In this Jan. 8, 1959 file photo, Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro speaks to supporters at the Batista military base "Columbia" now known as Ciudad Libertad.
HAVANA — Fifty years after triumphant armed rebels descended from the eastern mountains, communist Cuba celebrated the revolution's anniversary Thursday with toned-down festivities after a trio of devastating hurricanes and under the enduring public absence of an ailing Fidel Castro.
The austere celebrations, including dances and concerts across the island, belied the start of a year infused with possibilities for increased cash and visitors, and other changes that might ease Cubans' daily hardships. Many here hope for improved relations with the United States when President-elect Barack Obama takes office Jan. 20 following declarations he would talk directly with Raul Castro and lift severe restrictions on family travel and remittances to the island.
"I hope he gets rid of the blockade," 42-year-old Ana Luisa Mas said as she bought a pork leg for her family's New Year's Eve celebration, referring to decades-old U.S. trade sanctions.
"We are very hopeful that with Obama our relatives will be able to visit us more, and send us more money," she said, maneuvering through hundreds of shoppers packed inside the enclosed Cuatro Caminos farmers market, rushing to buy black beans and rice, salad greens and other New Year's Eve dinner standbys.
"We also hope that Fidel will stay with us a little bit longer," Mas added.
President Raul Castro, who succeeded his older brother in February, planned to speak Thursday night from the same balcony where Fidel declared victory over dictator Fulgencio Batista's government on Jan. 1, 1959.
No foreign leaders were expected at the evening speech on a small, leafy plaza, with little fanfare beyond invitations to 3,000 Communist Party faithful. Outside the seaside U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the popular group Los Van Van were performing.
Fidel Castro's health is a state secret and he remains out of sight after undergoing major intestinal surgery almost 2½ years ago. But the 82-year-old continues to write occasional essays that suggest he still has some say in government affairs.
Shortly before midnight Wednesday, a brief statement by Castro was read on state television, congratulating "our heroic people" on the eve of the anniversary.
The 77-year-old Raul Castro appears to be in firm control of the government, but has yet to introduce any major reforms and few expect transcendent change while his brother is alive.
Officials initially planned a more grandiose anniversary celebration but scaled back after three hurricanes this year caused $10 billion in damages and wiped out nearly a third of Cuba's crops. Raul Castro last week called for more cost-cutting measures as the island posted an annual economic growth of 4.3 percent for the year, barely half the original government forecast.
Over a half-century, the triumphant rebels erased illiteracy, crafted a universal health care system, and built thousands of new schools. But after Fidel Castro embraced communism in 1961, labor unions lost the right to strike, the Catholic Church was harassed, and opponents of the new government were jailed.
The Havana-based non-governmental Cuban Commission for Human Rights and Reconciliation last counted 219 political prisoners on the island, down from as many as 15,000 in 1964.
Cuba's revolution was nevertheless long admired throughout the Third World as Castro stood up defiantly to the "Yankee imperialists," and infant mortality rates began rivaling those of developing countries.
Cuban writer Roberto Fernandez Retamar said the revolutionary movement remains relevant as several regional governments embrace milder versions of the socialist principles long promoted by the island's government. Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador are especially strong leftist allies.
"I think that the hopeful moment we have been seeing in Latin America in recent years has something to do with the Cuban revolution's existence," said Retamar.
Across the decades, Cuba's communist system has hung on, even after the Iron Curtain collapsed and communist China and Vietnam embraced free markets while still maintaining their political systems.
When President George W. Bush leaves office later this month, the revolution will have outlasted 10 American presidents who maintained strict U.S. sanctions aimed at overthrowing the Cuban leadership.
Outgoing Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, a Cuban-American who used his Bush administration post to promote hard line policies against the Castro government, this week argued against any easing of sanctions.
"To suggest unconditional dialogue with the Castro brothers would only signal that the conditions in Cuba are acceptable," Gutierrez wrote in The Washington Times. "If the United States does not continue to stand for the ideals of freedom and human rights and against the many guises of tyranny and oppression, who will?"
But many others think it is time for a major change in U.S. policies toward the island, and that rapprochement could help force an opening on the island.
"Confrontation plays up Havana's strong suit," Marifeli Perez-Stable of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, wrote in December. "Engagement may show how weak (Cuba's) hand really is. Which one is the real hard line?"