Cuba's youth: restless but not often political
They just want the freedom to travel and access to the tech touchstones
of their generation: iPods, Facebook, and text messages.
By Sara Miller Llana and Matthew Clark | Staff writers of The Christian
from the July 25, 2008 edition
Havana - The posters in Bian Rodriguez's tiny room are the same that
would adorn the walls of any college student's dorm. Bob Marley vies for
space with US rappers Tupac and Busta Rhymes. The visage of leftist
guerrilla icon Ernesto "Che" Guevara sizes up visitors from all angles.
"Che is ... the ideal man," says the tattooed 23-year-old hip-hop
artist. "He never let people down. He did what he said."
But in song and conversation, Mr. Rodriguez is sharply critical of Che's
comrade, the father of Communist Cuba, Fidel Castro – and his successor
Through his biting lyrics, he vents the anger he says other young Cubans
also feel at being trapped in a system that doesn't represent them,
won't allow them to speak freely, and – worst of all – stifles their
ability to get ahead.
"We do social criticism," he says. "We criticize this system and any
other. The leaders make promises, but they don't deliver."
Rodriguez is far more open in his criticism than most Cubans. Young
Cubans, after all, were raised watching their neighbors jailed for
voicing dissent. But this generation, while valuing much about their
nation's socialist ideals, is growing restless. In some cases, it is
political. But for many, it's a desire for the basic technological and
social touchstones of their era – text messages, Facebook, Hollywood
movies, travel abroad, and flat-screen TVs.
"The under-45 generation is disconnected from the myths and legends of
the revolution," says Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst who profiled
both Fidel and Raúl Castro. "The biggest change will come from the youth."
The boldest confrontation to date, at least publicly, came from students
this past winter at the University of Information Sciences in Havana,
during a meeting with National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcón.
Students peppered him with complaints ranging from low wages to gaining
access to the Internet.
"Why can't the people of Cuba go to hotels or travel to other parts of
the world?" asked Eliecer Avila, in a video that quickly was posted on
Youtube.com. The student, dressed in a blue T-shirt decorated with the
e-mail symbol "@," said he didn't want to die before visiting Bolivia,
where "Che" fell.
"That [confrontation] goes to the issue of opportunity," says Frank
Mora, a Cuba expert at the National Defense University in Washington.
"There are three levels of demands for freedom and expectations. 'I just
want to live better, and have more access to food.' [Other] people want
more mobility, access to the Internet. Then there is a third group that
wants dramatic change of the kind we saw in Eastern Europe. It's hard to
say how many want that third option. Within this [younger] age group,
the issue of social change and opportunities is front and center."
Analysts say this is the reason Raúl has rolled out a series of changes
in his first few months in power, allowing Cubans to own cellphones,
computers, and go to tourist hotels, among other small freedoms.
In fact, while critics of the Cuban government brushed the ownership
rules off as merely cosmetic and inconsequential since such luxuries are
out of reach to most Cubans, youths embraced their new liberties. Groups
of young men almost immediately started forming outside shops eyeballing
new motorbikes, another recently granted consumer privilege.
"This generation is growing up where people express love through
material things," says a young reggaeton musician clad in a designer
Lycra shirt and denim baseball cap cocked to the side. "You need to take
girls out to expensive places and be well-dressed. You need to have
access to a car."
What changes would he like to see? Access to technology – and knowledge
of how to use it. And, he adds with a wide grin, a big TV to watch music
videos, baseball, and movies from abroad.
Many young Cubans say that pressure from them was a driving force in
Raúl's move toward more purchasing freedom.
"What happened at the university [with Mr. Alarcón] is proof that we
have to go out on the streets to pressure the government to achieve
changes," says Reinier, a literature student at the University of Havana
who declined to share his last name.
Fidel Castro had long resisted such changes. Some suspect it was because
he feared that greater access to information, via phones or computer
screens, could inspire even more restiveness. Indeed, the confrontation
with Alarcón gained a larger audience and significance thanks to its
rapid spread via Youtube.com.
"Raúl is making changes that go against the grain of what Fidel wanted,"
says Latell. "None of these things would have been possible under Fidel.
Raúl is making it clear that he is a problem-solver. He's saying: 'I
understand your problems.' What would Fidel be doing? He'd be prancing
around on the world stage."
Rodriguez, the hip-hop artist, says that such reforms have garnered Raúl
a measure of respect – and have been a blow to the popularity of Fidel.
But he still is not impressed. "The government should have implemented
them 1 million years ago," says Rodriguez, who teaches primary school,
studies psychology in the afternoons, and plays music in between.
He formed "Los Aldeanos" with another rapper in 2003, emulating the
styles of the genre in the US. He loved the beat and the word rhymes,
but it was the space for social discourse that most drew him to hip hop.
"I always had difficulty expressing myself. This was an outlet," he
says. "It's the best thing that's ever happened to me."
But what began as a personal catharsis has turned much more political.
"Enough repression/enough false promises/enough corruption," read the
lyrics to a typical song by Los Aldeanos.
The duo's popularity has soared in recent years, something Rodriguez
attributes mostly to the honesty of their message. "At the beginning, we
performed and the neighborhood would come," he says. "Now everyone
comes. People who normally like reggaeton or rock are coming now. People
across all social classes listen to us. Even sons of generals. That's
how I know my lyrics are true."
He has been asked, at various times, to tone down the brashness of his
music, but Rodriguez has not budged, opting out of TV or radio
promotions. "To be promoted on TV and radio, we'd have to compromise too
much, and we won't do it."
Zone of Freedom
Most artists have not taken their criticism as far as Rodriguez. Artists
with Omni Zona Franca, a group of rappers, painters, and poets, say that
their main goal is not to confront the government head-on, but to spur
more dialogue. Like others, these artists say they admire many aspects
of the Cuban system. Indeed, many youths say that despite hardships,
Cubans enjoy a level of security, camaraderie, and sense of solidarity
that sets them apart from other nations in the region. It is the lack of
free expression that they abhor.
On a recent day, Adolfo Cabrera, a founding member of Omni Zona Franca,
stands in his apartment, filled with paintings, graphics, and sculptures
created by him and his friends. Everything about their work is subtle
and, often, spontaneous. In one of their performance videos, a man
dressed in yellow holds a sunflower in his hand, standing silently on a
city street. He draws a crowd, and eventually is taken away by the
police for public disruption. That, says Mr. Cabrera, captured the
intolerance and mistrust on the part of authorities.
He says that, by and large, the government ignores their work. "In all
our actions we are demanding more free expression and trying to connect
it with social criticism," he says.
But even restrained disapproval of the authorities makes many youths
here uncomfortable. Almost all of those interviewed by the Monitor
lament the senselessness of certain rules, but few say they would
actively contest them.
"Why can't we travel? Why can't we earn enough to buy what we need?"
asks Ilene, sitting on a parked motorbike in Old Havana with Miguel, her
voice rising as she spouts a litany of complaints.
But this couple says they've never even considered formalizing such
grievances. "Why are we going to take a risk when things won't change
anyway?" says Miguel, shrugging – an act that seems to be a national reflex.
Universities: hotbeds of apathy?
Even universities – hotbeds of anti-establishment activism in most
countries – are pretty subdued in Cuba. On the campus of the University
of Havana, students say they desire change, but via official channels.
The February confrontation with Alarcón was an exception, not the norm.
"It is especially hard [to press for change] in the university, because
that is considered a space for [pro-Castro] revolutionaries," says Yoani
Sanchez, a young blogger who has received worldwide attention for her
musings on the hardships of life in Cuba in her blog, Generation Y (see
story, right). "Many fear they'll lose their positions if they speak out."
Instead, she says, they quietly seek their own solutions via the black
market or by immigrating to the US. "It is a pragmatic expression of
But, she says, society in general is criticizing the status quo more
every day, especially youths.
William LeoGrande, a Cuba expert at American University in Washington,
agrees. "A university student born in 1990 hasn't known anything but the
post-Soviet era," he says. "They don't remember what it was like when
things were pretty good in the '70s and '80s, and they certainly don't
know what it was like before the  revolution. That is the problem
that the government has; [the youths'] disillusionment is a big issue."
Observers say the government has begun addressing such concerns,
allowing articles on the problems of youth unemployment to appear in the
state-run media, for example.
But for many youths, criticism via official channels is just another
measure of control, and for Rodriguez it's not enough. He says he has no
plans to back down. "The government preaches equality, but everyone
knows there are people who do really well and others who don't. We don't
speak of social classes," he says. "But they exist."
Los Aldeanos lyrics
The politically risky lyrics of the underground hip-hop duo Los Aldeanos
have made them a hit in Havana.
Enough of the oppression
enough of the false promises
enough corruption ...
Enough of the lies
enough of the expensive justice
enough of the laws that restrict and don't protect...."
"We order it to stop"
Whether you like it or not, we keep going – without fear
putting a break on the train [Cuba's system]
We've arrived and we're ordering it to stop.
It's savage, the blackmail that we are submitted to.
How badly they've led us...
"Freedom of expression"
The world is upside down
but I will live with freedom of expression.
The nation is not "on"
They speak of "revolution" but they have no notion of it....
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