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Cuba marks 50 years of revolution

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The festivities were filled with nostalgia and praise for Fidel Castro

Cuba has marked the 50th anniversary of the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power, creating a communist state on the United States' doorstep.

President Raul Castro, who took over from Fidel last year, spoke from below the same balcony where his brother declared victory on 1 January 1959.

He predicted the revolution would survive another 50 years.

The festivities have been muted as Cuba struggles with big economic challenges and the aftermath of three hurricanes.

Reacting to the anniversary, a White House spokesman said the US continued to seek freedom for the Cuban people.

Series of concerts

Addressing the nation from the south-eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, Raul Castro said the next 50 years "will also be of permanent struggle".

Raul Castro speaks in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, 1 January 2009

"With the firm promise that in this land we can always exclaim with pride that glory to our heroes and martyrs. Long live Fidel, long live the revolution, long live free Cuba!" said President Castro.

He was speaking from the very place where his elder brother proclaimed victory after the US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista had fled the country 50 years ago.

He spoke proudly of the 1959 revolution that transformed the Caribbean island into a communist state 145 km (90 miles) from US shores, but warned the country should remain vigilant.

"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," he added.

A series of free concerts had been planned across the island, but the authorities said it was not the time for lavish celebrations after the nation suffered one of the most difficult financial years since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Towering presence

The frail health of Fidel Castro has also dampened the mood of anniversary celebrations, says the BBC's Michael Voss in Havana.

CUBAN REVOLUTION MAPPED
Map of Cuba

The 82-year-old has not been seen in public since undergoing major surgery almost 18 months ago. There was no pre-recorded message on state television on New Year's Eve nor one of his regular newspaper editorials to mark the event.

Nonetheless, he remains a towering presence in Cuba, even in the background.

Raul Castro has introduced some limited reforms since he has been in charge, but many Cubans believe that as long as Fidel is alive, no meaningful political or economic change will happen, correspondents say.

Fifty years on, the legacy of the revolution is complex. There is free education and health care but the state-controlled economy means wages for many Cubans are very low, on average about $20 to $25 a month.

Tight restrictions

The country's difficulties cannot just be blamed on the US trade embargo, in place since 1962, or global financial problems, says our correspondent.

There is enormous pressure and expectation amongst Cubans for change, he adds.

A truck goes past a giant billboard wth the image of Raul Castro

Over the decades since the revolution, political opposition has been crushed and hundreds of thousands of Cubans have gone into exile.

"The Castro brothers have not treated their people particularly well," said White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe on the eve of the anniversary.

"Many political dissidents are in jail. The economy is suffering and not free. And the United States will continue to try to seek the freedom of the people of Cuba, and support them."

During his time in office, President George W Bush imposed tight restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting the island and the amount of money they could send.

However, US policy towards Cuba appears set to change.

President-elect Barack Obama, who takes office on 20 January, has said he will maintain the Cuban embargo but that some restrictions could be eased.

Attitudes among Cuban-Americans may also be changing. A recent poll suggested that for the first time a majority of those living in Miami, the centre of anti-Castro sentiment, favoured ending the embargo.

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