Monday, February 25, 2008

Black youths hungry for change

Black youths hungry for change
Subjected to random stops by police and hindered by a lack of
opportunities, Cuba's restless young blacks fear that whatever change
may come will not be enough.
Posted on Sat, Feb. 23, 2008

Two Cuban men walk down a busy street in Old Havana, joking as they wind
their way through the thick scrum of tourists and the cascade of salsa
music spilling out of bars.

Their laughter quickly stops as a portly police officer stops them and
asks for their identification. The men flip out their wallets and say
nothing as the cop studies their ID cards.

''That's Cuba,'' says Liván, 25, who has deep chocolate skin and short
dreads. ``That's what it means to be a black man here. They don't need a
reason to stop you.''

These are perhaps the most restless of Cuba's restless youth: young
black men who live under a system that tells them they are equal but in
a daily reality that often says otherwise.

''There's one word to sum this up,'' said Liván, referring to the random
stops. ``It's bull----.''

As they walk away, their friend Franco breaks into a song that is part
rumba, part rap, with Liván beat-boxing behind, about the constant
stops, the endless rules, and the lack of opportunities.

Neither believes Fidel Castro's official departure that was announced
Tuesday will bring change soon. Both have come to the same conclusion:
They will probably leave when they get a chance.

''I love my country, don't get me wrong -- I really love it, because it
has both good and bad things,'' Liván said. ``But I just don't think
anything is going to change.''

About 2.5 million of Cuba's 11 million people turned adult after the
start of a grueling economic crisis in 1990, according to Foreign
Minister Felipe Pérez Roque. An estimated 60 percent of the total are
Afro-Cubans. And youths have taken part in a recent series of
demonstrations with varying degrees of anti-government overtones.

For Liván and Franco, whatever change comes after Castro may not be
enough. These artist-musicians want more than today's Cuba can give them.

Last year, Castro's brother and designated successor, Raúl, called on
the youth to debate issues ''fearlessly,'' and signs of a more open
discussion have emerged, as seen by the contentious exchange between a
university student and National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcón in a
recent videotaped meeting.

The young student has become an instant icon for the island's restless

''I believe that kid should pass into history,'' said Franco, 22. ``He's
a peasant, someone with no family in the United States, part of the
revolutionary youth -- he was the only one who could have done that
without being thrown in jail.''

Though Franco doesn't believe the dramatic exchange means transformation
is on the horizon -- at least not enough for him -- he says it's
important ``that he did it and I'm glad someone had the courage to stand
up and say the things that all the Cuban people are thinking.''

Liván and Franco both work government jobs, but have their small side
businesses, selling art to tourists or to Cubans able to pay. They dream
of a life playing music, a fusion of the sounds that define their lives:
the salsa and rumba they grew up with, and the U.S. rap and funk they
have come to love.

And they want to play in a place where they can say whatever they choose
without worrying about the consequences.

Liván is the louder, more kinetic of the two. Music constantly plays out
the small earphones running up from a mp3 player tucked under his
T-shirt, and he often talks over it, breaking into a little shimmy as he

Franco is more subtle, with small braids pulled back in a ponytail. He
is a painter who creates commercial paintings that sell but make him
feel that he's sold out. ''That's not me, and it would shame me for you
to see them,'' he said.

He also doesn't like to talk too long about the problems in Cuba. ''It
makes me feel like I'm sinking,'' he said.

They live in one of Havana's outlying neighborhoods, a leafy area full
of modest houses and low-rise apartment buildings.

The gap between older Cubans and the change-hungry youth plays out at
meals at Liván's wood dining table, as he and his 63-year-old mother
debate the revolution's more than 50 years of history.

''I think things have gotten better here because I know what it was like
before,'' said his mother. ``I know how people suffered under capitalism.''

She describes a pre-revolutionary time when poor Cubans died because
they couldn't buy medicine, and gently dismisses her son's impatience
with the present as the luxury of a generation that doesn't know better.

''I don't like it when you tell me I can't understand because I wasn't
there then, Mamá,'' he said. ``That was your time, and this is mine.''

His mother said that some evolution should occur, starting with the
travel restrictions. If Cubans, she argued, only knew more about what it
was like to struggle in places off the island, more would want to stay.

Fidel Castro did good things for Cuba, Liván replied, ''but he should
have resigned a while ago.'' He concedes that now some change could
come, but waiting for it seems unfathomable. ''Life is passing me by,''
he said.

He and Franco move through the world of Cuba's underground rap,
listening to groups such as Los Aldeanos -- musica contestaria, or
anti-establishment -- that can't make it onto the government controlled
radio stations.

''Why do you stop me to ask me what I'm doing and who I am?'' one
Aldeanos song demands. 'My name isn't `Psst, hey show me your ID' ''

''They say there aren't class differences, but there is classism, and
they say there is no racism but there is racism,'' said Liván. ``This
music talks about that.''

Many of their favorite rappers play at a smoky, dark club in the Vedado
neighborhood where on a recent night women rappers in metallic heels and
skinny jeans mingled with hip-hop artists visiting from Spain and Chile.

The rapper Anderson, the night's main act, often performs songs by Los
Aldeanos. Taking the stage in front of the mostly black audience, he
unleashed a relentless rant on Cuban life in a high-pitched voice.

Three large, stiff men walked into the club, looked around and then
arranged themselves in the far back corner, the one place with a view of
every part of the room. Anderson abruptly ended the show. ''Well,'' he
said. ``That's all.''

Instead, a DJ played Tupac and the Fugees, and the audience danced on
while the suspected security agents looked on.

''Things like that,'' Liván said of Anderson's blunted performance,
``They crush my heart.''

The name of The Miami Herald correspondent who wrote this dispatch, as
well as the surnames of the Cubans interviewed, were withheld because
the reporter lacked Cuban government permission to work on the island.

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