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Assault that sparked Cuba’s revolution

Santiago (Cuba), July 26 (Reuters): At the crack of dawn today, Cuban children re-enacted a brazen rebel assault on an army garrison 50 years ago that led to one of the most enduring socialist revolutions of the 20th century.

The annual event honours the heroism of a band of idealists led by a 26-year-old firebrand lawyer called Fidel Castro, who was captured and imprisoned.

The attack failed, but Castro’s guerrilla movement ousted corrupt dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959 and he went on to build a communist society that achieved the health and educational standards of industrialised nations.

But persistent social hardship has brought discontent and the emergence last year of a nationwide dissident movement calling for democratic reforms to Cuba’s one-party state and an opening up to small businesses.

Castro launched a crackdown in March that resulted in the imprisonment of 75 dissidents with sentences of up to 28 years and drew widespread condemnation.

Castro, the world’s longest-serving political leader, will mark the anniversary in a speech on Saturday night to 10,000 people at the Moncada barracks, now a school and museum still pockmarked by the Browning 50 mm machine-gun bullets that mowed down his rebel force.

‘Situation is tight’

The Cuban President’s appearance could help dispel recent rumours he was ill or even dead. The rumours have fuelled increasing uncertainty over the Caribbean island nation’s political future.

The Cuban President, who will be 77 on August 13, has slowed in recent years.

In June 2001, he fainted briefly during a long speech under a scorching sun, prompting Cubans in and out of government to start thinking about a post-Castro Cuba.

Castro has survived countless CIA assassination attempts and four decades of US enmity and sanctions. He weathered a deep economic crisis a decade ago after Cuba lost Soviet aid and markets for its sugar.

Cuba has opened up to tourism and foreign investment and allowed circulation of the US dollar in a bid to refloat its economy.

But the measures have introduced social differences in the island’s egalitarian society.

“The situation is tight, but in spite of the American economic blockade we have managed to go forward,” said Emilio Guerra, a retired interior ministry official.

The Moncada celebration coincides with the annual Carnival revelry in Santiago. Residents take to the streets to eat roast pork, drink rum and beer, watch the parade and dance until the early hours.

Castro had timed his attack hoping to surprise the garrison hung over from a drinking binge.

For Castro’s opponents, the anniversary of the first shots fired at Batista’s dictatorship is no occasion to celebrate.

Cuba — they say — has come full circle and is as repressive as it was under Batista.

“It’s another year of frustrations. There is no future and the government offers none,” said dissident Vladimiro Roca, the son of a founding father of the ruling communist party.

The Cuban economy never fully recovered from the collapse of Soviet communism. Most Cubans earn wages in pesos that average $10 to $15 a month and live in dilapidated housing with few comforts.

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