Following the announcement by Fidel Castro on February 19 that he would not stand in the election by Cuba's National Assembly (AN) for the position of president, the Western media coverage has ranged from grudging acknowledgement of Cuba's social gains in the face of 50 years of US aggression, to outrageous claims of "dictatorship" and US government plans for a "transition" in Cuba.
The coverage has also been full of speculation that a new president could open the path to restoration of capitalism in Cuba, usually presented as "bringing democracy", via a series of "reforms".
On February 24, the newly elected 614-member AN voted to promote Raul Castro to the position of Cuban president. Fidel, whose image as the quintessential bearded guerrilla came to symbolise Cuba's revolution, led the revolution since the overthrow of the brutal US-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959.
Fidel had been president of the Caribbean island since 1976. He remains an elected member of the AN, and first secretary of the Cuban Communist Party (CCP). Despite Cuba's long-standing policy of promoting youthful leadership at different level of government, the Western media have responded to the transition from Fidel as president, begun in 2006, like vultures circling.
The media's flawed approach reduces the Cuban Revolution to a one-man show, with the Cuban people passive spectators or long-suffering victims. This ignores the actual history of the Cuban Revolution — made and maintained despite bitter hostility from, and a crippling 46-year-long economic blockade imposed by, the world's most powerful nation just 90 miles away.
Cuba estimates the blockade has cost it US$89 billion. The UN General Assembly has voted every year for the last 15 years for the US to end its blockade.
It also ignores the actual democratic processes taking place in Cuba, and is a continuation of the propaganda war by the US and corporate interests against the island.
The Cuban Revolution remains an inspiration to millions of people in the Third World for its anti-imperialist struggle and social gains, both of which it has sought to extend globally.
Cuba has sent tens of thousands of volunteer doctors to provide free health care in dozens of countries — currently operating in 68 — while offering free education in Cuba for thousands of students from poor backgrounds globally, including from the US.
One of Cuba's most famous internationalist ventures was the role of Cuban troops fighting in Angola during the 1970s and '80s against the invading South African forces, which culminated in a historic defeat for the Apartheid regime that was crucial to its demise.
Speaking in Havana in July 1991, the recently freed Nelson Mandela called the Cuban-led victory for South African forces in Angola a "milestone in the history of the struggle for southern African liberation".
He explained: "The Cuban internationalists have made a contribution to African independence, freedom and justice unparalleled for its principled and selfless character. We in Africa are used to being victims of countries wanting to carve up our territory or subvert our sovereignty. It is unparalleled in African history to have another people rise to the defence of one of us.
"The defeat of the Apartheid army was an inspiration to the struggling people in South Africa! Without the defeat … our organisations would not have been unbanned! The defeat of the racist army … has made it possible for me to be here today!"
In recent times, alongside Venezuela, Cuba has initiated "Mission Miracle", a free program that has restored eyesight to more than a million people from across the Americas, including the US.
Before the revolution, Cuba was the playground of the US rich, renowned for its casinos, corruption, prostitution and poverty. Today, Cuba boasts universal and free health and education systems, and has eradicated illiteracy.
Despite its gains, the impoverished island continues to face massive obstacles.
The collapse of its major trading partner, the Soviet Union, in the early 1990s brought a severe economic crisis. The US responded by tightening the blockade — heightening the Cuban people's hardship — and increasing funding to counter-revolutionary forces.
The "Special Period", as this time of crisis was known, brought with it the return of inequality and other social ills, such as prostitution, eradicated by the revolution. Yet Cuba managed to resist the pressure from the US and survive without surrendering some of its most important social gains.
The depths of that crisis are behind Cuba, with its economy growing 7.5% in 2007, well above the Latin American average.
One of the positive side effects of the Special Period was that, as Cuba could no longer import chemical pesticides and fertilisers, it was forced to develop an organic, environmentally sustainable agricultural system, which now constitutes 95% of its output. Havana, Cuba's capital, produces most of its food in farms and permaculture gardens located within the city limits.
When the World Wildlife Fund released their 2007 Living Planet report, only one country — Cuba — met the requirements for sustainable development.
Cuban permaculturalist Roberto Perez, who features in the documentary The Power of Community: How Cuba survived Peak Oil that focuses on Cuba's "green revolution" following the collapse of the Soviet Union, will be touring Australia in March and April. He will be a keynote speaker at Green Left Weekly's Climate Change — Social Change Conference in Sydney from April 11-13.
Cuba's achievements have only been possible because the revolution has broken the hold of corporate interests over its economy and political system, and created an economy planned according to the principle of human need, not private profit.
The revolution has been deeply democratic from the outset, contrary to the widely-accepted myth that the revolution was made by only a small band of guerrillas. In fact, crucial to the overthrow of Batista's dictatorship was an urban mass movement that organised workers, students, professionals and the unemployed in towns and cities, and that ensured the toppling of Batista with a general strike in the first week of 1959.
At critical moments in the revolution — such as during the Special Period — the Cuban people have engaged in vigorous public debate unprecedented by Western standards.
Such a period of debate opened up again about a year ago, in order to determine Cuba's future course and tackle some of the significant problems facing the country that are causing widespread frustration.
More than 215,687 public meetings have been held across the country, in workplaces, communities and universities, resulting in more than 1.3 million grassroots proposals being lodged in the lead-up to national elections, that were held on January 20.
While Cuban democracy is far from perfect, which is not surprising for such a besieged country, it is also far from the dictatorship the media make it to be.
While the CCP remains the only legal party in Cuba, it is forbidden from participating in elections. All elected representatives in Cuba — including the president and ministers — can be recalled at any time by their local electorates. Women now make up over 43% of the legislature, an increase of 7%, and the proportion of those aged between 18 and 30 has increased from 23% to 36%.
In his closing speech to the AN on February 24, President Raul Castro addressed Cuba's approach to expressions of dissent and disagreement: "We do not deny [opponents of the government] right to expression, provided they do it with respect for the law."
Raul argued: "We shall not avoid listening to everyone's honest opinion, which is very useful and necessary simply because of the sometimes ridiculous noise made every time a citizen of our country says something that the very noise makers would pay no attention to if they heard it anywhere else on the planet."
"The revolution is the work of free men and women and it has been permanently opened to debate", he said.
Some of the most strident criticism in recent times has come from Cuba's communist youth organisation, in particular its paper Juventud Rebelde, which has cited numerous examples of corruption, inefficiency and social conservatism that are holding the country back.
Raul argued that while Cuban democracy is "participatory as few others are", it is not perfect, and emphasised the need for debate to improve it, stating that the "best solutions can come from a profound exchange of differing opinions, if such an exchange is guided by sensible purposes and the views are uttered with responsibility".
He also announced the reorganisation of the state apparatus, with "a lower number of institutions under the central administration of the state and a better distribution of their functions".
Raul criticised "the tendency to apply the same recipe everywhere", which led to distortions, and argued that in "many respects, local initiative can be effective and viable".
"In summary, our government's work must be more efficient."
While there is a wide-ranging debate about the direction of the revolution — including what type of market measures it may be necessary to introduce to overcome some of the problems that inevitably affect an isolated and impoverished island — those looking for signs of a "transition" away from socialism are likely to be disappointed.
The reform process underway, which is stimulating a genuine debate whose outcome is not predetermined, is designed to strengthen socialism in Cuba, through greater democratic control and improved productivity.
In concluding his defence speech at the end of his trial by the Batista regime following a failed 1953 uprising, Castro famously declared: "Condemn me, it doesn't matter. History will absolve me." In the face of continued US aggression, the Cuban Revolution is continuing its struggle to prove those words true.