August 6, 2006

Life little changed where Castro launched revolution

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - In the foothills of Cuba's rugged Sierra
Maestra mountains, where President Fidel Castro launched his
armed revolution half a century ago, life appears frozen in

Cars are scarce. Horse and buggy are still the best way to
get around, other than by bicycle, foot or the back of a
Soviet-era truck.

Oxen pull plows through fields and many peasant families
live in traditional thatched wooden huts in the region some 500
miles east of Havana.

"Things have changed a little, but not much," said Raul
Torre, sitting on his horse outside the cemetery of La Plata,
where Castro led a handful of guerrillas in their first
successful attack on an army barracks in 1957.

Torre, who grows yucca and vegetables like his parents
before him, told Reuters last month that roads were paved and
electricity came after Castro's bearded rebels overthrew
U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.

Otherwise, not much has changed in the Sierra Maestra,
which a Reuters team visited before Fidel Castro handed over
power this week, at least temporarily, to his younger brother
Raul Castro while he recovers from stomach surgery.

In Las Mercedes, where a Sherman tank destroyed by fellow
revolutionary Che Guevara's column attracts tourists and
history buffs, "guajiro" cowboys wearing straw hats race horses
on weekends and bet bottles of rum on who will win.

The big landowners are gone, their sugar cane plantations
expropriated by the state and turned into worker cooperatives.
The ruling Communist Party decides most aspects of daily life.

Widespread illiteracy was eradicated early under Castro,
the son of a wealthy Spanish landowner. There are schools in
most villages and medical posts that provide free health care.

And there is no shortage of politics. Government slogans
line country roads, and are painted on stones, walls and
billboards. "The struggle continues," says one sign. "We are
and always will be Socialist," reads another.


Residents complain their wages are low, and they have
limited access to consumer goods. But they thank Castro for the
little they have.

In Bartolome Maso, the highlight of the year is the summer
carnival when a fair with a rickety Ferris wheel comes to town.
There is music and dancing, roast pork and plenty of cheap,
flat beer.

As elsewhere in Cuba, housing is poor and run-down.

In Niquero, not far from where Castro's 82 rebels waded
through a swamp in a disastrous 1956 landing from the yacht
Granma, hamlets of thatched houses were demolished by Hurricane
Dennis last year.

"We had to run for our lives. We rebuilt the house from the
ruins," said Juan Rodriguez as his neighbors played dominoes
under a mango tree.

The government, which has a monopoly on building materials,
took four months to provide him sheet metal for a new roof.

Still, Rodriguez is grateful for electricity, refrigerators
and television sets provided by the state. "Work and food are
not lacking," he said. Respect for the "Comandante" is total.

"80 and onward," read a sign nailed to a tree in front of
Rodriguez's home, marking Castro's upcoming 80th birthday.

Local peasants, tired of poverty and brutal repression
under the Batista dictatorship, gave Castro vital support in
food and weapons in the initial stages of his guerrilla war.

The Quinteto Rebelde, a family folk group on whose
mountaintop property Castro and his men set up camp, went to
war singing parodies of Batista through megaphones to
demoralize the dictator's troops. "Out with the monkey" was a
hit song.

"Our weapons were musical instruments," said group leader
Alejandro Medina, 67, sitting on the porch of his clapboard
home, a sticker of Che Guevara on his guitar.