cuban city of Santiago where the official celebration of the anniversary is being held. Jason, how important is this anniversary?

JASON BEAUBIEN: Well, this anniversary is hugely important for the Cuban government. There's sort of an air of defiance here. The Soviet Union is gone, the U.S. has been trying for regime change here for 50 years, and Cuba, under Fidel, has done things Fidel's way. And the relationship between the U.S. and Cuba has really dominated the last five decades. The U.S. broke off diplomatic relations back in 1960 after Castro nationalized U.S. business interests here. Then in 1962, you had the Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war. You know, the U.S. has tried an outright coup attempt during the Bay of Pigs, and Washington still has tough sanctions and an economic embargo against Cuba. This is the 50th anniversary of this Communist government, and it's a chance for them to say, look, we're still here.

RAZ: Mm hmm. Well, 50 years now after the revolution, what's the state of the country?

BEAUBIEN: You know, 50 years later, much of Havana appears to be falling apart. You've got buildings that are crumbling. You know, in 2004, the National Electrical System collapsed. Infrastructure is just in a terrible condition. The economic minister this week said that Cuba is going through the worst period since the fall of the Soviet Union, when the Soviet Union, its major benefactor, collapsed. You've got a soaring trade deficit. So, things are really tough here. This is a tough time for Cuba.

RAZ: Jason, what about ordinary Cubans? What are you hearing from them about all of this and about how they view the incoming American President Barack Obama?

BEAUBIEN: Well, obviously there's a lot of frustration in some quarters; wages here are about $20 a month, but there's also a lot of pride here. People here feel like Cuba has gone its own way. As a developing country, it has managed to get universal healthcare. It's got free education. It's got a Communist system that guarantees basic food rations for everyone. People complain it might not be enough, but there's a sense of pride that Cuba has accomplished a lot. And there's also a lot of hope that under the new administration, under an Obama administration that the relationship which has dominated the last 50 years will change between the U.S. and Cuba and that it lead to an improvement here on the island.

RAZ: Mm hmm. And Jason, in the middle of these celebrations in Cuba, where is Fidel Castro?

BEAUBIEN: Well, that's a state secret. Fidel has not been seen in public since 2006. He's 82 now. He's had stomach problems. He handed over power to his brother Raul back in 2006; formally, it was handed over this year. And in the past, Fidel had been writing very lengthy articles up until just recently in Granma on all sorts of subjects. And it's striking that today on this 50th anniversary, Fidel had just one line in Granma, on the front page. This is a man who used to give speeches that went on for hours, and today all he said was that he was wishing the heroic people of Cuba a happy anniversary.

RAZ: Mm. Well, NPR's Jason Beaubien, thank you so much for being with us.

BEAUBIEN: You're welcome.

RAZ: That's NPR's Jason Beaubien speaking with us from the eastern Cuban city of Santiago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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