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Half-hearted celebrations as the revolution turns 50

Cuba has just celebrated the 50th anniversary of the revolution that saw Fidel Castro take power. Yet, just like its iconic leader, the island is today in decline. As FRANCE 24's Virginie Herz found out, many Cubans are now ready for change.

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It's January 1, 2009 in Santiago de Cuba. Only 3,000 names are on the official guest list to celebrate the 50 years of the revolution. They are all staunch supporters of the regime, encouraged to chant slogans to the glory of the country and its leaders.

Far from the jubilance that once characterised these gatherings in the early Castro years, the mood is morose, almost nostalgic. Fidel Castro has not appeared in public since July 2006. His brother Raul, who's taken over since, does not share Fidel's charisma.

The younger Mr. Castro, who officially became president in 2008, has warned Cubans of the hardships that lay ahead as the revolution enters its sixth decade. The island, hard hit by 3 hurricanes, is feeling the impact of the global financial crisis.

 

The population is worried. A few kilometers away from the festivities, in a working class neighbourhood, certain families that consider themselves castrist and patriotic, and would never speak up against the regime, are now daring to complain.

Marginia is a nurse. A few years ago, she worked in Italy, where she now hopes to return - a fact she only admits to because she thinks the camera isn't running. We ask her whether many people want to leave Cuba: "Yes, a lot, a lot...50 percent of the population. But you know you also have a lot of Cubans who don't work and still live well in Cuba."

Fifty years after the revolution, the Cuban state continues to guarantee a minimum monthly pension to its entire population. But this social justice is a double edged sword. The peso - the local currency which the population gets paid in - only enables them to buy basic necessities. But other types of merchandise, such as gas, can only be bought in CUC, a currency that's only accessible to a minority of Cubans whose family lives abroad or who work for an international corporation.

 

Because of this double currency system, social classes are starting to emerge in the island, leading to the existence of a black market for specific goods, such as fish.

Yet, despite the difficulties, the socialist project has its supporters, notably among some of the elders who come from very humble backgrounds and who lived the pre-revolution era. Among them are the  Rebel Quintet, living in the east of the country. Fifty years ago, they were recruited by Fidel Castro himself as volunteer soldiers; his personal troops trained to sing to his glory. One of them, Aleides, is unambiguous: "Before the revolution, there were no schools, no roads, no hospitals; there was nothing. Thanks to the revolution we have all of that now."

We then asked one girl what she would say to those who believe Cuba is a dictatorship. Her reply: "Hum, don't ask me these kinds of questions." The population has been domesticated by 50 years of repression, and Cubans have learned to master the art of self-censorship.

Forty-seven years of North American embargo is the pretext Cuban authorities use to stifle any opposition movement and justify their curtailing of free speech. According to human rights associations, over 200 opponents to the regime are in jail.

 

Others have found a means of expression, which, for now, is tolerated. Like Yoani Sanchez, an internationally renowned blogger. She is not allowed to leave the country and her site is not accessible within Cuba: "My goal is to criticise the education my children are getting, which is based on ideology; to criticise the fact that hospitals lack sufficient means and structures without anyone telling me to shut up because it's free. I dream of a Cuba where people don't pay for these services by giving up their rights to freedom."

Half of the Cuban population is under 25, and they're among the best educated youth of Latin America. They're being tasked with the job of keeping the revolutionary flame alive and making sure it survives the next five decades. But meanwhile, many have their eyes glued on the horizon and wonder if one day they'll be able to leave the island, as many of their fellow men and women have done over the last 50 years.

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