Fifty years ago today a group of young idealists sparked a socialist rebellion in Cuba. Has their dream of power to the people been realised or is the country a state-controlled nightmare? Heather Payton and Simon Calder report

For their last supper, some of the rebels dined like kings at the Hotel Rex. The bill has since become part of Cuba's revolutionary iconography. It shows they consumed prodigious quantities of chicken, rice and beer at the slightly shabby hotel in the city of Santiago. Let's hope they ate, drank and made merry; for the following day, many of them would die.

Fifty years ago today, 159 men and two women launched the first attack in what was to become one of the 20th century's most enduring revolutions. But the assault itself, on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago, with supporting operations at two other buildings, was an abject failure.

You can stay in any room you like at the Hotel Rex, a place for which the term "no-frills" seems designed, except for room 36. This has been turned into a shrine to the Moncada rebels. And today, 26 July, has been turned into the most sacred day in Cuba's revolutionary calendar.

The plan had been to seize the weapons at the garrison, rally local support, then to roll west, gathering ideological momentum along the length of Cuba to Havana, and overthrow the Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. What actually happened was that a guard spotted the would-be revolutionaries and opened fire. A few managed to escape to the mountains, but many were killed. Of those who survived, some died horribly at the hands of their torturers. Fidel Castro was unscathed but in custody.

History, Tony Blair claimed a week ago, will forgive him and George Bush should weapons of mass destruction not be found in Iraq. This is a curious diminution of Fidel Castro's bold assertion at his trial that "History will absolve me". He was imprisoned, then exiled to Mexico, where he met the motorcycling rebel Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Over the past 50 years the assault on the Moncada Barracks has become the heroic failure that underpins Castro's socialist state just 90 miles south of the capitalist US.

You find out all this in the exhibition that fills most of the vivid yellow structure that was once the Moncada Barracks. Most of it now comprises a museum, though part is a school at which the older pupils wear red scarves and promise, if called upon, to "die in a hail of bullets like Che".

Che died before he got old in a forlorn corner of Bolivia trying, forlornly, to foment revolution throughout Latin America. He and Castro had already parted ideological company, though the survivor cannily exploits every opportunity to build political capital from the myths of Che. And half a century on, Fidel Castro - also known as El Comandante or simply El ("him") - is still in firm control of his country.

History has certainly given him a helping hand. Wreckage at Playa Giron on Cuba's southern shore testifies to a failed US-backed invasion in 1962; this is the Bay of Pigs. A trade blockade by the United States brought the USSR to the rescue, and has provided Castro with the excuse to do just about anything.

The Nineties were cruel to Cuba. The island's great provider of aid, the Soviet Union, faded away. As the Iron Curtain rusted, the ever-artful Castro saw only one possible saviour: tourism.

Today foreigners can easily follow the revolutionary trail and decide for themselves whether the sacrifices of those 161 young optimists were worth it; whether today's Cuba is a sun-drenched socialist paradise or grim warning of what happens when state control runs wild.

The flight from Havana to Santiago is a good introduction to the island. The domestic departures lounge at José Marti airport in Havana is an open-to-the-elements thatched roof on stilts with two tiny glass counters selling cards and souvenirs. Once on board the elderly Russian-built turbo prop, the toilet door won't close properly, there's cigarette ash on the seat and an empty packet of fags in the basin.

Santiago has a beautiful setting, perched on a fine natural harbour. It is ringed by mountains in which a man could hide for months, which is why Castro and his revolutionaries chose it for their debut attack. The city also has a deliciously Wild West air about it. Fuel shortages caused by the embargo have meant a reversion to the horse and cart, sharing the potholed roads with the glorious Fifties American gas-guzzlers that have become Cuba's trademark. In the countryside beyond, men on horseback and buffalo-powered ploughs complete the picture.

A trip to Santiago's nearest beach, Siboney, 19km east, is an excuse to visit the farmhouse Castro and his men used as a base before the Moncada attack. It's a pretty little place, newly spruced up with red and white paint for the anniversary and set in a garden of tropical plants. The security guard strolls over from the shade of a tree and points out the bullet holes peppering the front door. Batista's men, he says, brought the bodies of some of the rebels here after they'd been tortured to death, then shot off a few rounds to make it look as though they'd died in a shoot-out.

At Siboney beach itself, a crescent of palm-fringed gritty grey sand, we find evidence of a different type of rebellion when we meet Carlos, a Cuban with a Big Idea.

For a supposedly egalitarian society, 21st-century Cuba is remarkably unequal. If you can earn dollars from foreigners, or have them sent from your relatives in Miami, you have access to an economy that has as many luxuries as any Latin American society. If you have to rely on pesos, you're poor. Which is why as a foreigner you'll be stopped time and time again in the street by Cubans with a Big Idea.

Carlos's large notion is food. He takes us home with him to meet the family, who cook us lobster, with a huge salad and fried plantain bananas, for $8 a head. It's the best meal we have in Cuba, and the cheapest.

Back in Santiago we get confirmation that Cuba's brand of state control, evolving though it surely is, isn't always the cuddly socialism the propaganda would have us believe. The night before we leave, one of our party goes to meet two Cuban friends outside the hotel to say his goodbyes. The police approach, not an uncommon event when Cubans are seen deep in conversation with foreigners, and ask the Cubans for their papers. One can't produce his. Both are taken off to the police station, one is fined the equivalent of a month's salary, the other is kept in overnight.

Returning to Havana we feel like the country cousins in the big bad city. The traffic seems fast and noisy and smoky, and the relaxed atmosphere of the provinces has disappeared. The capital's strong revolutionary suit is the Museum of the Revolution, appropriately housed in the beautiful former palace of Fulgencio Batista. The exhibits include life-sized models of two revolutionary heroes, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, emerging from the undergrowth of the Sierra Maestra.

It's in Havana that we finally meet a real-life revolutionary. Ramon Pez Ferro was a 17-year-old schoolboy and the youngest to take part in the attack Cubans are today celebrating. His job was to take the hospital, which he and his colleagues completed successfully. The sound of shooting alerted him to the failure of the assault on the barracks itself, but his youth was to save him. A sympathetic patient had him pose as his grandson; Ramon was already in civilian clothes because his uniform wouldn't fit him. He's now president of Cuba's foreign affairs committee.

Havana is home to the greatest revolutionary of them all, Fidel Castro, now in his 77th year. These days he's seldom seen, giving rise to rumours about his health.

You might, as we did, wish to follow the Castro trail. The trouble is, it is barely as long as his title: Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Cuban Communist Party and President of the Councils of State and Ministers. Almost as soon as you start to look for it, the Castro trail goes cold. You could begin at the Plaza de la Revolucion and then move to the plush western suburb of Miramar where at least one of his homes is rumoured to be. This district is also the location for the Ministry of the Interior Museum, which explains Castro's enduring paranoia - and is also more intriguing than it sounds. It details accounts of various failed assassination attempts against Castro (many of them by the CIA) - including an exploding cigar.

Outside on Havana's Fifth Avenue, Fifties Cuba prevails in the romantic decay of its buildings and the ancient American cars. But the real story of 21st-century Cuba is told in the greatest revolutionary ice-cream parlour of all time.

The Coppelia chain was set up in the early Sixties after Cubans' favourite American flavours were rendered unavailable. If you only have pesos you'll have to queue - and the Cuban queue is an art form. But as a tourist with dollars you can enjoy pineapple glacé, mango and strawberry to your heart's content. So 50 years on, perhaps the revolution has simply replaced one élite with another. Tourists, particularly ice-cream-eating dollar-rich tourists, are more equal than Cubans. History does not record if the rebels completed their eve-of-assault with ice-cream. But today Fidel and Ramon will enjoy history's absolution.

Heather Payton reported from Cuba for 'Outlook' on the BBC World Service


Getting there: Two scheduled airlines fly non-stop between the UK and Cuba - Air Jamaica from Heathrow to Havana, and Cubana from Gatwick to Holguin (near Santiago), with onward service to Havana. Be warned that Cubana is the airline with the worst safety record in the world. Higher frequencies and lower fares are available from other airlines such as Air Europa or Iberia via Madrid. South American Experience (020-7976 5511, has a fare of £523 in August on Air Europa from Gatwick.

Getting around: Trains are erratic, but relatively cheap. A network of buses, run by Via Azul, for which you must pay in dollars, links the main cities and tourist resorts. Best of all, get a seat in an old American car, which are used as long-distance taxis.

Many tourists rent a jeep or car; rental rates are high and additional charges for insurance and mileage make the cost mount quickly. Cuban roads are mostly dreadful but empty.

Staying there: Hotels are expensive and poor quality. A room in a private house (casa particular) will cost around $15 (£10) per person per night, or a little more if a tout takes you there; offers of accommodation (as well as cigars, rum and sex) are made frequently to foreigners.

Red Tape: Visitors need a Tourist Card, which can be obtained from a tour operator or travel agent for £15-£25. American citizens are not allowed to visit Cuba except with the prior permission of the US Treasury.

Money: The US dollar is king. Take the currency mainly in cash, because changing traveller's cheques is slow and expensive. The dollar is freely convertible to 20 Cuban pesos at any Casa de Cambio (Cadeca). You can sometimes use these to pay for local buses, trains and horse-drawn carriage rides, but most of your purchases are likely to be in dollars.

Health: For a tropical country, Cuba is remarkably safe. No vaccinations are needed, and protection against malaria is unnecessary. Another mosquito-borne hazard is dengue fever, for which the only protection is avoiding bites. Water quality is deteriorating, but bottled water is easily available.