- The Washington Times - Friday, January 2, 2009

HAVANA (Agence France-Presse) | Communist Cuba marked the 50th anniversary of its revolution Thursday, faced with an uncertain future, its iconic, ailing leader Fidel Castro withdrawn from power and the economy in dire straits.

President Raul Castro early Thursday paid his respects to national hero Jose Marti in Santiago de Cuba, the city from where his brother Fidel proclaimed victory over U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 after 25 months of fighting in the Sierra Maestra mountains.

Raul Castro, 77, officially took over from his 82-year-old brother last February.

Fidel Castro, who has not appeared in public since undergoing major surgery almost 2 1/2 years ago, sent a brief, signed greeting to the Cuban people in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper.

But his image dominated giant banners and billboards amid somber celebrations, with the island hit hard by the economic crisis and the aftermath of three hurricanes this year that left about $10 billion in damage.

“Let’s not kid ourselves by believing that from here on it’s all going to be easy. Maybe from here on it’s going to be more difficult,” Raul Castro said late Wednesday.

Despite hardships that he blamed on 46-year-old U.S. sanctions, the president said: “This hasn’t been a failure, not even under these conditions. It has been a constant fight.”

The celebrations coincide with recent moves by Cuba to broaden its international ties beyond its strong partner, oil-rich Venezuela.

The presidents of China and Russia, Hu Jintao and Dmitry Medvedev respectively, sent congratulatory messages Thursday.

Leftist Bolivian President Evo Morales praised the revolution at a press conference.

“Fifty years ago, the Cuban people freed themselves from U.S. rule. For that, Cuba, its people and its commanders are symbols of the liberation of the people of the world,” Mr. Morales said.

After years of economic embargo and hard-line U.S. efforts to isolate the island, Havana now faces rare potential for change in the form of U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, who has voiced willingness to communicate unconditionally with world leaders.

Cuba’s revolution — led by a 32-year-old Fidel Castro and legendary Argentine guerilla Ernesto “Che” Guevara — took on Marxist overtones in May 1961, one month after the attempted invasion of the Bay of Pigs by CIA-backed Cuban exiles.

President Kennedy declared the embargo in February 1962, before the Soviet missile crisis, which took the world to the brink of nuclear war.

The two nations, separated by just 90 miles of water, have remained bitter political foes.

A White House spokesman in Texas said Wednesday that Washington “will continue to seek freedom” for the people of Cuba. He named no new steps or initiatives.

Mr. Obama, who takes power Jan. 20, has promised to ease some rules limiting travel by and remittances from Cuban-Americans; Raul Castro has said repeatedly that he is ready for talks without “carrot or stick” with Mr. Obama.

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