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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.

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"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."

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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."

Los Aldeanos lyrics

The politically risky lyrics of the underground hip-hop duo Los Aldeanos have made them a hit in Havana.

"Enough"

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.

We're [expletive].

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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