January 8, 2009 – 8:01 PM
Daily struggle tests Cuban revolution
Fifty years ago on Thursday Fidel Castro and his rebel forces entered
the Cuban capital, Havana, declaring "tyranny has been overthrown".
Swiss Cuba experts examine the impact and future challenges of Cuba's
revolution at a time when islanders are struggling to cope with
uncertainty and financial hardship.
The very fact that this anniversary is being celebrated "is almost a
miracle, a triumph for an island which has faced open hostility from the
world's biggest power over the past half century", said Beat Schmid,
Swiss coordinator for Oxfam in Havana.
Claude Auroi, president of the Swiss-Cuban Association and a Latin
American expert at Geneva's Graduate Institute, shares this viewpoint.
"It's admirable that Cuba has survived a difficult internal and external
economic situation caused by the embargo," he told swissinfo.
But, as is often the case when talking about the Caribbean island, views
on Cuba's revolution can differ quite significantly.
For Auroi the Cuban political system is dead and buried.
"It's impossible to get it back on its feet. Everyone inside Cuba knows
it's an illusion. Young people are either trying to leave the island or
are highly critical, but are unable to speak out because there is no
freedom of expression," he said.
For the Latin American expert, Cuba is living through a period similar
to the eve of the fall of the Berlin Wall.
"Everyone knew that that system had no future, but nobody wanted to say
it out loud so as to avoid the consequences. It's the same thing here. I
think it's too late to try and revive Cuba's revolution from inside and
to generate widespread enthusiasm," said Auroi.
For Schmid two aspects stand out.
"Changes are taking place within the system. But there is no internal
debate over the Cuban system itself; society isn't ready to question
things," Schmid said.
"The government and the system enjoy fairly wide public support, but
this doesn't mean people are not critical. Certain things should be
improved in the public's eyes, but when it comes down to it, they simply
toe the line."
Che Guevara in Old Havana
Che Guevara in Old Havana (Keystone Archive)
Down but not out
"The Cuban government has probably been knocked down more times than any
other regime but it has never been counted out. On many occasions people
have said Fidel is dying or dead, yet he's still with us," said Schmid.
For the past 50 years the Cuban revolution has not only overcome the
challenges of the United States embargo but also the collapse of a major
"I admire Cuba's political energy with respect to the major powers, like
the Soviet Union, which supported the regime but then collapsed, or
America, which simply wanted to do away with and crush the revolution,"
Since its early beginnings in the Sierra Maestra Mountains and during
the past half century there has been no let-up for the Cuban revolution:
battles against illiteracy and poor health, and the current struggle
against globalisation and the economic crisis.
An economy in tatters
Today, without help from its Soviet supporters and crippled by the US
embargo, the island is tending to its wounds after a major onslaught by
Last year during the worst hurricane season in the island's history,
Cuba was hit three times and suffered $10 billion (SFr10.91 billion) in
damages, or some 20 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP).
"The consequences will be felt for a long time," said Schmid. "Tens of
thousands of families will continue to live in temporary housing for years."
"Also, Cuba cannot avoid the global economic crisis and the food crisis,
which are hitting hard and affecting its ability to recover."
Hence the austerity of the 50th anniversary celebrations on January 1,
2009 – the date dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba as Castro and his
revolutionaries seized control.
Although Cuba's revolution became a symbol of hope for many Latin
American countries and appealed to many European leftwing intellectuals,
the chosen economic path was inappropriate, said Auroi.
"The Cuban agricultural model was a failure; it still is. They've been
rationing food for 50 years," he said.
"Adopting the Communist model to strengthen the Cuban revolution was not
the island's sole option. The socialist model has survived, but at what
« The Cuban agricultural model was a failure. It still is. They've been
rationing food for 50 years. »
Claude Auroi, president of the Swiss-Americas Association
In the government's defence, Cubans have access to free healthcare and
education – the revolution's two main pillars.
Cuban health workers are recognised as being extremely competent. The
newborn mortality rate stands at five deaths per thousand births – the
best rate in Latin America, the US and Canada – and one million Latin
Americans have had cataract operations carried out by Cuban doctors.
But, warns Schmid, for the younger generation these conquests are no
longer major achievements, just natural rights. The challenge now for
Cuba is to secure a certain degree of material well-being for its people.
This will obviously require the capacity to produce more, he explained.
"A number of steps are being taken in this direction, which should have
an impact in the medium term. This will be crucial so that people can
continue to identify with [the Revolution] and be willing to stake their
future on it."
swissinfo, Marcela Águila RubínCanada, dictator, economy, education, embargo, expression, Fidel Castro, food, freedom, gross, health, housing, president, rationing