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For Young Cubans, a Test of Ideas is at Hand
Date: Wednesday, April 14, 2004

EDITOR'S NOTE: When U.S. voters go to the polls in November to pick a president, Florida — and its heavy concentration of Cuban Americans — may again play a central role in determining who wins. Nowhere will this contest be more closely watched than in Cuba, whose fate may be determined by the election's outcome. More than 90 percent of Cubans in South Florida are white; over 60 percent of the people in Cuba are black. In this series, examines the role that race plays in Cuba — and in the tug-of-war between the government of Fidel Castro and Cuban exile leaders in Florida.

On the crowded beach of Marazul outside Havana, a group of bikini-clad young women sway to infectious salsa rhythms and talks revolution. Our Cuban companion says they are “working girls,” trying to cash in on their curves. The women say they are hardworking chambermaids and schoolteachers.

Hard to say which is true, maybe both, maybe neither.

Ana Maria Perez Rodriguez, 23, who says she’s a fourth grade teacher, is wearing a U.S. flag-like bikini; red, white and blue and emblazoned with stars. “Me encanta Los Estados Unidos,” I love the United States, she says, although she supports the revolution that brought Fidel Castro to power and has given the country broad educational opportunities and free medical care on demand.

What it has not given her is the shoes she craves and the cute little T-shirts Rodriquez said she longs to wear. What it does not do is allow her job to pay her more than $8 a month.

She said she wants to travel and work in the U.S. but said even after Castro is gone, the revolution will continue. “The Cuban revolution is very good,” said Rodriguez, “but it has limited our rights.”

And for young Cubans, especially young black Cubans, who are more exposed to U.S. images and ideals than their parents, who are more aware of what they may be missing, but have no memory of the widespread discrimination that marked Cuban history before 1959, a test of ideas is at hand.

Neivi Cuesta, 28, heads public relations for Havana’s five-star Parque Central Hotel. Despite “the triumph of the revolution,” she said “it is difficult to please people’s desires.” Her grandparents had little money to send their children to school and before Castro came to power, her mother planned on being a teacher. Now, her mother is a surgeon, her aunt is a dentist, her uncle is an engineer. “I don’t think, in fact I know, we would not have had the educational opportunities we have had,” Cuesta said.

But that doesn’t take the place of the things she wants.

Cuesta wants to be able to afford to stay at the hotel where she works long hours. She wants to travel, to buy her own car. She has visited Canada so, “I know all the things I could have, but I want to have them here,” she said. Cuesta wants the U.S. embargo against Cuba lifted and said that will improve the lives of Cuban people. “I think we should think of a way so that we can have the things we need and still support the revolution.”

According to Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando, 51, that is the great challenge of these times. In 2000, Rolando made a film about the 1912 massacre of 6,000 blacks in Southern Cuba who were demanding an end to racial discrimination. Rolando, who was age 7 at the time Castro came to power in 1959, said Afro-Cuban families and communities must teach and pass down their history. She says they must continue to remember how the society treated people of color prior to the revolution.

When her grandmother was young, Rolando said, blacks were forced to walk around their local park; only whites were allowed to walk through. “When the revolution arrived, they say no more separation. There were educational opportunities not only for black people, but everybody who didn’t have a chance, like poor whites in the country.

“The young generation wants material things, ‘I want this, I want that.’ My mother is 77 and she is now inside the university for older people. I don’t have the latest fashions in clothes or shoes, but I have the example of my mother and she continues struggling and learning.”

In Havana’s central park, a pair of young Afro-Cubans is restless and discontent. Manuel de Jesus Rodriguez and his buddy Lorenzo Caballero Martinez, both 18, live in Guantanamo, a city in Cuba’s southern-most province. Rodriguez said his parents earn very little money. He said he wants to buy shoes and clothes but can’t. Yes they have education, health care and a guaranteed job, but they are young enough to take these things for granted while Western images of plenty fill their heads.

For young people in Cuba (60 percent of the population was born after the revolution) and particularly young blacks who often still occupy the lowest rungs of this society, it seems there is a deep hunger to see what comes next; to see if the embargo will be lifted, to see if they will be able to travel and earn more money.

They are hungry to see if the revolution, having triumphed in providing most of the basic things they need, will now be able to provide for their deep-seated need to get beyond the basics.



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