Cuba's Youth Yearn for Travel, Nike Sneakers, and the Ability To Think More for Themselves

IT'S Saturday night in old Havana. The streets, balconies, and rooftops are jammed with thousands of teens gyrating to the salsa beat of ``N.G.-La Banda.'' The ``N.G.'' stands for New Generation one of Cuba's hottest groups. This outdoor concert, and others, are sponsored by the Union of Communist Youth (UJC). The concerts are only the most visible government response to young Cubans' apathy toward, if not total rejection of, Castro's revolution.

``There are two types of people here,'' shouts Maria Gonzalez, a 19-year-old training to be a hotel desk clerk. ``Those who know the revolution and those who were born after. Almost everyone born after feels the same: They don't like it.''

Almost 60 percent of Cuba's 10.5 million population is under age 30. The government is paying more attention to the young now ``because they realize that's where trouble could ferment,'' says a European diplomat.

The UJC has a new chief, 35-year-old Roberto Robaina, who has been praised for putting new vigor into the organization. But this diplomat adds that ``the UJC has always been active, because anybody ambitious knows the best way to build a career in this society is to have the right ticks on your file.''

The UJC has a membership of about half a million. That still leaves most Cuban youths outside the party.

Yet the disenchanted youth are not considered a threat to toppling Castro.

``There's indifference, but not active opposition,'' says a Western diplomat. There is no ``civil-rights movement with which youth can identify. There are no academic or artistic leaders who stand together or against the leadership. The majority who oppose Castro have gone to Miami or to jail.''

Common gripes among Cuban youth are the lack of Western-style clothing and the inability to travel. Some say they would be content to live in Cuba (with free education, free health care, and a guaranteed job) if they could buy Nike sneakers, ``Guns and Roses'' tapes, and a plane ticket to visit relatives in Miami or New York.

The trip to the US may become attainable in the near future. Isidoro Malmierca, minister for external relations confirmed last month the government is ``studying'' plans to lower the age restrictions on Cubans traveling abroad. Last year, it was dropped to 45 for men and 40 for women. Western diplomats expect the age limit to fall to 18 within a few months.

The move may be in response to the loss of scholarships that used to allow about 30,000 Cuban students annually to study in East European countries.

But United States officials are worried. Last year 36,000 Cubans visited the US. With lower age limits, ``we will suddenly have an influx of people with travel visas who aren't really travelers. They'll be immigrants,'' says an official.

Other youths say they want more than freedom to travel and buy quality goods. They want to live in a climate free of fear. ``I love my country. I won't leave. But I'm afraid just to talk with you,'' says Evideo, a young professional watching warily for undercover state security police. ``It's not physical repression but mental. Inside your mind, all is forbidden or obligatory,'' he says.

Alfredo, an electronics student, says, ``We are tired of Castro. He's a dictator.'' Alfredo wants live here and to run his own business. ``Any kind of business. Maybe a television repair shop. A record store,'' he says. ``I would like to take the best of capitalism and keep the best of socialism.

``Here, you don't see poor people in the street, nor people with out shoes. We have free health care. No gangs and no drugs. Well, some marijuana.'' He finishes resignedly: ``And we have Castro.''

- By D.C.S.

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