Cuba's Generation Gap: Faith in Castro or Capitalism?

Older Cubans hang on to memories of a glorious revolution. Young are disillusioned with present reality.

The Cuban generation gap is raging in a comfortable 1950s-era house in the Santo Suarez neighborhood of Havana.

"There are schools, supplies, and uniforms for all the children, something other countries richer than Cuba don't accomplish," says the mother. "Fidel just said so."

"The first thing you must learn in Cuba is to forget whatever you hear Fidel say," says the son, speaking to a foreign visitor and referring to the televised speech Cuban President Fidel Castro gave on the opening day of school Sept. 1. "The truth is in the notebooks and pencils and covers for the torn-up books I had to buy for my daughter, not to mention the shoes I had to pay for in dollars," he adds. "You know that, Mama."

The mother-son conversation reflects the differences that often surface here between older Cubans who participated in bringing down a despised dictatorship and constructing a communist society, and younger Cubans who see their country's economic and political systems in terms of hardship and restriction. The young-old schism is no hard-and-fast rule: One is as likely to find a retired Cuban condemning the regime as a young person who stands behind it. But visits to Cuban homes reveal the generation gap is almost as common as black beans and rice.

The mother hears her son, but would rather tell another story. She recalls with pride how her husband joined guerrillas supporting Mr. Castro, and how after the 1956-59 revolution, the family bought the house she now sits in from the government for 10 percent of its value.

"It was owned before by a family that fled to Miami," she says. "They left it like they were just going on vacation. They thought the revolution would fail in a year or two. But 37 years later," she adds with satisfaction, "we're still here." The son rolls his eyes with impatience. He's heard the story before. What interests him is the present.

An engineer by training, he left his government job two years ago to become an illegal taxi driver. The government thinks it owns him and his engineering career because it paid for his education, he says. But it's the government with its low wages and a system that restricts opportunity that forced him to leave his field, he adds bitterly.

Now on a good day the son earns double the $12 he earned in a month as an engineer. And instead of Cuban pesos, he earns his living in dollars, which, he reminds his mother, the family needs to buy the necessities - cooking oil, soap, toothpaste, tennis shoes - that aren't available to peso holders.

"You have to agree I'm who's keeping this family afloat," the son says. The mother shrugs, look away.

The son says that while the government made it impossible for him to remain an engineer, it also makes his current living precarious. At any time he could be slapped with a 1,500 peso ($70) fine and a warning to stop using his car as a taxi. On a second offense, his car could be taken away. But like so many other Cubans, he says, he has been forced into unauthorized work by an unworkable system.

The mother says it pains her that her son is not practicing the profession for which he studied. She doesn't like to think that she's living relatively well because he has a job that in its small way is undermining the regime. But she blames it on what Castro told Cubans is the "special period" of economic hardship following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the country's longtime subsidizer.

The mother rises from her wicker rocking chair to see off the visitor and her son, who must return to Havana's streets. "Tengo fe, tengo fe," she says: "I have faith."

The son kisses his mother on the forehead. "When she says she has faith, she's talking about Fidel," he says. "People like her have this faith that somehow Fidel ... can pull us out of this mess," he adds, starting his rattly taxi. "It's not a dream I share."

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