Stars and Stripes the Rage Among the Youth of Cuba

But Communist regime frowns on US flag fashion

Slapping down a net-skimming serve on a makeshift volleyball court in central Havana, two young Cubans in bandannas patterned after the American flag exchange high-fives at their triumph.

At Santa Maria beach, women in one- and two-piece bathing suits fashioned out of the Stars and Stripes frolic in the waves.

The irony of Old Glory gracing the Communist island's beaches is not lost on the caretakers of Cuban ideology.

Recently Cuba's Union of Young Communists (UJC), the youth elite of the country's governing Communist Party, issued a "recommendation" to young Cubans that they should refrain from wearing anything depicting the flag or any other symbols of their country's archenemy, the "imperialist" United States.

The recommendation - which has been taken seriously enough by some police for them to bar entrance to public venues or patriotic events to youths sporting the American flag - reflects a growing worry among Cuban leaders about the younger generation.

They fear the country's youths are discarding, or failing to develop, the Cuban revolution's brand of communist ideology.

"Our concern is that these young people [wearing the American flag] are falling into the trap of enemy propaganda," says Juan Carlos Frometa, the Americas coordinator of the UJC's international section. "The message is that this flag is something innocuous ... but we have to remember it stands for the principal enemy of the Cuban revolution."

"We have more than enough symbols for our youths to take pride in," Mr. Frometa says. "If they want a T-shirt of the Cuban flag, those exist."

Yet all of the American-flag-wearing youths questioned emphasized the same two points about the issue: First, that it's a "fashion" that has little or nothing to do with politics for them; and that they indeed feel very little interest for any ideology.

A young woman sunning at the beach in her Stars-and-Stripes bikini says she would never consider not wearing it just because someone in the government said so.

"I'm not into politics, so it's not a worry of mine, but I do like to be fashionable," she says. "I feel very Cuban," she adds, "but I'm also not interested in doing what the government tells me to do," she says, "so if wearing this expresses a little independence, so much the better."

One young man sitting on the beach with his girlfriend sported a tattoo of an American eagle holding arrows in its claws in a Stars-and-Stripes motif. "I just like American designs, but it's nothing political for me," he says. "I wanted to have the Statue of Liberty tattooed on my upper back, but she said no," he adds, indicating his girlfriend.

Frometa insists there is no deep concern among Cuban leaders that the country's young feel no fervor for the revolution's ideology. "Maybe there's a part of the young who aren't interested and that's reflected in this flag fashion," he says, "but they tend to be the young people in the streets who aren't doing anything productive. But the best of Cuban youths," he adds, "are working hard ... to advance the ideals of the revolution."

Toms, a tobacco factory employee who recently won a vacation for being one of his plant's best workers, would beg to differ. "I work hard out of a sense of pride, but it's not to keep this regime afloat," he says. The young Havanan recalls how he recently tried to enter a military disco wearing a T-shirt with the American flag.

"The guard at the door told me I'd have to turn the shirt inside out if I wanted to get in, so I did," he says. "As if that's really going to change how I feel about my own country or the United States."

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