January 1, 1999

Vowing 'socialism or death,' Cuba fetes revolution

By Andrew Cawthorne

HAVANA, Jan 1 (Reuters) - Cuba's ruling communists rang in the New Year on Friday with patriotic celebrations of the 40th anniversary of Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution and proclamations of his traditional rallying cry: ``Socialism or Death!''

The 72-year-old Castro, one of the world's longest-serving rulers and defiant guardian of Cuba's ``tropical'' communism, marks exactly four decades' rule since his defeat of dictator Fulgencio Batista.

The Caribbean island's state-run television ushered in the New Year and the anniversary with patriotic music, black-and-white images of Castro's guerrilla war and a special midnight message to the Cuban people.

``More than three and a half centuries of colonialism, and almost 60 years of hateful Yankee neoliberal domination began to be definitively annihilated on that first of January, and Cuba became from then and forever a free territory...,'' the message said as grainy images were shown of Castro's unkempt rebels, known as the ``bearded ones,'' taking power.

Havana contends the United States hijacked its 19th century independence war, entering Cuba at the last minute to clinch the 1898 victory over the Spanish but imposing puppet governments between then and the 1959 revolution.

``We start the New Year with the aim of being more revolutionary and more worthy sons of Cuba,'' continued the message. ``Forty years since that great January, we are here despite slanders, aggressions and blockades ... Long live free Cuba! Long live Fidel! Socialism or Death! Fatherland or Death! We will conquer!''

Castro was due to travel to the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, known as the cradle of the revolution, in the evening to deliver a keynote speech to the nation. It was there in the city's central Carlos Manuel de Cespedes square that a rugged-looking 32-year-old Castro exultantly declared victory for his rebel army.

This time, seeking to strike a more statesmanlike pose though no less militant in his beliefs, the now gray-bearded president is sure to declare victory again -- for having seen his revolution last 40 years against the odds.

Castro and Cuba's ruling Communist Party are proud to have survived four decades of U.S.-led opposition that have included a nearly 37-year-old economic embargo and plots to assassinate him with poisoned cigars or exploding seashells.

Castro has also defied predictions that his would be the next communist government to fall in the early 1990s after the domino-like collapse of socialist states in the former Soviet bloc.

The loss of crucial Soviet aid and trade plunged Cuba into an economic crisis which shrank its economy by 35 percent and squeezed the island's 11 million inhabitants more than ever before. But Cuba's fundamental political system remained intact and looks likely to stay that way into the 21st century.

While supporters hail Castro as a 20th century hero and Third World champion, his critics and foes around the world denounce him as a Machiavellian tyrant who perverted the original revolution to impose a dictatorial political system and repress internal opposition.

Cuban exile leaders in Florida -- a bastion of anti-Castro sentiment -- scorned Havana's celebrations, saying it was an anniversary of ``blood and tears.'' And dissidents in Cuba urged the world to remember what they claim are nearly 400 prisoners of conscience languishing in jails across the island.

Ordinary Cubans, interviewed about the significance of the revolution's anniversary, expressed pride in a sense of national identity, Castro's bold toppling of Batista, his resistance to U.S. pressure and his provision of free medical and education services.

But they made frequent criticisms of their daily economic problems, lack of freedom both for private enterprise or political opposition and Castro's lengthy hold on power.

Although Castro has kept by his standards a low profile in recent weeks, leading communists have been using the build-up to the anniversary to honour revolutionary heroes and to urge the islanders to strengthen their faith in socialism.

Communist Party newspaper Granma, the only daily in Cuba, published on Friday a lengthy editorial headed ``40 years of victories for revolutionary ideas.''

Granma hailed Castro's role in history and his social reforms and praised ``the combative, valiant and heroic people (of Cuba) who have resisted and will keep doing so in the face of attempts by the powerful northern neighbour who still persists in ignoring our sovereignty and independence.''

Since his revolution, Castro has become one of the world's best-known and most controversial leaders.

He has also become a master of surviving major political challenges -- ranging from the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion attempt by U.S-backed Cuban exiles to the 1962 missile crisis that many believe nearly led to World War Three and the 1994 rafters' crisis which saw tens of thousands of Cubans flee the island to cross shark-infested seas to Florida in flimsy boats.

In 1998, Castro enjoyed a smoother though still busy year, welcoming a stream of world personalities to Cuba including Pope John Paul II, Hollywood star Jack Nicholson and Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien. This year, he will host the king of Spain and heads of state from the Spanish-speaking world at November's Ibero-American Summit in Havana.

11:19 01-01-99

Copyright 1998 Reuters Limited


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