Fifty years ago, Raúl Castro walked into the Moncada Army barracks with just one bodyguard and the soldiers under dictator Fulgencio Batista easily surrendered. On Thursday, the Cuban leader stood before the nation as president celebrating five decades of spirited defiance against ''sick, venegeful hate'' by the United States.
Speaking before a crowd of more than 1,000 loyalists Castro warned that life on the island would not get easier, but said that the revolution that was victorious 50 years ago remained strong and could not be destroyed by outside forces.
''Today, the revolution is stronger than ever,'' said the 77-year-old who formally took over in February but has been running the country since his older brother Fidel took ill in July 2006. ``Does that mean that dangers have diminished?
''Of course not, let's not have illusions,'' Castro said. ``Let us commemorate this half a century of victory by reflecting toward the future, toward the next 50 years.''
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Dressed in his military uniform and speaking behind a podium beneath the balcony where Fidel Castro declared victory on Jan. 1, 1959, Castro warned that the struggling nation would continue to endure hardships.
''I'm not saying that to scare anyone, but because it is simply the reality,'' said Castro, referring to the global economic crisis that is also affecting Cuba and recounting similar words used by his older brother during the 1959 victory speech.
Castro said that younger generations have to be groomed to take over a struggle that must continue to honor ``the sacrifices of thousands of compatriots.''
He also acknowledged that the revolution has flaws: ''Our people know every imperfection of our struggle,'' he said. But he added that the ongoing battle could not be dismantled by outside forces, specifically pointing to the United States.
''This country can self-destruct from within,'' he said, also borrowing from a speech Fidel Castro made in 2005. ``But it can't be destroyed by them.''
Raúl Castro kept his address short, lasting just 40 minutes. Most of the 1 ½-hour program served as a homage to his brother, whose health is a state secret and who has not been seen in public since undergoing major intestinal surgery in 2006.
But the 82-year-old Fidel continues to write occasional essays known as ''Reflections,'' which are published or read in the government-controlled media and indicate that he still has some say in government affairs. He also remains as the head of the Communist Party, which the Cuban constitution designates as the nation's supreme leader.
A one-sentence salutation from Fidel Castro was published Thursday in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, in which he congratulated ''our heroic people,'' as the nation prepeared to commemorate the anniversary.
The celebration in Santiago kicked off with historical footage of battle scenes and was laced with the voice of a young Fidel Castro delivering long, passionate speeches in the early years of the revolution in which he told supporters: ``Cuba and the Cuban revolution will continue to fight ... Long live the revolution!''
The homage was complemented with music, dance and a series of declarations, punctuated by chants of ''Viva Fidel (Long Live Fidel), Viva la revolucion,Viva Cuba libre!''. ''Resistance has been the order of the day and the key to our victory,'' Raúl Castro told the crowd, which was limited to invited guests.
The elaborate gathering shown live on Cuban television was a stark contrast to a tense calm that hung over the host city earlier in the day, perhaps because shortly after the New Year began, authorities banned Cubans from one of the city's busiest square.
But the mood picked up in the late afteroon when streams of credentialed guests gathered at the Parque Cespedes chanted in unison during the orderly affair. The location is normally a bustling hot spot.
At the stroke of midnight Thursday morning, dozens gathered for the ceremonial raising of the flag and watched an enormous poster of Castro draped over the Casa Granda Hotel.
But once the crowd petered out to revel at home, heavy security did not permit Cubans to enter the plaza in anticipation of the evening ceremonies to celebrate the anniversary.
Most had to hear what Raúl Castro had to say on Cuban television.
''Nobody is out today because nobody wants to talk,'' said Orlando, a gypsy cab driver. ``There's a fog over the whole city. They [government officials] are celebrating while the people are screwed.''
''They are celebrating this anniversary themselves, just like they chose a president for this country among themselves,'' said Daly, a mother of two.''
In Havana, music blared at an outdoor concert at the Tribuna Antiimperialista in front of the U.S. Interests Section and another performance was held at the Amphitheatre of Old Havana.
The government announced that a ''Caravan of Liberty'' carrying 50 people selected from each province would set out from Santiago de Cuba on Friday and follow the route taken by members of the Rebel Army in 1959 from Santiago to Havana.
The caravan members will be chosen from among elementary, intermediate and university students, as well as other outstanding youth, teachers, doctors, artists, athletes, scientists, internationalists and farmers. They will be joined by officers and soldiers from the Revolutionary Armed Forces and the Ministry of the Interior.
The caravan will reenact the one led by Fidel Castro that ended in Havana on Jan. 8, 1959, where he and other rebels were by jubilant Cubans who celebrated the departure of dictator Fulgencio Batista. The mock caravan will culminate with a massive rally at the former Columbia Military Base just outside Havana, where Batista gathered his closest allies and shared his decision to flee. The site now serves as an educational complex.
The caravan will resume its journey to Pinar del Río on Jan. 17, marking the 1959 visit by Castro to that province.
Thursday's event in Santiago marked a bittersweet anniversary.
It was 50 years ago that rebels came down from the mountains to oust a dictator, only to institute one themselves. The revolution was welcomed with enthusiastic praise, particularly in the countryside here, where deeply entrenched poverty left many in squalor. Even Cuba's middle class welcomed that Jan. 1 day when Fidel Castro took to the town hall balcony on Parque Cespedes and promised to restore order to a war-torn nation.
But the decades of economic ruin and restricted freedoms have taken their toll.
Most people in Santiago respond with a polite smile when asked by foreigners about Thursday's celebration. Some tout the important accomplishments such as healthcare and education for all, but many others point their heads at the cop on every corner, an indication of a conversation that will not take place.
''They set up those chairs in the plaza for who? -- the high command,'' said Eduardo, a teacher. ``Because they know no one will be out celebrating 50 years of the same, 50 years of going backward instead of forward. This has been the reverse revolution.''
Eduardo acknowledged that Santiago, an eastern city that served as the nation's first capital, has traditionally backed the Cuban government. Many Afro-Cuban residents, particularly the elderly who suffered discrimination, applaud the Castro brothers for opening up educational and professional opportunities to people of all races and socioeconomic classes.
''I am sure that even now there are more Santiagueros who support the revolution than in any other part of the country,'' Eduardo said. ``But even the older people and the black people know . . . they know what this has been and they have suffered because of it.''
Cubans deeply resent strict controls, which prevent them from legally supplementing woeful salaries that average $20 a month. They say the government has cracked down harder on black market business that they need to survive.
Life got even harder this summer after a series of devastating storms ruined many people's homes and livelihoods.
''They are organizing this big celebration for those who can celebrate,'' said Yolys, a teacher. ``I bought a new dress for New Year's Eve but that means not having money to buy rum.''
``For most of us, it's like that. We'd rather be celebrating a different system, one where I could speak freely and buy the clothes I like, not just the ones I can afford.''
As Yolys looked at herself in the mirror at a nightclub bathroom and adjusted her tight jeans and tank top, she stared at the image for a few moments.
''Look older than 32, don't I? I look at least 40,'' she said. ``It is the life here. That's why I go out to places like this hoping to find a foreigner to fall in love with me. Don't get me wrong, I would not marry a fat disgusting guy. I want a nice one, one who can offer me a better life.''
The names of the correspondents who filed this report and the surnames of those interviewed were not published because the reporter lacks the journalist's visa required by the Cuban government.