Castro says Cuba revolution faces years of struggle

SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba Fri Jan 2, 2009 8:16am EST

1 of 11. Cuba's President Raul Castro pauses while addressing the audience during the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution in Santiago de Cuba January 1, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Claudia Daut

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SANTIAGO DE CUBA, Cuba (Reuters) - Cuba's revolution is stronger than ever but faces "incessant struggle" against the threat of the United States, President Raul Castro said on Thursday in a ceremony marking the 50th anniversary of the uprising that its leader, Fidel Castro, was too ill to attend.

Raul Castro spoke proudly of the 1959 revolution that transformed the Caribbean island into a communist state 90 miles from U.S. shores, but he warned the country must not let down its guard.

"The enemy will never cease to be aggressive, treacherous and dominant," he said. "It is time to reflect on the future, on the next 50 years when we shall continue to struggle incessantly ... I'm not trying to scare anyone, this is the truth."

The revolution's landmark anniversary comes at a time when the era of Fidel Castro, now 82 and in poor health, is winding down and uncertainty hangs over the future of the Cuba he built into an improbable world player admired for its social gains but criticized for its human rights record.

Raul Castro, who replaced his older brother as president in February, spoke from below the same balcony in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba where Fidel Castro declared victory after U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista fled Cuba on January 1, 1959.

About 3,000 people looked on in the tree-shaded square where 50 years before Fidel Castro told jubilant supporters he would not lead the new revolutionary government.

"Personally, I am not interested in power nor do I envisage assuming it at any time," he said, before ruling Cuba for 49 years.

Raul Castro, 77, praised his brother as "indispensable" and quoted passages from several past speeches.

"Viva Fidel, viva the revolution, viva free Cuba," he shouted as the crowd erupted in applause.

Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since undergoing intestinal surgery in mid-2006. In a brief message published on Thursday in Communist Party newspaper Granma, he congratulated "our heroic people" for 50 years of revolution.

Celebrations have been subdued with Cuba mired in economic problems and divided on what the revolution has achieved.

WEAK ECONOMY

The island was buffeted in 2008 by three hurricanes that caused $10 billion in damages and by the global financial crisis.

As it has for decades, the government also blames its woes on the United States' 46-year-old trade embargo against Cuba, which it says has cost the island $92 billion over time.

Although widely condemned by governments around the world, the embargo is the cornerstone of U.S. policy that has sought the overthrow of the Castro government almost since the revolution's birth.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla whose Cold War Sandinista revolution relied on Cuban and Soviet backing, used Thursday to call for an end to the embargo and the release of five convicted Cuban spies being held in U.S. prisons.

U.S. President-elect Barack Obama is expected to ease restrictions on family travel and cash remittances by Cuban Americans to Cuba and has said he is open to talks with Cuba's leaders but he also says the embargo should stay in place to press for democratic reforms in Cuba.

While most Cubans hail their government's achievements in education and health, many yearn for a better life, more freedom and much more than the $20 they earn on average each month.

They suffered for years after the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's biggest benefactor, threw the economy into a tailspin from which it has only recently begun to recover, with help from oil-rich ally Venezuela.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who calls Fidel Castro a father and now leads a bloc of socialist leaders in Latin America, honored the Cuban revolution on Thursday.

"Cuba is part of this nation... For Cuba we cry, for Cuba we fight, for Cuba we are ready to die fighting," Chavez said at a ceremony in Venezuela's national pantheon.

The overthrow of Batista, who fled Cuba along with his family and top supporters as rebel forces swept toward Havana, was broadly supported by Cubans tired of violence and graft.

But as Castro's new government moved toward communism, many in the upper- and middle-classes fled to the United States in a diaspora that now numbers more than 1 million people.

In Miami, the center of the Cuban exile world, the 50th anniversary was a source of pain, not a cause for celebration.

"For us it is a tragic event," said Jose Basulto, the longtime head of the exile group Brothers to the Rescue. "This is now an old sore."

"There's nothing to celebrate. All the revolution has brought is destruction to Cuba," said Ninoska Perez, a Miami radio commentator and anti-Castro activist.

(Additional reporting by Tom Brown in Miami, Enrique Andres Pretel in Caracas and Ivan Castro in Managua; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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