EVERY day, hundreds of Cuban youths come to the Malecon, Havana's seafront avenue of crumbling, gray and dusty-pastel buildings that face north to the shimmering waters of the Florida Straits.
Teenage boys anxious for a swim, couples arm-in-arm, and mixed groups of students just out of class congregate on the once-great boulevard's seawall, doing what youths all over the world like to do: talk, daydream, compare notes, flirt.
"We come here almost every day just to stare out to sea," says Demis Ruiz Caballero, a high schooler perched on the wall with his girlfriend - who shyly declines to give her name.
It is a scene typical of youth. And yet for those who fit in that age group in Cuba today, these are atypical times.
They have grown up knowing nothing but President Fidel Castro Ruz's Communist revolution. But today, giant economic, political, and cultural question marks hang over the 36-year-old regime as never before.
They have lived a life surprisingly sheltered from the fantasies and pressures of Western capitalism and youth culture. But now that outside world washes ashore like a great invasion - one for which the young here are largely unprepared.
What was assumed to be a stable, apolitical, and classless world of guaranteed employment and material needs met by the government has been shaken from its base. A new Cuba is being exposed - where unemployment rises, social inequalities deepen, and where the outside capitalist world, long diabolized, has a growing presence and influence through foreign investment, increasing numbers of tourists, and foreign television received via satellite. Havana even boasts a recently opened Benetton store - US dollars only, please.
One result is what some sociologists and other observers here call a "crisis" of Cuban youth.
"Cuba is in a period when the old rules are dying out, and out of necessity new values are forming - a situation that has an important impact on youths," says Manuel Cuesta Morua, a sociologist who lost his neighborhood outreach job in Old Havana, he says, when he started talking a little too much about democracy.
"[The youths] don't believe in the values of the revolution. But at the same time, the revolution's educational system, full as it is of propaganda, hasn't given them the reasoning and questioning skills to form the new values necessary," adds Mr. Cuesta.
Even government officials who work with youths agree they are among the hardest hit by Cuba's transition.
But it is not because the revolution's values - "honor, honesty, solidarity, patriotism" - no longer apply, says Ibis Alvisa, international relations director for the Union of Communist Youths (UJC). Rather, Cuba's exposure to a world where values are being lost makes this a difficult time for Cuban youths, she says.
Faithful versus dismayed
"What they see coming in is the the emphasis on possession and the extreme individualism of much of the outside world, and our youths aren't accustomed to this," Ms. Alvisa adds. "For many of them, dealing with [these new influences] is a struggle."
With over half of Cuba's 11 million people under 30, how the youth population resolves its crisis will deeply influence the country's future. Alvisa's organization claims about 500,000 members from 15 to 30 years of age. Its billboards all over Cuba assert "We Are The Future!" "Never Again Capitalism!" "Together We Will Conquer!" Their goal: "The formation of values in Cuba's youths," says Alvisa.
The UJC's message may be reaching some, but others receive it with scorn. One of the most striking characteristics of Cuban youths today is the fault line that divides believers from nonbelievers. On one side are those still firmly anchored to the system - high schoolers and university students or those just beginning in privileged jobs. On the other side are those now out of school and often out of work, who speak freely and bitterly of a system they only see holding them back.
At Havana's imposing, classical-style central university, no one seems to question the country's regime or Communist system.
"We don't need other political parties, because we have one party that represents everyone's interests," says Larissa Gonzalez, a law student in her last year of studies. "That gives us a system where there is less division."
According to Ms. Gonzalez, if there is anything to question, it is pressure on Cuba by the United States.
"I don't think there is violation of human rights in Cuba," she says. "But I do think it is a violation of our rights for the US to tell us we must first get rid of Castro for the US to stop its aggression."
As for the future of Cuban youths, she says, "Despite the economic difficulties, the future can be good for those willing to work."
To which her friend, Jose Antonio Perez, adds, "If this Helms legislation in the US becomes law, the future of Cuban youths is lost." (US Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina has proposed legislation that would tighten the US embargo on Cuba by punishing foreign companies that trade with Cuba and press the property rights of US citizens who lost property in the Cuban revolution.)
Contrasting herself and her classmates with the youths who hang out on the Malecon, Gonzalez says, "We are here working and studying for Cuba's future, but they, down there doing nothing, they give foreigners a false idea of what is going on in Cuba."
Rebecca Perez Lovio, who is on the Malecon with friends, doesn't agree. "In school they fill you full of Fidel and patriotism and how we are good and the capitalists are bad," says the young unemployed computer operator. "Then you get a job that doesn't even pay the necessities, let alone for some nice clothes, and you have to wonder about everything you were told."
Farther down the Malecon, 20-year-old Ariel Ronald says he is through wondering. "There is no future for me here, enough of Castro!" says the unemployed mechanic.
"I had a job making 118 pesos a month [about $3] in a body shop, but what does that buy? Ask any of my buddies," he adds, indicating with a sweep of his arm several young men diving from wave-washed rocks into the sea. "Unless we can do something to make dollars, legal or illegal, we know we don't have a future here."
His only future, he says, is "there" - indicating north across the water, to Florida. Two of his brothers are already in Florida - one made the journey on a raft.
"Those kids on the Malecon are a symbol of Cuban youth today," says Cuesta, the sociologist. "They see little future here, so they turn their back and wait and hope for something to arrive from outside the island."
Yet some Cuban youths are moving in other directions than the Malecon. They are returning to - or rather, discovering - religion, from Catholicism and Protestantism to home-grown Caribbean-African hybrids.
Cuba's Methodist seminary used to be the brunt of jokes for having one lone seminarian, says Cuesta, "but now they have more than 80."
A Jehovah's Witness couple enjoying the view from the Malecon sea wall say they have found the answers to all their questions in their religion. "We don't get into politics, we know the answers for people in every country are the same," says 23-year-old Magdiel.
Hungry for jeans and Nikes
Cuban rock music, once repressed by the government, is also being allowed wider margins of expression - even though not all the themes may sit well with the regime. "I want dollars" is the refrain of one current favorite.
Official organizations, too, such as the UJC, are working to "recuperate" those youths who have been "tempted by images of possession," Alvisa says.
The answer for such youths, she believes, is in a quote from 19th-century Cuban national hero Jose Marti. Warning about the effects of a preoccupation with physical adornments and possessions, Marti said personal development should emphasize "much on the inside and little on the outside."
That may be sound advice, but might not be heard by youths hungry for blue jeans, Nike shoes, and compact discs. Cuesta says he worries that unless Cuban youths are given wider opportunities to discuss and question the changes and pressures they are experiencing, disturbances could erupt. He notes the August 1994 Havana riots, which were tipped off by shortages and unemployment.
"That was a spontaneous expression of frustration," he says, "and it was led by the young."