Fifty years ago this week, Fidel Castro and his guerrillas marched into Havana, marking the end of U.S. domination over Cuba and beginning Castro's reign as one of the most polarizing — and important — leaders of the 20th century.
Now, Cuba now faces tough economic times. A soaring trade deficit and three hurricanes in 2008 have pushed the communist nation into its toughest financial crisis since the fall of the Soviet Union. Many Cubans struggle just to put food on their table, and officials say 2009 could be even worse.
Although many on the island are frustrated by the communist system, others feel a sense of pride in and loyalty to the "revolution."
Life Among The Ruins
Parts of Havana look post-apocalyptic. Ornate art nouveau buildings crumble in on themselves. Belching smoke, 60-year-old cars overloaded with passengers lumber through the streets. The grass in public parks is overgrown. At times, bright red, white and blue Cuban flags fluttering from balconies are the only sparks of color in this drab landscape.
Yet music thumps out of apartment buildings. Kids play stickball and soccer in the streets. Young couples kiss on the ocean boardwalk that looks north toward Florida.
Sitting in a barren park in central Havana, Julio Casanova says Cuba faces many problems.
"But you live," the 60-year-old says. "You live. You live. You live. You live. You live."
When Fidel Castro toppled the U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, Casanova was shining shoes on the streets of Havana. Under Castro, he was able to go back to school and eventually became an officer in the army. Under the communist system, he — and everyone else — gets health care, shelter and basic food.
"It's different than in the United States," Casanova says. "In the United States, if you don't work, you don't eat. Here, everyone eats."
As a country however, Cuba has struggled recently to meet everyone's basic needs. Government bodegas that sell heavily subsidized food rations regularly run out of meat, eggs and cooking oil.
In a market on the west side of Havana, crowds push in to buy tomatoes, limes and papayas. There is fresh produce here, but the overall agriculture system on the island has declined so dramatically that Cuba now imports roughly 60 percent of its food — much of it from the United States.
Cracks In the Communist System
In 2006, an ailing Fidel Castro handed power to his younger brother, Raul, after running the country for 48 years.
And as president, Raul Castro has made only minor changes to the Marxist-Leninist system.
At a ceremony last week commemorating the 50th anniversary of his older brother's ascent to power, Raul Castro said the Cuban revolution is stronger now than ever.
But dissidents say the revolution has evolved into a dictatorial system that traps Cubans in a bizarre form of poverty. For instance, Cubans are paid in national pesos, but many necessities are only sold in convertible pesos, or CUC, the currency available to tourists.
"How am I going to buy in CUC when I don't get paid in CUC?" asks Belinda Salas. Salas runs an organization advocating for the rights of rural women. She says the Cuban economy needs a radical overhaul.
Salas says U.S. policy toward the island hasn't helped. Food in the markets now comes from the U.S., but she says the government still gets to blame all its problems on the embargo.
"If there's no plaster, it's because of the embargo," she says. "If the lights go out, it's because of the embargo. If there's no rice, it's because of the embargo. And the embargo has become a justification for them to stay in power for 50 years."
Salas also accuses the government of crushing dissent. Human Rights Watch says more than 200 people remain imprisoned in Cuba for political reasons.
In many parts of Cuba there is frustration. People still flee the island in boats. The majority now try to get to Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula as the U.S. Coast Guard has made reaching Florida more difficult.
But others say the revolution has accomplished a lot.
Many Still Have Faith
In the south of Havana, in an area called San Miguel, dirt footpaths wind through a maze of cobbled-together fences and wooden shacks.
Jasman Rodriguez Estable, 29, lives in a rustic house in which cloth curtains serve as doors to the bedrooms. He says before the triumph of the revolution, poor people like him couldn't go to school.
Now, even though Cuba is a developing country, he says it has high-tech hospitals. It sends doctors and teachers throughout Latin America. In the 1980s, it had one of the most powerful armies in the world. Rodriguez attributes all of this to the 82-year-old Fidel Castro.
"Fidel is young," he says, "and he will remain young forever. Fidel will remain young because he has strength, ideas and confidence in his people."
Rodriguez acknowledges that the monthly salaries aren't enough to live on, but he says life is hard in many parts of the world. He says he is proud that for all these years, Cuba has stood up against its rich superpower neighbor, that it still opposes capitalism. Despite the mounting hardships and calls by dissidents for radical change on the island, Rodriguez says he thinks Fidel's communist system is in Cuba to stay.