Cuba's young see bleak future, many want to leave
By Jeff Franks | Reuters – 04/28/2013
HAVANA (Reuters) - On weekend nights in Havana, young hipsters fill the
sidewalks at a busy intersection near the seafront and spill into the
park below, passing rum bottles between them, smoking cigarettes and
Black t-shirts, low-slung jeans, oddball haircuts and tattoos are in
vogue at this spot, a favorite hangout for Cuban youth with a
counter-cultural, slightly rebellious feel to it.
On one corner, police question a few overzealous partiers, but generally
leave people alone compared to years past, when, according to one
regular, Ernesto Ramis, they made everyone move along.
Ramis, 25, says you can get drugs here - uppers, downers, maybe some
ecstasy - but there is no overt evidence of illegality this night, only
a sense that being young in Cuba today is different, that conformity to
the old ways has faded.
"The main difference," says Ramis, pointing toward the Straits of
Florida, barely visible in the darkness, "is that everyone wants to leave."
His use of the word "everyone," is an overstatement, but he has touched
on one of the Cuban government's biggest problems - youthful discontent
with a system many view as lacking opportunity for a better life.
It is not a problem unique to the Caribbean island, which like many
underdeveloped countries struggles to hold on to its best and brightest,
but unlike most others faces the added difficulty of doing so at the
doorstep of a hostile superpower with an open door immigration policy
The government, well aware of its youth problem, is gradually changing
the Soviet-style, state-run economic model put in place after the 1959
revolution, partly to address the issue.
There are young people taking advantage of the reforms by opening their
own businesses or going into jobs in the island's growing private
sector, but there are others who doubt the government will move fast
enough - or far enough - to make a difference, and they want out.
Most hope to go to the United States, only 90 miles away, following in
the footsteps of an estimated 1.5 million who have preceded them since
Other countries such as Canada and Spain are also sought-after
destinations, although Spain's economic woes have lately made it less
Some Cubans claim that when the sky is very clear you can see the glow
of lights from Florida in the night sky, which is doubtful, but an
indication of the psychological proximity of the two places despite
years of official hostility.
The U.S. approves 25,000 to 30,000 immigrant visas for Cubans each year,
and several thousand more enter the country without visas from third
countries or by sea.
An elderly Communist Party member said the difference from the past is
that the desire to leave is so widespread among the young.
"Unfortunately, if you talk to 10 young people today, nine of them will
tell you they want to leave Cuba. They don't see a future," she said,
not wanting to be identified.
Ulisses Guilarte, head of the party in Artemisa province and a member of
the Central Committee, told Reuters the reason for youthful
disillusionment was obvious.
"It is clear the economic situation is difficult, undoubtedly. The young
people view their aspirations as still distant," he said.
The government prides itself on providing free healthcare and education
to its people, but in an economy handicapped by inefficiency and a
longstanding U.S. trade embargo, monthly salaries average the equivalent
of $20 a month.
Young people have watched their parents scrape by for years and do not
want the same fate of little money and limited choices.
They want better-paying jobs, their own homes and cars, access to the
Internet and a brighter future. Few have traveled abroad, so they want
to see the wider world and live a life they get glimpses of in movies or
from tourists or visiting relatives.
Some want to have children, but feel it makes no sense if they have no
money and have to share homes with relatives, as many do in Cuba.
"After I graduated and began to work, I realized that with the money I
was earning it wasn't enough to have or maintain a family," said
computer programmer Estela Izquierdo, 29, before she moved to Montreal
with her husband.
It was not an easy decision to leave her family and the life she had
known, but time was of the essence.
"I can't wait my whole life (for things to change). I have a biological
clock, I have to have kids," she said.
A photograph of the couple posted on the Internet showed them bundled
against the Canadian cold, playing in the first snow they had ever seen.
Edgar Saucedo, a musician, said he also wants to have a family, but in
the United States, not in Cuba where he shares a Havana home with seven
"It's just not feasible here," he said. "Here you work and you work and
at the end of the month you've got 12 CUCs, if you're lucky. What can
you do with 12 CUCs?" he added, referring to Cuba's hard currency,
valued at parity with the U.S. dollar. Most people earn Cuban pesos,
which are 24 to 1 with the dollar.
Saucedo's hopes of going to the United States are based on a vague plan
of getting invited up to play Cuban music and, once there, never leaving.
He is a keyboard player by profession, but a friend in the United States
making $18 an hour as a garbage pickup man says he can get him the same
job, which sounds good to him.
"I'll do whatever work I have to do," said the bearded 33-year-old. "I
don't want that much, I just want to have a normal life."
Cuba's outward tide looks unlikely to end any time soon, and may increase.
The government relaxed laws in January, making it easier for Cubans to
leave the country, which U.S. officials in Havana say has led to a 10
percent increase in inquiries about visas.
Before the change, most visa applications came from the elderly but now
most are coming from young people, they said.
Schools in Havana offering classes in foreign languages, particularly
English and French, are overloaded with young applicants.
One woman said she began French classes three years ago with 34 other
students, all of whom wanted to learn the language to help them get an
immigrant visa to French-speaking Quebec. All but four are now in Canada
or have visas to go, she said.
"One of the things that's ironic is Cuba has an educated population, but
it doesn't have anything for them to do. They've almost prepared their
professionals to emigrate," said Cuba expert Ted Henken at Baruch
College in New York.
"I think in some ways the Cuban revolution is the best thing that ever
happened to Miami, because half of their professional force was probably
trained there," he said.
In a world where population growth is exploding and a region where
countries have high birth rates and low median ages, Cuba's population
is declining and getting older.
Preliminary figures from a national census last year showed that the
number of Cubans had slightly declined from 2002 to about 11 million people.
The median age of Cubans has risen to about 39 from 36 in the 2002
census, according to a U.S. government estimate, far above that of any
other country in Latin America.
Under President Raul Castro, Cuba has launched economic reforms aimed in
part at providing new opportunities it hopes will be attractive to the
In today's placid Cuba, the notion of a youth revolt seems far-fetched,
but this government was put in place by young rebels led by Fidel
Castro, so it knows the potential of restive youth.
Raul Castro, who succeeded older brother Fidel Castro in 2008 and is 81,
is encouraging more private businesses.
The number of those working in the private sector has risen to just over
400,000 from 150,000 in 2010, and the money earned is generally better
than what state jobs pay.
Alexander Perez, 29, is an example of what the government hopes to see.
Almost all of his former classmates at the University of Havana have
left, he said, but he decided to try out the new economic model.
He borrowed money from friends and family, rented a commercial space and
started up Havana Pizza. With time, and by putting his business major
into practice, people came to like his thin-crust pizzas, which are rare
in Cuba, and the prices, starting at the equivalent of about 50 cents.
On a recent night he watched over a steady flow of customers and
regularly checked messages on his cellphone, and would not disclose how
much money he is making. But he is glad he stayed.
"There's a friend of mine who tells me I'm crazy because I want to do
this, but, fine, each person thinks differently. What's a solution for
me is not for another," Perez said.
School teacher Marisela Rey, 29, also is an example of what the
government would like to see, not because she is starting a business,
but because she wants a better life in Cuba, not somewhere else.
"If Cuba gives me the opportunity, I would achieve it Cuba. I like my
country," she said. "I think this system is the ideal one if we repair
and reconstruct it."
It is a job she thinks would best be left to a new generation of
leaders, not the aging men who have led the country since the revolution.
"They can't wait anymore, youth will prevail."
(Reporting By Jeff Franks, Rosa Tania Valdes and Nelson Acosta; Editing
by David Adams, Kieran Murray and Mohammad Zargham)