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 , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor , Staff writers of The Christian Science Monitor

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    REVOLUTIONARY LYRICS: Havana hip hop artist Bian Rodriguez pens and performs songs critical of the Cuban system and the lack of freedom.
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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 Raúl Castro.

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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 survival."

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 [1959] 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"

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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