Young Cubans defy socialism Rebellion: Cuba's younger generation is clamoring for free enterprise and Western products, a trend fueled by foreign tourists and harsh economic realities on the struggling island-nation.

Sun Journal

November 21, 1996|By Michaela Jarvis | Michaela Jarvis,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HAVANA -- The black canvas shoes in the state ration store are stacked by the hundreds next to the boxy canvas bras. The shoes are a little sticky from the glue used to make them and are awkwardly shaped, like ovals instead of feet. Juan David Tapia ++ and Yacir Barrero think they're completely uncool.

The two kids, whose parents each make salaries of less than $7 a month, don't want what the government store offers.

"Do you have Nikes?" Juan asks a foreigner walking past. "Can you give them to us?"

Two small boys with sweet smiles, 14-year-old Juan and 12-year-old Yacir are among thousands of young people turning away from what the government can give them, in favor of what they can get on their own. Fashion is for them both a source and expression of discontent.

The forbidden fruits of free enterprise -- displayed by tourists in a sort of living advertisement that runs night and day -- have caught the attention of young Cubans. The dollar is becoming more attractive than Fidel Castro's socialism.

So some people beg from tourists, or sell handmade and black-market goods. Some engage in prostitution. They argue that they can get more through their own work and wiles than the government can ever provide.

"In the time of my parents, it was very good to be linked to the state," says Raulelio Machin, a psychology student at Havana's state university. "Now it's more important for us to work privately. We have more of a tendency to be individuals."

Young Cubans are discovering, he says, that "the exit is in the individual."

It is a change that some authorities view with alarm, according to Guillermo Cabrera Alvarez, former assistant director of the government newspaper Granma and director of the Jose Marti National Institute of Journalism.

"There's a loss of values, morals, solidarity among young people," Cabrera says. "Some will return to good values, but some will be lost." But economic reforms that allow free enterprise and encourage tourism are "risks that we have to assume."

"To speak frankly, the two pillars of this system are free education and health care. But at 23 years old, you've already graduated, and you don't get sick that easily. So you're asking: 'What else can you offer me?' "

In 1978, Castro temporarily opened Cuba to visitors. It gave many Cubans under age 20 a first look at a culture other than their own.

There was, for example, the experience of the man named Arnaldo.

He is an English teacher now; he was 19 when tourists began to arrive. He remembers being suddenly ashamed of the Russian army boots he wore.

"I'd been wearing them to parties, to school, to the beach," he says. "They lasted like three or four years. I was happy to wear them.

"Then people started showing up on the island with all kinds of clothes and equipment that were more modern and fashionable, and I suddenly felt sort of silly in my boots."

Cuba lost its main trade partner when the Soviet Union collapsed, so it turned again to tourism for help. In 1993, the government also made it legal for Cubans to possess dollars. And then came a boom in private businesses -- hairdressers, tire-fitters, taxi drivers.

Children receive varying explanations about the culture of the dollar. In a country where every student is required to join government-sponsored youth groups from elementary school through college, the information seems far from sanitized.

A little girl in braids, Irina Espinosa, is on her way to school when she stops to describe what she has learned. She tells of girls who engage in prostitution with tourists at age 13. "Sometimes the mother lets the girl go because she needs the money," Irina says.

The dollar culture of Cuba is inevitably generating new expectations. Juan -- the 14-year-old who wanted some Nikes -- wants to work as a naval engineer. But he says his mother and father advise him not to work for the state. "My parents prefer that I work for myself," Juan says, "because I'll make more money."

Young men in dreadlocks complain about the "system"; some opt to leave their assigned jobs to play music and live on what they can get from people in the street. Then there are the "rockers," or "roqueros," who include many of the teen-agers who have aligned themselves with the Roman Catholic Church, and who with their wild hairdos and multiple piercings introduce an odd aesthetic to daily Mass.

There is Ivan Castellanos -- his hair in a Mohawk, a tattoo of a barbed-wire fence circling his left arm, a safety pin and two silver hoops through his left ear -- heading up the aisle of Our Lady of Carmen Church to receive Communion.

"I feel a little more welcomed here at the church," he says. After evening Mass, Castellanos and his friends walk into the church courtyard and talk. They criticize the "Communist proselytizing"

of government TV and complain that state jobs don't allow men to wear earrings. "I just want to express my own personal style," Ivan says.

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