Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Ring out the old

After fifty years of failure, it would be fitting to say adios:
[Fidel] Castro's younger brother Raul, 77, who replaced the veteran dictator as president in February, will lead the main celebrations in the eastern city of Santiago, addressing a crowd from the same balcony where Fidel proclaimed victory on Jan 1, 1959.

....despite the triumphant slogans displayed in store windows, the new leader has scaled back plans for more lavish festivities after three back-to-back hurricanes in 2008 hammered the already enfeebled centralised economy.

Fidel, 82, will not make an appearance at the anniversary party – he has not been seen in public since undergoing emergency intestinal surgery in July 2006. But he still remains an imposing presence and few Cubans expect significant political or economic reforms while he is alive.

At the weekend, his brother was forced to announce fresh austerity measures, including a 50 per cent cut in overseas government travel, after officials admitted the economy had suffered its worse year since the collapse of their old Soviet benefactors in 1991.

The regime fears tougher times ahead this year as the collapse in world oil prices is likely to undermine the petrodollar fuelled largesse of firebrand Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Cuba's main financial backer currently supports Havana with subsidised oil supplies worth up to $3 billion (£2.1 billion) a year.

Many Cubans, tired of half a century of hostility with Washington, have pinned their hopes for change on the election of Barack Obama. Indeed, the US President-elect has promised to ease tough restrictions on Cuban-Americans visiting their relatives and sending cash remittances to the island.

Havana for its part this autumn quietly removed a prominent billboard near the US Interests Sections depicting George W. Bush as a bloody-fanged vampire in what was regarded as a goodwill gesture towards its long-time foes.

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