Fidel Castro: Rebel without applause

His story is the story of Cuba. The Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, the cigars, the glamour of Havana. But, 50 years after he launched his bid for power, the Cold War is long lost, the economy is collapsing, his only strategy more repression. The dream is as old and fatigued as Fidel himself
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The Independent Online

Anniversaries are perhaps the most prized possessions of revolutionary states. They are emblazoned on street signs, celebrated in poetry, prose and music, and marked with all the historical reverence that only a young state can muster. The anniversary is the point where memories of the glorious past and hopes for the triumphant future can come together at a way station on the road to paradise.

This weekend, Cuba marks the founding moment of its revolution with all the considerable passion it can muster. Yet while the past may be as glorious as ever, the present is tarnished; and there are more questions over the future of Fidel Castro, the country's leader, than even he could cover in one of his legendary long speeches.

The attack on the Moncada barracks that launched Castro's rise to power on 26 July 1953 was a desperately inauspicious start to a revolution. The young revolutionaries planned a coup de main that would be instantly successful, but it became a fiasco. They had hoped to seize the barracks and its weapons, take the radio station and raise the nation against Fulgencio Batista, Cuba's dictator.

Half of the revolutionary force got lost. In the battle that followed, some of the others were killed, and those who fled were arrested and either executed or put on trial. But it was here that a young lawyer emerged for the first time as the figure who would himself become the tempest. "I do not fear prison, as I do not fear the fury of the miserable tyrant who took the lives of 70 of my comrades," Castro told the court in a speech that entered history. "Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me."

Castro is living proof of the power that personality can have, for good or for ill. The story of Castro is the story of Cuba, and his life is Latin America in the 20th century. His father had first come to the island as a Spanish soldier from 1895 to 1898. Cuba had been the last major Spanish colony to gain independence, and Castro's father fought against Jose Marti, the archetypal revolutionary hero. Yet it was the United States that would finally tip the balance against the colonialists. In 1898, the USS Maine sank in Havana harbour after a mysterious explosion, triggering American intervention. By December, Spain was gone from the Caribbean, leaving America the dominant power and in possession of that bizarre enclave known as the Guantanamo Bay naval base. A new imperial power was emerging, and its capital was in Washington DC, not Madrid.

The elder Castro returned to the island in 1902, and it was there on 13 August 1926 that Fidel Castro Ruz was born. He devoted himself to politics and the struggle for change in Cuba, to remove the dictatorship of Batista, the Americans who backed him and the corruption, crime and poverty that accompanied them. After imprisonment on the Isle of Pines, Castro and his followers left for Mexico, where he launched the 26th of July movement. In December 1956, they returned on the leaky yacht Granma to launch a revolution that within three years would see Batista gone and the young lawyer installed as leader. He was just 33.

Castro's charisma, his message and his distinctive style marked him out. He gave support and inspiration to revolution every way he could: through ideology, politics and, when necessary, armed support. The cigar and the fatigues inspired fear and ferocity in equal measure around the world. Cuba saw itself - and was seen - as the revolutionary armoury of the world. If that sounds antique, quaint even, then remember this: in 1988, Cuban forces fought alongside Angolans against the might of the South African Defence Force in the largest battle on the continent since El Alamein. The battle of Cuito Cuanavale helped tip the balance against apartheid. Not for nothing did Nelson Mandela visit Havana in 1991, soon after emerging from prison.

Cuba polarises opinion; and Castro, to all intents and purposes, is Cuba. On one side are those who see only his repressive Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDR), the prisons, the jailing of dissidents and the lack of free speech. On the other are those for whom Cuba means medicine, education, culture and progress: a principled rejection of US capitalism that has delivered a good life for its people. Neither side recognises that both can be true in part.

It is, above all, the relationship between the US and Castro that has damned his country and defined his role. If the myths of the revolution were strong, those that followed were more powerful still: the Bay of Pigs, the botched American invasion; the crisis over missiles that threatened to tip the planet into nuclear war; poisoned cigars and a dozen more crazed US assassination schemes. Even now, Cuban exiles in Florida plot invasion, or wait for what they call the "biological solution": Fidel's death.

It is not just the left that has always felt there was something more than heroic about this struggle between Castro and the Yankees. Cuba has been championed, not just by fellow travellers but by many prepared to forgive or ignore the repression, because of the larger struggle against the US. They saw in it the promise of something beautiful. Its culture, its Spanish colonial architecture, its music epitomised by the Buena Vista Social Club and the sheer wistful beauty of Havana create an empathy that goes well beyond socialist solidarity.

Yet, in the past year, the efforts of Cuba's friends to promote change in its relationship with America have been thrown back in their faces. The Varela Project, a pro-democracy movement, has slowly and painfully arisen, and Castro's reaction has been harsh, with 75 activists jailed. Three men who tried to hijack a passenger ferry to Florida were executed.

Before, it looked as if the American blockade might end. The Cuban exiles in Florida had started to weaken, American business was agitating for trade, Europe was starting to move in and tourism was flourishing. Now, all of that is moot. The European Union has imposed sanctions, and limited government contacts and participation in cultural events.

Cuba is unrepentant. "Perhaps tactically we lost, but strategically we won because we are saving the revolution," said Rafael Dausa, the Cuban Foreign Ministry official in charge of North American relations. That statement is as stale and pointless as the old debates about Cuba. As Castro ages, as the economy gradually slides towards tourism and the Yankee dollar, as the Soviet Union becomes nothing more than a memory, Cuba is going to change. It is changing already. Tourism is dividing the island into two classes, one with dollars, the other without, and the fact is that the revolution is over. The economy is collapsing, and will only get worse.

Fidel may still have the charisma and the audiences may roar for him, but he is old and ill. Raul, his nominated successor, is 72. He will probably rule alongside other regime stalwarts like the president of the National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, to assure continuity. The repression this year seems aimed at underpinning the succession. That is what saving the revolution means. It is probably a forlorn hope.

The biological solution will not actually be a solution at all: the chances are it will just raise the old questions all over again - about Americans and Cubans, and about how the rulers of an island in the Caribbean might try to build a decent future for their people.