New America Media, News Report, Louis E.V. Nevaer, Posted: Mar 12, 2008
Editor's Note: As the Castro regime continues, Cuban youth have long gone numb to the Communist rhetoric and search for a new identity through material goods and various hustles, writes NAM contributor Louis E.V. Nevaer from Havana.
HAVANA – For Yuri Gomez, born in 1987 and named after “some Russian my mother admired,” the only consolation he has is an iPod an aunt in Florida sent him for the holidays.
In a country where dissent is a crime and there are no legal avenues for voicing dissatisfaction with government, tuning out the Revolution with earphones has become a form of social and political protest. The hottest accessory among Havana’s youth are earphones attached to iPods, MP3 players or antiquated Sony Walkmans. Havana’s tuned-in youngsters affect being tuned out.
“This Shuffle’s been broken for almost a year, but I pretend it’s working,” one 17-year-old woman explains. “This way I can ignore the whole world.”
The significance has not been lost on Communist officials who complain that headphones are “anti-revolutionary,” acts of anti-social behavior by the undisciplined. In 2006, deputies in the National Assembly proposed banning headphones, but the measure was not enacted into law.
Born into a society where it’s all-revolution-all-the-time, Cuba’s youth has long grown numb to all the rhetoric they’ve heard all their lives. As one Castro replaced another, Cuban youth struggle against economic and political hardships to figure out the most lucrative hustle that will get them everything from the much-coveted headphones to a good meal.
The frustrations of Cuba’s young workers have begun to surface. There is a generational conflict emerging as the social contract that formed the basis of Cuban socialism has changed. The economic crisis precipitated by the collapse of the Soviet Union forced Cuba to decriminalize possession of the U.S. dollar and create a parallel economy. This resulted in Cuban pesos for everyone and “convertible pesos” for foreigners and Cubans fortunate enough to have money sent to them from overseas – or given to them by tourists. In theory, a peso is a peso. In practice, it takes 25 Cuban pesos to buy one convertible peso. Shampoo, razor blades, beer and baby diapers are available only convertible pesos.
“I pretend to work, and they pretend to pay me,” a young woman who works as a housekeeper at a hotel says. “I’m paid 600 pesos a month,” she says, which is the equivalent of 24 convertible pesos. “Try living on that salary.”
Young people have grown more than weary of the government explanation that the reason for living under such draconian measures is because the nation was under threat of attack by imperialist forces.
They must make do any way they can – like the entrepreneur you’ll find on most corners. A few blocks away from the hotel, a young man sat in a street kiosk marked “Correos” selling stamps. When I ask him how many stamps he sold that day, he scoffs.
“Who the hell is going to buy a stamp?” he says. “There’s nothing worth sending to anyone.” He says he had sold some stamps to German tourists a few weeks ago and then offered me a deal of Cuban cigars.
The sale of pilfered cigars and rum are legendary, but during this decade, there has been a steady rise in the sale of everything. So everyone understands when an official, interviewed on state television, explains that the six month delay in opening the nearby health clinic was because the building materials kept being “detoured.”
When I ask the stamp seller where he gets his factory-sealed boxes of premium cigars, the young entrepreneur smiles before answering: “Fidel mails them to me.”
But if the stamp seller runs a small hustle, than Gabriel – a green-eyed, mocha-skin young man in his early 20s – runs a bigger one and is representative of a new Cuban: The Neo-bourgeoisie.
Armed with an exit permit, and taking advantage of new laws that allow for the importation of foreign goods, these privileged young Cubans are flying between Havana and Cancun – returning with merchandise on an unprecedented scale. Mexican Custom officials have grown so concerned that airport officials no longer allow Cubana Airlines planes to use the terminals. They are consigned to the tarmac where Mexican officials can monitor how what comes out and goes into the plane.
“The capitalist word for it is ‘keystone,’ ” he explains to me. “I buy something for $1 and I sell it for $2 wholesale or $4 retail. So a $50 videocassette player I bought at Wal-Mart in Cancun, I can sell to a customer in Havana for $200.”
On a recent trip, he explains, he checked in 27 boxes of almost all electronics, which entailed “considerable handling fees” – a euphemism for bribes paid to officials once he was back in Havana. But business is good because he was preparing to return to Cancun with a lengthy shopping list of things to purchase.
While Gabriel sells electronics, young women like Yolanda – who I met while she was selling coconut cookies and homemade empanadas with her sister along the Paseo del Prado in Old Havana – are numerous. These women are more risk averse than young men, but that is not to say they are less determined in their attitudes to rise above their station in life.
“That’s how life is if you’re poor and a Cuban,” she says, with no hint of resentment in her voice. “My mother bakes, and we sell them to passersby.”
When asked if she has an education, she replies, “I’m over-educated, which is why I’m useless. What good is an engineering degree when everything is being disassembled for scrap?”
In the course of a good day, they will make about 125 Cuban pesos, or about $6.
“My mother’s pension is 165 Cuban pesos a month, so you can see why we’re here,” Yolanda says.
Yolanda, her sister, and a whole lot of other young people are out on the streets all day long. Officials decry the “vagrancy” that exists among young people, where it appears that they are loitering in doorways, public parks, near hotels and along the seaside Malecon.
Yolanda says she read about the geisha culture in Japan in a copy of National Geographic that someone gave her once – and that she identifies.
“If you treat us to lunch, we’ll tell you amusing stories. We can do go a very public place, like the sidewalk café at the Hotel Inglaterra. Just a meal: it’s nothing to you, but it would be such a treat for us,” she tells me.
But beyond all schemes, Cuban youth seemed adamantly anti-Castro. One would have thought that a million “Young Pioneers,” as school-age Communists are called, would have assembled at the Plaza of the Revolution to thank Fidel for his half a century of service to the fatherland. Yet, there was nothing, and apart from government offices, there were no portraits of Fidel to be seen anywhere. The only one visible for miles, hanging in a window near the intersection of Emperador and Aguacate streets in Old Havana, was derided by a group of teenage boys, dressed in their school uniforms.
“Look! The old man!” one says, and all they broke out in laughter. Then they chanted mockingly, “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!”
The object of disdain at best, and of ridicule and contempt among Cuban youth, the reality of Cuba’s defeated youth is incongruous with the face Cuba shows the world.
But perhaps it’s just as well that Cuba’s youth did not assemble, a million strong, in the Plaza de la Revolution to thank Fidel for all he has done for Cuba: They wouldn’t have heard a single thing, with so many wearing earphones.