For Cuban youths, revolution means more free expression

Many believe Fidel Castro's resignation will allow more space for debate.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The artist stands outside the National Capitol building, the most visible landmark on Havana's crumbling skyline, puts three pieces of glass on the sidewalk, and places a scuba mask over his face.

The video performance, titled "Crossing the Sea at Night," is just a few minutes long, consisting of a series of simulated swimming strokes.

Its provocation is subtle. But its public forum and theme – given widespread emigration to the US by sea – are part of a social critique by a group of young artists, poets, sculptors, and rappers seeking to spur dialogue in a nation where newspapers and television often reflect a state-approved reality.

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After nearly half a century at Cuba's helm, Fidel Castro's resignation has ushered in a sense of expectation that more opportunities for free expression are on the way – already, President Raúl Castro has relaxed bans on buying cellphones and DVDs.

But for many Cubans this is far from sufficient. And nowhere is hope for change more fervent than among the island's young adults, who never experienced the hardships prior to the 1959 revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power. Instead, they have grown up in an era of asceticism as the Soviet Union collapsed and its funds for Cuba dried up. They have been told over and over to be patient, to have faith, that change will soon come.

"We were born in a generation that instilled faith in us that things were going to improve, spiritually and materially, if we just followed the path," says Natividad Soto Kessel, a sculptor with the group of young artists that organizes under the name Omni Zonafranca.

"But it is the same as it was," pipes in Adolfo Cabrera, a founding member of Omni Zonafranca.

"We think there has been no improvement because there is no dialogue," adds Ms. Soto Kessel.

Perhaps nobody is stirring more dialogue right now than the young Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez, who says her entries began as a personal catharsis and have since received worldwide attention. "I had so much to say, I was up to my neck," says the wiry Ms. Sanchez, who recently won the prestigious Ortega y Gasset prize in Spain for digital journalism.

Her blog, called Generacion Y (www.desdecuba.com/generaciony/), offers stinging criticism of the public discourse of Cuba's officials and chronicles the daily problems citizens face. She says that while the Raúl Castro administration is little more than a succession, Fidel Castro's resignation opens more space for debate.

"Fidel hypnotized the people," she says. "Now people have awakened."

Sanchez says the nation's first blog emerged in 2006. Now about a dozen independent blogs such as hers are read across Cuba. "We no longer depend on the government to inform us," she says.

Youths play a key role in this new environment, she continues, adding that technology will help them circumvent government control. She, for example, writes her entries at home, copies them on a memory stick, and then visits Internet cafes. She, like others in her generation, finds out about world events from news that is copied from illegal satellites and distributed on the black market.

Still, bold moves like hers or Omni Zonafranca's are more the cutting edge than the status quo. Many students say they still fervently accept the system. Mariet, a young law student at the University of Havana who declined to share her last name, says that revolution is a constant series of changes toward improvement. This country "is not perfect," she says. "But if we criticize we should try to be positive and constructive."

Students across campus say they believe in change – but that it should happen within a government framework. Jorge and Yahisa, two cybernetics students at the University of Havana, say limited Internet access is their main concern.

"To be students, and not have access to something so amazing, especially as cybernetics students, this worries us," says Yahisa. "But we have to voice concerns within official channels. Our responsibility is to be knowledgeable about what is going on, but we are not prepared politically to know what is best."

Today's youths came of age during the extreme austerity of the 1990s after the sudden loss of Soviet largess. Hardship has been their generation's dominant theme. Many have emigrated. In a 25-month period from 2005 to 2007, 77,000 Cubans fled to the US – an even larger exodus than the "rafter" crisis of the '90s.

Observers say the government has tried to address growing disillusionment among those who stayed. In recent months, the Raúl Castro administration has gone to great lengths to seek, and publicize, citizen complaints, often via state-run media.

But controlled criticism, many say, is not a true form of expression. "There is either pluralism, or it is a monologue," says Sanchez.

And it cannot always be contained. In February, a group of university students took Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the national assembly, by surprise when they publicly demanded to know why they could not vacation abroad. A video of the event was widely circulated.

"Young people have lost their fear," says Carlos Serpa Maceira, an independent journalist in Havana. He flips through photo albums chronicling a student movement seeking more university autonomy. The group collected 5,000 signatures that they presented to the Education Ministry. "They were prepared psychologically to believe in the revolution, but they can see reality," he says. "They want to be in style, read other publications, travel, surf the Internet."

Like almost all of the young people interviewed for this piece, Mr. Cabrera, the artist with Omni Zonafranca, says he has no desire to veer from the socialist system. All he wants, he says, is a space to express his voice. To that end, his group's work includes poems and songs about Cubans jailed for selling marijuana, corruption, women's inequality, and racism.

"Our goal is not a direct confrontation with the state," he says, but adds, "that is always the indirect result."

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