Cubans Quietly Mark 30 Years of Castro Rule : Few Signs of Celebration in Havana; Some Show Ambivalence Over Communist Regime

Times Staff Writer

On New Year’s Day 30 years ago, wildly cheering Cubans danced in Havana’s streets to celebrate the downfall of dictator Fulgencio Batista and the rise to power of brash, young Fidel Castro.

On Sunday, President Castro and his compatriots observed what many had expected would be an equally joyous 30th anniversary.

But there were few signs of joy and almost none of celebration except in the southeast coastal town of Santiago de Cuba, where Castro emotionally challenged the recent trend toward a softening of Communist ideology. Castro concluded a nationally televised, largely sentimental two-hour recounting of the first days of the revolution by flinging down a gauntlet to the revisionists who, by implication in previous Castro speeches, are led by Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev.

“Socialism or death. Marxism-Leninism or death,” he cried from a balcony overlooking the crowded central plaza of the provincial capital where the first shots of the Cuban revolution were fired. “That is what it means today; that has been repeated throughout these years. Nation or death,” he said, reiterating his refusal to bend to change.


Seems Almost Apathetic

But while a large crowd turned out in Santiago to hear their leader reaffirm his doctrinaire ideology, the rest of the country seemed almost apathetic. Most of the residents of the capital stayed home, as they had the night before, celebrating the New Year and perhaps the 30th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban revolution in a manner that would be considered subdued at best in any other country in the hemisphere.

On both New Year’s Eve and Day, the streets of the usually bustling city were virtually deserted. A few white-starred Cuban flags fluttered from the windows of the faithful. Here and there a banner proclaimed “Happy 1989" or “30th Anniversary With Joy,” but hardly anyone was out to see them.

“Maybe it’s because things are different,” said Manuel Rodriguez, a balding, 53-year-old printer, when asked by an American journalist why no one appeared to be celebrating either event. “We always call Jan. 1 a dead day.”

Like many Cubans after 30 years in a tightly controlled Communist society, Rodriguez expressed ambivalent feelings about the results of Castro’s revolution with its growing signs of economic and social stress. For himself, he said, “I feel good. I have a job, a family, a home.” But for the young people who have grown up with the revolution and known nothing else, he was uncertain.

‘Can’t Say for Sure’

“If you took a poll, maybe a majority would say, yes, they’re happy, but I can’t say that for sure.”

A few yards from the park bench where Rodriguez sat basking in the 80-degree sunshine near Havana’s U.S. Capitol look-alike, now the National Museum of Science and Technology, a gray-haired Cuban who also remembered the years before Castro’s revolution propped an ancient blue bicycle against a bench and sat down.

A 75-year-old electrician, he identified himself only as “Luis” because, he said, “if someone denounced me I would go to jail.”

Luis was not ambivalent about the revolution. “It doesn’t work,” he said, “because there are a lot of things missing. There is nothing. Right now I get more salary than in 1958, but it doesn’t buy me anything. Everything is very, very expensive. Is it important that Fidel puts up a hospital if you don’t have anything to eat?”

Actually, no one starves in today’s Cuba, and even Castro’s strongest critics acknowledge that his country has made enormous strides in public health and education since 1958. But 30 years of Soviet-supported isolation have left severe economic problems unallayed by Soviet aid, which reached $5 billion last year alone.

The Cuban economy has fallen far short of the rising expectations of people who have yet to see even the long-promised end of food rationing. Meat is in short supply and even rice, also rationed, is often late to arrive in the markets and sells at five times its rationed price on the black market.

“I don’t say there is no rice, but sometimes I don’t have rice to eat,” said a 20-year-old maintenance worker who otherwise claimed to support the revolution.

Housing also is in critically short supply and a constant source of complaint even among loyal Communists. Some analysts have blamed the country’s high divorce and suicide rates on the housing shortage.

“In the old days you could buy a house, sell a house or just go and get another apartment,” said Luis. “Today if your house falls down, it takes 12 years to get another one.”

‘Volunteer’ Work

Socially, the toll of economic deprivation and rigid state control of everything from work to leisure and even “volunteer” work has found a voice that would have been suppressed little more than a year ago, when international human rights pressures forced the Cuban regime to ease somewhat its longstanding ban against internal criticism.

The secretary general of the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference observed boldly in a recent homily that “the apparently monolithic socio-political order could not hide tensions, frustrations.” He added that “deceit, dissimulation, apathy and dishonesty are permeating various sectors of society” and decried the loss of 10% of Cuba’s population to emigration, mostly to the United States, since 1959.

But the most burning subject is rarely never raised in public, except obliquely by the 62-year-old Castro. That is the tide of change in the Communist world represented by Gorbachev’s programs of glasnost and perestroika , meaning openness and restructuring.

In the past, Castro has bluntly rejected any notion of copying the Soviets’ liberalizing reforms. “We don’t want to find out 10 or 20 years from now that the changes being made now don’t work,” he said in an Armed Forces Day speech delivered Dec. 5.

Noting that the times are filled with “difficulties,” he politely included Gorbachev’s Communist reformers with his traditional American enemies in warning that “you cannot only expect difficulties from the enemy, but also difficulties from our own friends.”