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Last Updated: Monday, 11 June 2007, 07:35 GMT 08:35 UK
How Cuba's past dictates its future
By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Cuba

Beach at the Bay of Pigs
The Bay of Pigs debacle in 1961 helped shape modern Cuba
To understand modern Cuba you have to go to the beach.

Not to the sumptuous tourist magnets of the north, but the more rugged coast of the south.

In particular, to one U-shaped strip of coastline whose name is now synonymous with one of the most infamous military invasions of the 20th Century.

Cubans, naturally, call this area by its Spanish name, La Bahia de Cochinos.

To the rest of the world, it is better known by its English label, the Bay of Pigs.

Today, the only invaders are a few adventurous travellers and the thousands of crabs who make a suicidal dash for inland food across a narrow coast-hugging road.

Many don't make it - just like the human invaders of April 1961.

They were a 1,500-strong group of mainly-Cuban exiles who, with CIA backing, launched a sea and airborne operation to topple Fidel Castro, Cuba's then increasingly pro-Communist leader.

Around 100 anti-Castro fighters are thought to have died. Figures for Cuban losses in the five days of fighting range from about 200 to 1,000.

The attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro ended in disaster, largely because of poor air support and because President John F Kennedy refused to send in US Marines to help the struggling invading force.

Language of revolution

To Cubans, defeating their huge northern neighbour was, and still is, a defining moment.

Barbara Sierra, director of the Bay of Pigs museum, by a tank used in the battle
Barbara Sierra says the Bay of Pigs victory put Cuba on the map
"It helped tell the world who we are," says Barbara Sierra, director of the official Bay of Pigs Museum.

"The imperialist forces of the United States were defeated," she says. "We never forget the lesson that we always have to be on our guard. Even today."

To hear someone in the 21st Century talk of "imperialist" forces is striking. Vocabulary seemingly more at home in the 20th or even 19th Century is happily deployed in defence of today's perceived, or officially approved, threats.

Language, of course, is at the heart of Fidel Castro's "permanent" revolution.

President George W Bush is a "traitor" according to state-approved roadside posters.

Another suggests Che Guevara, the Argentinean-born revolutionary who fought alongside Castro, is a "workers' hero".

A third eulogises a more contemporary figure on the Cuban political scene, Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez.

President Castro may not have gone to the extremes of promoting a Stalinist-style "cult of personality", but he has certainly stamped his own image on Cuba's home-grown revolution. And he has used the potent images of military victory to promote his tailored brand of communism.

Daily privations

Even in his enforced absence because of an unspecified illness, Mr Castro still dominates public life.

You can't buy anything. But we don't blame Castro
Hortensia Tecla

"Cuba wouldn't be the same without him," says Hortensia Tecla, an 80-year-old woman we came across in a Havana suburb.

A few trinkets and a vintage motorbike propped against her living room wall were her only companions. Valuable possessions here are as rare as political opposition.

It took a while to convince Hortensia to speak openly. But while she is no rocking-chair rebel, this proud woman was prepared to criticise the daily privations.

"The food shortages are the worst," she eventually volunteered, "and there's no medicine.

"You can't buy anything. But we don't blame Castro."

Unwilling or unable to point the finger at the man who has led Cuba for the past 47 years, she adds: "It's the fault of the Americans and their trade embargo."

Dodge Convertible
Tourists love the 1950s American cars still in use on Cuba's roads

Washington says Mr Castro is the architect of his country's own misfortunes, but he has cleverly used the shortages caused by the embargo to cast himself as defender of the revolution.

There has been an American trade embargo since February 1962. It was encoded into law as late as 1992. No democracy, no trade, has been the American mantra during the most enduring embargo of modern times.

'Untrue boasts'

The number of those who oppose Castro and his command-style economic ideals is hard to gauge.

Oscar Espinosa and Miriam Leyva
Oscar and Miriam say they want Cuba to move forward
Only a few do speak out.

Miriam Leyva used to work at the heart of the communist system.

She was a trusted loyalist who was sent abroad in the 1960s and 1970s to nurture relations with like-minded communist states around the world.

Her husband Oscar Espinosa, also an insider, used to work in the office next door to Fidel Castro.

But as the queues grew longer and the supplies grew shorter, the disillusion set in.

"The boasts about the perfect health system, the lack of unemployment, the education system are not true," says Miriam.

"The government denies there are political prisoners, but that's not true either.

Fidel Castro. Picture issued 28 October 2006.
Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since surgery last July

"We don't want Castro dead," says Oscar, a former political prisoner. "But it is time for Cuba to move on, to stop going backwards."

Miriam and Oscar both believe they are followed by secret police, but they say staying silent would stifle a dissident movement at the time of Cuba's greatest need.

Back at the Bay of Pigs, there are some people in the water. It is a tempting time to reach for aquatic metaphors about Fidel Castro swimming against the tide of international opinion.

Surviving in power for 47 years takes real and ruthless political acumen but, as the frailty of old age bears down, can he - can Cuba - live by the victories of the past among the aspirations of today?

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