HAVANA - At an age when most kids play stickball or video games, Lazarito Castro focuses much of his energy on promoting Cuba's socialist system, one speech at a time.
The studious 14-year-old is not related to President Fidel Castro, but he is one of the comandante's most passionate young disciples, a member of the Union of Young Communists who is known across Cuba for his fiery, fist-shaking speeches at huge government-organized rallies.
Lazarito dreams of becoming a nuclear physicist when he grows up. But for now he sees himself as a soldier on the front lines of the "Battle of Ideas," a government campaign to strengthen socialist values by highlighting Cuba's accomplishments and investing in new educational and cultural programs that reach out to young people.
"When the comandante ceases to be with us, we are totally sure the path of the revolution will not be destroyed, neither by imperialism nor by capitalism," Lazarito said with characteristic zeal as he sat with his parents at their comfortable suburban Havana home.
He and other Cuban students who occupy high-profile positions in their youth organizations have been galvanized by the Battle of Ideas, but their revolutionary fervor sharply contrasts with the apathy of many young Cubans who are saturated with ideology but feel that it has little to offer them.
As Castro turns 79 next month, one of his government's challenges is "convincing young people that they have to carry on the revolutionary struggle," said Hans de Salas, research associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuba and Cuban American studies.
"The whole Battle of Ideas is clearly directed at winning the hearts and minds of the youth," said de Salas, who compared Cuba's ideological campaign to Mao Tse-tung's efforts at "purifying" Chinese society during the 1960s Cultural Revolution.
"This perhaps will be Fidel Castro's parting legacy," he said. "After having survived 15 years in the post-Soviet era, it's an opportunity to solidify the regime and assure continuity in the next generation."
Castro frequently attends school graduations, speaking to young people. This month he presided over Elian Gonzalez's sixth-grade graduation, at which he said he was honored to call the boy his friend. In a speech last week commemorating the 52nd anniversary of the rebel assault that sparked Cuba's revolution, Castro singled out young Cubans for praise.
"It would be unforgivable not to bear in mind that more than 70 percent of Cubans who today sustain the revolution had not even been born then," he said. "They took up the flags of those who gave their lives in that [assault] and I think they will never let them fall."
Values vaunted in the 1960s and '70s - self-sacrifice, solidarity and the rejection of consumer culture - are still instilled in today's youth, but Cuba is no longer as insulated as it was then. Tourism, foreign investment, American pop culture and visiting Cuban-Americans offer young people a different world view, making the role of schools in teaching ideology perhaps more significant than in the past.
In the upscale Havana suburb of Miramar at the Enrique Maza secondary school, Principal Mabel Maria Ruiz Morales said one of her goals is teaching students unconditional support for the revolution:
"Wherever the revolution tells them, `You are needed,' they must be capable of stepping up. That's the challenge, and that is what we are forming them for."
Cuban students are expected to be able to discuss current events in school, including Castro's speeches and newspaper articles from state-run news media. Teachers must incorporate political and ideological topics into classes, from calligraphy to chemistry. In a math class, for example, the teacher might set up an exercise in which students tally the cost of the U.S. embargo for Cuba's economy, Ruiz Morales said.
At the recently renovated Cesareo Fernandez elementary school, which boasts a large pool, mosaics painted by some of Cuba's best-known artists and a vegetable garden cultivated by the children, Principal Miriam Bacallao rejected the idea that students are politically indoctrinated.
"Through the classes, we talk about concepts of loving your country and feelings of nationality," Bacallao said. "The class is not converted into politics."
Education has been a top priority for the Cuban government for 46 years. Cuban students outperformed students in 12 other Latin American countries in regional standardized math and language tests conducted in 1997 by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.
Although most of Cuba's dissidents are middle-age, they have also gradually begun to reach out to young people.
In Havana, dissidents have set up a small classroom inside an apartment. The walls are lined with a blackboard, posters of Cuba's patron saint and books. Every week young Cubans are tutored in English, history, math and other subjects.
"For me the Battle of Ideas is nothing more than Communist propaganda. Through the opposition we are guiding the youth to change their lives," said Eusebio Morales, 66, a longtime dissident who teaches English using a 1952 American textbook. "When they are more advanced in English, I'll try to teach them how to express themselves with a foreigner and explain the real situation we are living in."
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.