Cuba's Revolution Day Brings Sobering Celebration

Cuba's economy has been hammered by the global credit crisis, U.S. relations have not improved much under President Barack Obama and economic reforms that were supposed to ease life on the island have been slow to come.

Cuban President Raul Castro seemingly has little positive to report in his speech Sunday marking Revolution Day, the communist country's top holiday. In fact, he is likely to call for more sacrifice from Cubans in the face of even tougher economic times ahead.

"He was working to improve things, but with all that's happened with the economy in the world, the effect has been minimal," said Silvia Hernandez, a retired commercial analyst for a state-run firm in Holguin, the island's fourth-largest city where Castro is leading celebrations.

Castro already has implored Cubans for more time as he implements "structural changes" to a struggling economy controlled more than 90 percent by the state. He also has said he'd be willing to meet with U.S. leaders over any issue — including the country's political prisoners and human rights record.

Officials from Cuba and the U.S. discussed immigration this month for the first time since 2003. The Obama administration lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans who want to travel or send money to the island. But Washington has said it wants to see small political or economic reforms before going further.

"The other side doesn't want to do anything," said 73-year-old housewife Elena Fuentes. "We've been like this for 50 years. That's too long. They talk about 'change,' but the change we want is for things to get better with the United States."

Others say improved relations aren't up to the U.S.

"Where our country is going, that is up to us," Hernandez said.

Revolution Day marks July 26, 1953, the date Cubans consider the start of the revolution, when Fidel and Raul Castro led a rebel attack on the Moncada army barracks in the eastern city of Santiago. The assault was a disaster. Many rebels were killed, and others, including both Castros, were imprisoned. But the guerrillas went on to oust dictator Fulgencio Batista on New Year's Day 1959.

In the past, Fidel Castro would speak for hours on Revolution Day. But his four-star army general brother, who took over for the ailing Fidel in February 2008, has a more efficient, military-like style. And Raul Castro scaled back celebration of the revolution's 50th anniversary in January after three hurricanes caused more than $10 billion in damage across the island, and tough economic times began to set in.

More recently, the government has ordered lights and air conditioners turned off at banks, stores and other government institutions and closed state-run businesses and factories early to conserve oil — even though Venezuela sends the island about 100,000 barrels of crude a day at favorable prices.

Farming and land reform have bolstered production of vegetables, but government money problems have delayed imports of other food, causing shortages of basic staples such as cooking oil.

Other reforms have been implemented only sporadically. Castro has failed to keep his promises since taking power from his brother, said Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became a dissident anti-communist and was jailed in 2003.

"He knows times have changed but ... he hasn't confronted the very strong inertia within the government," said Espinosa Chepe, who has since been granted provisional freedom for health reasons.

Cuba's free health care and subsidized food and housing don't make belt-tightening any easier in a country where nearly everyone works for the state, and the average wage is less than $20 per month.

"More steps against the crisis, more adjustments, aren't going to be easy," said Reina Delgado, a 70-year-old retiree.

Bicycles and horse-drawn wooden carts are a more common means of transport than cars in Holguin, a city famous for its well-manicured parks. The highway leading to Havana, 480 miles (760 kilometers) to the northwest, is cluttered with freshly painted billboards featuring Raul Castro extolling hard work and socialism.

In one front yard, residents dressed a pair of straw men in olive-green rebel uniforms.

Seated in her sweltering Holguin living room, an army lieutenant colonel said she needed special permission to talk to an American reporter.

"I can say what I want, but not to foreigners," she said, deferring to Hernandez, her neighbor, to answer questions about the state of Cuba this Revolution Day.

"Raul doesn't always have positive news," Hernandez said. "But the people support him."