Castro's Revolution Turns 50

In a file photo Cuban President Fidel Castro gestures as he protests against the U.S. embargo, Oct. 31, 2003 in Havana, Cuba. Castro resigned as Cuba's president early Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2008
AP Photo/Jose Goitia
Fidel Castro's first military strike against the former regime of Fulgencio Batista, was the 1953 assault on the dictatorship's largest military barracks in eastern , not far from where Raul Castro will address a rally of government loyalists Thursday evening in a celebration of 50 years of revolutionary rule under Castro, who came to power on Jan. 1, 1959.

"We went to the Moncada with the goal of achieving a new Cuba, of eradicating all the bad things that existed-the corruption, the swindling, the gangsters, the total control foreigners had over Cuba ," Ramon Pez Ferro, who as an 18 year-old, fought alongside the Castro brothers in that armed action, tells CBS News Producer Portia Siegelbaum.

"We thought we had to overthrow Batista's bloody dictatorship and transform things in Cuba. But we have gone far beyond what we were thinking at the time of the Moncada. And I believe it's been for the best," says Pez Ferro who today heads the International Relations Department of the Cuban Parliament.

"I think we have reason to be satisfied after 50 years," he says, adding that the Revolution's achievements give meaning to the deaths of 70 "excellent comrades" who were slaughtered by Batista soldiers.

"We could have done much more in this time, could have gone much further in terms of achievements, of economic and social development," he notes, "but the Revolution has come up against a tremendous number of obstacles, not the least being the attitude taken by the United States, a very powerful and nearby country."

The United States economic and trade embargo which is also nearing its 50 birthday has failed to depose the Castro government but scholars and analysts believe it has held back development and change on the island.

"To me the question is what would have happened if the U.S. would have accepted the revolution? What would Cuba be today? And, and could the U.S. at this point in fact be willing to normalize relations and what might be the consequences for both countries if that were to occur," asks Nelson Valdes, a Professor at the University of New Mexico, Cuba scholar and also a Cuban American.

In 1961, Valdes, then 15, was put on a plane to the United States by his stepfather. He one of more than 14,000 children whose parents thought separation was better than raising their offspring under a Communist government which reportedly was going to take away their children and send them to Moscow to be indoctrinated, among other groundless rumors.

It was 16 years before he would return to the island and much had changed in the interval. While Valdes casts a more critical eye than Pez Ferro, he warns foreigners visiting Cuba not to jump to assumptions about what they see.

People are mistaken when they look at old, deteriorated buildings in the capital, buildings that had been gorgeous in the '50s and assume that their residents are also down and outs, says Valdes.

"If you go and look at the people than you encounter a human and social capital that was not there before. And I think this is the main problem that we often find when people come to Cuba. Because usually run-down buildings elsewhere also have run-down people-people who don't have an education, don't have the cultural level you might say and what is odd in the Cuban case is that you can have physicists and doctors living in buildings in which there is no running water," he points out.

It would be hard to dispute the fact that the Cuban population today is a highly educated one thanks to the Revolution's establishment of free education running from primary school through the university, whether you're studying literature, civil engineering or medicine.

And while the Cuban Government has cracked down on dissident groups it sees linked to the United States and heavy-handedly discourages criticism of the socialist system and government, one thing I have learned in several decades of covering Cuba, is that the average Cuban complains all the time.

You can hear them at bus stops, in coffee shops, over the clink of dominos and certainly any doctor or physicist living in a building without running water is complaining.

"It is impossible to think that with so many Cubans going to class, reading books and learning and that they don't think, they don't think with their own heads. And they think that they have rights and those rights include the rights to education, to health, to have a house, to have a job and to be able to travel, to be able to use all those capacities they have developed," says Rafael Hernandez, a sociologist and editor of the sometimes polemical magazine Temas, funded among others by a Norwegian NGO.