Over Internet, Cuban youths offer rare insights

Alfonso Chardy
McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

MIAMI -- The young men and women sitting around a living room somewhere in Havana laughed and talked as if they were guests at a party.

But what they were telling their counterparts in South Florida was serious business. They railed against "tyranny," the persistent "repression," the potential for a "social explosion," rumors of a new rafter exodus and their annoyance that the media is not recognizing the efforts of younger dissidents.

Witnessed by reporters in Miami, via Internet video phone, the Havana living-room chat with five University of Miami students opened a window into a little-known dimension of post-Fidel Castro Cuba. Last week's exchange occurred as Cuban officials and Cuban emigres friendly to the regime met on the island to discuss easing rules restricting travel.

To some Cuba experts, the unvarnished assessments offered by the young men and women in the Havana living room reflect embryonic unrest -- perhaps sparked by Raul Castro himself when last year he encouraged debate about the problems of the Cuban revolution.

"There may be a cause and effect here, with Raul's encouragement of open discussion in the island," said Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst on Cuba and Latin America and now senior research associate at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, which organized the Havana living-room chat.

Latell added that while Cuban youths are becoming more outspoken, their complaints may not amount to a movement.

"I don't see anything organized, yet," Latell said. "But there may well already be an incipient youth unrest."

One example was an episode in November at the Universidad de Oriente campus in Santiago when an unusual student protest allegedly occurred following a report of a female student's rape in September.

According to accounts from human rights groups reporting information from independent journalists in Cuba, a group of angry students prevented the university rector from leaving her office when they concluded she was not interested in improving security and other conditions at the campus.

To the young men and women in the Havana living room last week, Cuba's young people represent the tip of the spear for change -- one that may strike peacefully or violently.

Organizers said the location of the living room and the Cubans, ages 18 to 25, could not be identified in order to protect them from Cuban government reprisals.

University of Miami students addressed the Havana youths via a telephone call linked to the live video image projected on a large screen.

One of the first topics was what kind of change Cuban youths want.

"We, the youths of Cuba, want change," said one of the young men, adding that "structural, political change" was necessary.

He said the problem is generational -- aging people in power and powerless youths in the urban centers. "The gerontocracy is in power and on the other side is youth, each time more powerful."

The young man went on to say that the generational conflict will "shatter the regime, and this has us very hopeful."

A 25-year-old man jumped in to explain that the current generation of Cuban youths could not identify with the older people in power because experiences were different.

"Our generation was formed after the fall of the Berlin wall and after the transition to democracy in eastern Europe," he said. "So we have not shared the hard struggle of those in power, who fought against (former Cuban dictator Fulgencio) Batista, who fought against a tyranny which in the end led to another tyranny."

He went on to say that perhaps the greatest threat to the Cuban government is not a potential U.S. invasion, as Havana officials often claim, but angry youths.

"There is a generational conflict which also includes a political conflict," he said. "Thus, the generation today does not feel committed to the same ideals of the Cuban revolution or anything of the sort. They are hollow words."

In answer to a question on whether Cuban youths will wait for change or take action, the Havana group laughed nervously. Then one young man said: "Well, in Cuba it is not logical for that to happen, but it could happen some day in the same way as in Venezuela or Burma."

He added: "Young people here are tired that their rights are violated, that their right to life is crushed and they may no longer accept it and there could be a social explosion."

The conversation took an unexpected turn when Vanessa Lopez, 21, of the University of Miami group, asked why dissident groups mostly feature older people.

Several in the Havana group quickly rejected that notion, but acknowledged that there is a perception that only older people are dissidents because the media focus on longtime leaders.

He cited an example.

"On March 10, a group of young people went to lay a floral wreath at the grave of a fallen brother," the young man said. "We were arrested and taken to a police unit. There we saw one of the legendary leaders of the opposition, (Jorge Garcia Perez, known as) Antunez, and the media only spoke about Antunez. But they did not mention the five young people who were there, too."

One of the women identified herself as a member of a gay rights group and spoke of discrimination against homosexuals.

"Our work is aimed at defending the homosexual, discriminated against both by the authorities as by society itself," she said.

Andy Gomez, the University of Miami assistant provost who moderated the discussion, said the Havana youths were a mixture of students and former students expelled from schools for being dissidents. At least two were women.

The University of Miami students were members of CAUSA: Students United for a Free Cuba, a group linked to a broader Cuban exile advocacy organization known as Raices de Esperanza or Roots of Hope.

Toward the end of the conversation, one young man commented on the recent defection of Cuban soccer players, noting rumors in Havana of a possible new rafter exodus similar to the one in 1994 that brought 37,191 to South Florida.

"If there is a small opening toward the shore, not one Cuban will remain in Cuba," he predicted.





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