Cuba celebrated the 56th anniversary of the triumph of the revolution on Thursday but this year for the first time in 53 years, there was a novelty: renewed diplomatic relations with the United States are on the horizon.
A 21-gun salute from the San Carlos de La Cabaña fort in Havana marked the dawning of 2015 and in Santiago de Cuba, where the traditional Festival of the Flag also was celebrated, the festivities kicked off with the national anthem and the raising of a huge Cuban flag over historic Cespedes Park.
But instead of the fiery revolutionary rhetoric that has often been an anniversary staple, this year no political events were scheduled and the emphasis was on celebrating Cuban culture.
Cubans across the country rang in the New Year at provincial plazas and around the capital with dances and live music. Cinema, art shows, cultural discussions, and performances have been taking place all this week.
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In Santiago, the Cuban flag was hoisted at the old city hall where revolutionary leader Fidel Castro stepped to a balcony and proclaimed victory on Jan. 1, 1959. In the early morning hours 56 years ago, Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista fled the country and revolutionary forces also took control of Havana.
During last year’s anniversary, Cuban leader Raúl Castro was in Santiago, considered the cradle of the Cuban revolution, and spoke about the difficulties of forging the revolution in the face of constant aggression from the United States.
“It has been 55 years of incessant struggle in the face of the designs of 11 U.S. administrations that, with greater or less hostility, have not ceased in their determination to change the economic and social system that has been the fruit of the revolution, in order to eliminate its example and to reinstate imperial domination over our country,” Castro said on Jan. 1, 2014.
But on Dec. 17, Castro and U.S. President Barack Obama announced that Havana and Washington planned to renew diplomatic relations. That same day, the United States swapped three Cuban spies for a CIA agent serving a lengthy prison term in Cuba and Havana also released Alan Gross, a USAID subcontractor serving a 15-year sentence, in a humanitarian gesture.
Both leaders have said repeatedly they are committed to making the new relationship work, and in late January, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson is scheduled to head to Havana for migration talks and to discuss the process of restoring diplomatic ties.
During last year’s revolutionary celebration, Castro ticked off U.S. efforts to destabilize Cuba from breaking off diplomatic relations to harboring Batista-era criminals to the Bay of Pigs invasion, the embargo, assassination attempts against Fidel Castro and the Cuban Missile Crisis.
However, six months before that in mid-2013, Havana and Washington had already embarked on secret talks that would lead to the prisoner releases and pave the way for the new relationship.
Anniversary greetings arrived from around the world, including messages from Russian President Vladimir Putin and Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who praised the recently released Cuban prisoners for defending the revolution “at the cost of their own freedom” and emphasized the tight ties between Venezuela and Cuba.
As the New Year approached, Cuban expatriate performance artist Tania Bruguera tried to test the limits of free speech in the context of a new relationship between Cuba and the United States.
She and a movement called #YoTambienExijo (I also demand) planned an event Tuesday when participants were scheduled to speak at an open microphone for one minute about their concerns and ideas for Cuba’s future.
But she and other activists were detained before the event began. Bruguera was released briefly Wednesday, detained again before a planned news conference, and then once again released after a lengthy chat with State Security agents.
Her passport has been confiscated and she said in an audio message released by #YoTambienExijo that she was told she won’t be able to leave Cuba, where she faces charges of resistance and public disorder, for two to three months.