Fifty years after revolution Cuba facing serious challenges

By Jose Luis Paniagua, EFE,

Havana : As Cuba prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the revolution that installed the communist government, the Caribbean island nation looks mired in a time warp.

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The 1950s Chevrolets and Cadillacs on the streets of Havana, the “almendrones” (big almonds) – now used as private taxis – and the city’s decrepit colonial architecture make up the daily scenario in the Cuban capital.

Cuba’s highest ranking officials continue to be many of the same men who fought to topple the US-backed Fulgencio Batista government in 1959. And even as the island seeks to adapt itself to the age of the Internet, reference to the revolutionary uprising is present without exception in official propaganda and the government-run media.

Fifty years after the triumph of the revolutionary generation of Fidel Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, Ernesto “Che” Guevara and Raul Castro, the country currently finds itself under the leadership of Raul and a cabinet whose average age is 71.

No longer headed by Fidel Castro – though his presence is still felt in the frequent editorials he pens on current events – the revolution is moving through a critical moment in its history when passing the torch from one generation to another cannot be postponed for much longer.

Other major challenges have emerged in the areas of education and health care, two of the Communist-ruled island’s proudest achievements. The future of those services in Cuba, home to some 11.2 million people, is now under threat despite the enormous efforts of the government to guarantee free healthcare to all citizens.

One of the important legacies of the Castro regime has been in the area of education and Cuba, where a campaign was launched in 1961 to stamp out illiteracy, now boasts of some 45,000 graduates per year. But problems loom on the horizon, with 50 percent of elementary school teachers reportedly lacking adequate training.

In the area of health, Fidel Castro’s government sent doctors and medical equipment to parts of the island where professional health services had never before been provided, raising life expectancy and reducing infant mortality rate.

Yet Cuban authorities have had to restructure the island’s basic healthcare system now that tens of thousands of doctors have been sent to Venezuela as “payment” for oil on favourable terms.

Just as in 1959, the United States continues to be the main target of criticism by Cuban authorities, which for decades have used the real or perceived threat from Washington to justify restrictions of freedom on the island, including the freedoms of the press and of association.

The banned Cuban Commission on Human Rights says there are at least 210 documented cases of political prisoners on the island, 67 of whom have been adopted by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience.

Havana says these detainees are “mercenaries” who are at the service of the United States, seeking to undermine the revolution.

In the realm of economic policy, Cuba has seen a number of reversals over the years. One recent development has been an agrarian reform plan recently implemented by Raul Castro raising the ceiling on private holding by farmers. It turns back the clock on a 1959 agrarian reform that put limitations on such landholdings.

Raul Castro’s plan seeks to make more efficient use of cultivable land and reduce the huge import of food straining the exchequer.

The Cuban government blames the United States and the embargo it has imposed on the Communist-ruled island since 1962 for lack of funding in nearly every sector of the economy, saying the prohibitions on commerce have cost Cuba some $93 billion.

But Cuban economists have pointed to the damaging effects of adopting an economic model that is focused on agriculture and heavily dependent on foreign aid, first from the erstwhile Soviet Union and in more recent years from the oil-rich Venezuela.

The Soviet Union’s aid to Cuba amounted to some $46 billion. But the collapse of the benefactor plunged Cuba into the worst crisis in its history, a time euphemistically dubbed the “special period in times of peace.”

The consequences of the loss of Soviet patronage – offset somewhat by cheap oil from Venezuela – can be seen throughout the economy of the island, where official propaganda continues to remind the people about progress in education and health, the same achievments touted in the 1960s.