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A generational divide widens in Cuba

Older Cubans are grateful for the peace and stability of the Castro years. But many younger ones, though grateful for the gains of the 1959 revolution, face a stifled future, and want more.

April 17, 2012|By Cecilia Sanchez, Los Angeles Times
  • A man runs along Havana's waterfront. Cubans increasingly are divided over the path their nation is taking. A 19-year-old summed up his future: “The only option is to leave the country. But we aren’t allowed to do that.” Responded a woman, 76: “People are ignorant for saying that. They are not grateful.”
A man runs along Havana's waterfront. Cubans increasingly are divided… (Michael Robinson Chavez,…)

SANTIAGO, Cuba — The way Cesar Cruz and his buddies see it, the "revolution of our grandparents" just doesn't cut it anymore.

The 19-year-old student and his friends gather every Saturday in leafy Cespedes Park in the shadow of Santiago de Cuba's cathedral, listening to music and sharing spins on an old scooter, and dreaming of an impossible future.

"We don't have the chance to think of a better life, without misery," Cruz said. "The only option is to leave the country. But we aren't allowed to do that."

President Raul Castro may have launched economic reforms in this communist country, to much international fanfare, but so far they haven't trickled down to Cruz or anyone else he knows. And political freedoms seem even more remote to young Cubans.

The only newspapers Cruz and his friends see are Granma and Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth), two staid mouthpieces of the Castro regime. Internet access is practically nonexistent. Satellite television is an unimagined luxury.

Amid nervous giggles from his pals, Cruz glanced over his shoulder to make sure there were no police within earshot when talking about the chances of an "Arab Spring" in Cuba, or even the possibility of protests in the streets.

"We think about it, but we are afraid," said Cruz, blue-eyed, with skin the color of milk chocolate. "The few times anyone has tried to organize, the government makes them disappear. The government is everywhere."

Cuban authorities have made it clear that the economic overhaul will not extend to the political system, which will be maintained as a closely guarded one-party form of socialism.

The economic reforms, and the political stagnation, have laid bare a generational divide. Many older Cubans who have lived through the revolution's ups and downs, and have come to depend on its provisions, welcome the economic opening but are afraid of real political change. Younger Cubans, facing a stifled future, want more.

The economic moves have been taken by the government as much out of necessity as anything else. Having lost its Soviet backer two decades ago, the Cuban economy is staggering under the weight of a bloated state workforce and unproductive agriculture sector. It is only subsidized Venezuelan oil that keeps things afloat, prompting Raul Castro, who took over as president when his brother Fidel fell ill, to encourage a measure of private enterprise and other stimulus measures. But it is a slow, halting process.

As the young people chatted, Cruz received a call on his cellphone. It was his mother, telling him to stop by the hotel where his aunt works to pick up a handout from management, a few crackers and bread.

"I promise you I am not going to live here forever. I do not want to live a life of misery, like my parents, like my grandparents," he said. "No, no, no. I want to live other experiences."

But where the youth finds frustration, an older generation looks to the past for comfort.

Her knees stiff and sore, Carmen Romero, 76, paused frequently as she climbed the steps to the shrine honoring Cuba's patron saint, Our Lady of Charity, just outside Santiago. For her, the revolution is to be thanked for giving her a roof over her head and a country at peace. Her wrinkled face contorted in a frown and her voice rose when asked about those who want change.

"People are ignorant for saying that," she said. "They are not grateful. Fidel liberated us from a dictatorship, and thanks to him we are no longer slaves."

Matilde Solis, 63, chimed in in agreement. "Do you know how many car bombs explode in other countries?" she said. "God spare us that. People who want change don't know how well off we are. There are worse countries."

Both worried what would happen if the regime they have known most of their adult lives were to end. Reaching the shrine, they prayed for Fidel Castro's health. "Care for him, Mother," Romero prayed aloud. "What will become of us if you take him away?"

Raul has taken over from Fidel rather seamlessly, but the post-Castro transition remains uncertain. No clear heir has been designated, and many in the highest level of government are as old as the octogenarian Castros.

The young friends who had gathered in the park, where mothers walked their children and graying men played chess on tattered game boards, said they appreciated what they had received from the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Their city, Santiago, is considered the cradle of the uprising, the city from which it was launched.

"The revolution gave me education, it gives me a good doctor when I need one, but if I think differently or speak out against the rules, I'm going to be locked up," said Arturo Santos, 17.

The revolution, he noted, will also send him to medical school to study to be a doctor, even though that was never what he wanted to be when he grew up. But now he hopes that might be his ticket out of the country.

The government's restrictive immigration policies make it difficult for young Cubans to move from the island legally. The uncle of one of the friends bought an immigration visa on the black market for $3,000.

The young people praised the new economic reforms, which for the first time allow ordinary Cubans to buy and sell houses and cars, to enter hotels previously reserved for foreign tourists, and to start private businesses. But with their meager incomes and low job prospects, they said, the reforms for them are all but irrelevant.

"If I stay here, am I ever going to have enough money to buy a house? Really? Of course not," said Roberto Tellez, another of the buddies in the park, a 20-year-old musician. "Let everyone have the right to follow the ideology they want. And if I want to try capitalism, then let me."

Sanchez is a researcher in The Times' Mexico City bureau.

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