New Year's Eve this year will bring special reason to celebrate for supporters of Cuba throughout New Zealand and the world. This year marks fifty years since the rebel army of Fidel Castro and Ché Guevara rolled into Havana, finally triumphing over the dictator Batista's forces and beginning a new époque for Cuban society. This New Year's Eve, the streets of Havana will once again be filled with celebrating Cubans, marking the survival of fifty years of an alternative economic and social model. While Fidel Castro is now ailing in health, the proud and independent spirit of the Cuban people is in very good heart, say kiwis who have visited recently.

Cuban supporters in New Zealand may be lucky enough to source some Havana Club rum and make traditional Cuban mojitos (a refreshing rum cooler) or the Cuba libre ('free Cuba' - a slightly ironic name for a rum and coke with a twist of lime). But even if it is with a more kiwi-style Chardonnay or beer, New Zealanders who appreciate what Cuba has to offer the world will be raising their glasses to toast this Caribbean nation and its people.

Just as New Zealand seems set for changes as 2008 gives way to 2009 in insecure times, Cuba Friendship Societies acknowledge the many changes that Cuba has achieved over the last fifty years, against many odds. Nowadays, the Cuban population enjoys life expectancy and infant mortality rates similar to those in New Zealand, sitting Cuba comfortably among OECD nations for such health statistics and far exceeding the achievements of other developing countries in this area.

Ina Lawrence, a member of the Auckland Cuba Friendship Society and coordinator for the annual Southern Cross Work-Study Brigade to Cuba has visited Cuba many times and counts many Cubans among her closest friends. "The Cuban people have a lovely spirit and are very, very welcoming" she says. Ina has organised fund-raising for schools and for hurricane relief after the Cubans were hit hard in the last hurricane season. "Cubans really know how to celebrate and we know they will be out-doing themselves this New Year's Eve as they celebrate their fifty years" says Ina. "And so they should, they have a lot to be proud of."

The Cuban experiment has also provided many models of how to live more sustainably, with a low energy footprint and environmental impact, says Hamilton Cuba Friendship Society member Helen Ritchie. This is because Cuba was choked of its oil supplies when the Soviet Union broke up and Cuba's favourable trade with that bloc collapsed. Here the Cuban investment in education paid off, and the resourceful Cubans were able to overcome these difficulties, marrying traditional agriculture with new technologies to form new organic farming systems and bring the country back towards food self-sufficiency.

Cuban music and art is also celebrated not only throughout Latin America, but globally. Indeed, the world has much to thank Cuba for, and much to celebrate with the Cubans as they toast the survival of their society in the face of much hostility and enmity from their powerful northern neighbour. No doubt they will be looking to 2009 and a new American administration to see if the two countries can finally settle into more peaceful relations - that would be a most welcome anniversary present!

Released to the media December 23