Development & Aid, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, Population

CUBA: Socialism Through the Prism of the Generation Gap

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Feb 20 2008 (IPS) - A large majority of Cubans have never lived under any system but the government of Fidel Castro, but one-quarter of the population grew up over the last two decades of economic crisis, a period in which enthusiasm for the achievements of the revolution has been dampened by concerns over day-to-day problems, like difficulties in access to basic products.

Castro’s announcement Tuesday that he was retiring as head of state has once again raised questions about who will succeed the long-time leaders of the ruling Communist Party, who are now in their 70s and 80s, and how popular support for socialism will be kept alive, especially among the young.

“The ‘historical generation’ is not going to give up its grip on power,” said Yadira Valdivia, a librarian who lives in Havana. “I just hope that those who are in positions of power adopt the measures necessary to solve the problems in our country, rather than just trying to pretend they are doing something,” she told IPS.

“I think we should elect other people from different generations, to inject some fresh air into the government,” said Valdivia, 28, who believes a “political debate” is urgently needed.

“The most logical thing would be for the ‘historical generation’ to assume power,” said Rubén Jiménez, a 64-year-old retired armed forces officer. “The country and our leaders are prepared, but with the current threats from the United States, no move should be made that could be taken as a sign of weakness.”

But Miriam Cruz, 59, said a combination of older and younger leaders would probably emerge. “I imagine that there will be a mix, because there are capable young people. If there weren’t, it would mean the revolution had not worked.”

After Castro temporarily stepped aside on Jul. 31, 2006 as a result of emergency intestinal surgery, an interim government was created, headed by Fidel’s younger brother Raúl. The average age of the members of the team was 63, and all of them were born before the 1959 revolution.

Nearly 17 months later, Castro explained in his statement published Tuesday that he was resigning as president of Cuba and commander-in-chief of the army – positions that must be held by the same person, according to the Cuban constitution.

Castro did not mention his position as first secretary of the Communist Party, a decision that may have been put off until the next party congress.

In his statement, he said he would concentrate on getting his ideas out through his column in the local press, and expressed his confidence that Cuba’s socialist system would remain in place.

Cuba “can still count on cadres from the old guard and others who were very young in the early stages of the revolution” who “learned along with us the complex and nearly impossible art of organising and leading a revolution,” Castro added.

Just 17 percent of the members of the National Assembly (the Cuban parliament) lived under the capitalist system toppled by the Cuban revolution, while more than 60 percent were born after 1959. The rest were just children when Castro led his rebel army to victory that year.

“I’m not thinking about those things right now,” said a 20-year-old university student who asked not to be named. “I don’t think anything will change soon, and besides, I don’t really care,” she told IPS.

“Maybe we should worry about the political apathy among some of our young people,” suggested high school math teacher César Méndez. “The indifference among the youngest generation is a symptom of what has happened with regard to our socialist system in the last few years.”

The president of parliament, Ricardo Alarcón, acknowledged at a January meeting with students from the Computer Sciences University (UCI) in Havana that it is difficult to convince today’s young people about the negative aspects of Cuba’s pre-1959 capitalist system, because they merely write off such arguments as the “same old stuff” repeated over and over again by their elders.

In the meeting, Alarcón was also asked by several students about touchy issues like the dual monetary system, which makes it hard for people to make ends meet, restrictions on travelling abroad and staying in hotels in Cuba that are limited to foreign tourists, restrictions on access to the Internet, and the need for a more open and fluid exchange of ideas between the public and the government.

“If some students expressed controversial ideas, we did so from the inside…in order to build a better socialist system, not destroy it,” said UCI student Eliécer Ávila in a videotaped interview recently placed on the web site of the governing Communist Party newspaper Granma, in which he refuted rumours that he had been arrested for speaking out.

The revolution could “destroy itself” as a result of its own errors, Fidel Castro warned in a Nov. 17, 2005 speech to students at the University of Havana, where he also called for efforts to crack down on corruption and the black market, and on the inequalities that grew during the economic crisis that broke out in the early 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union and east European socialist bloc, Cuba’s main aid and trade partners.

“The laws limiting the mobility of Cubans within and outside the island should be reformed,” argued Valdivia. “The media should reflect a real social debate on the new guidelines to be followed in the economy, internal politics and the way the government is set up and operates.”

Analysts have suggested an acceleration of the timid reforms that began to be adopted last year under acting president Raúl Castro to bolster development in key sectors of the economy like agriculture, and the elimination of long-term restrictions related to the buying and selling of real estate and other goods.

“The biggest challenge facing the new leadership is to maintain a high level of unity among Cubans,” said Jiménez, who pointed to the important role played by Fidel Castro’s enormous charisma and the heavy responsibility that will fall on whoever seeks to “fill his shoes.”

“Even though I am falling over from exhaustion, I realise that today marked the end of an era,” wrote Yoani Sánchez in her blog ‘Generación’, after hearing the news that Castro was retiring.

“It is worth wondering whether the new stage will carry our names, will reflect our desires and hopes, or will last another 50 years,” wrote the 32-year-old Sánchez, who has a degree in philology.

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