The Quiet Dissent of Cuban Youth

FidelStanding on his balcony in the bustling Vedado neighborhood in the heart of Havana, 25-year-old Richard watches the world go by. He hasn't left the house in two months and even then it was just for a few hours to attend an annual book fair. He doesn't study and works only occasionally, when he helps out his father at a local TV station. He seems to have withdrawn from the world.

But at a moment when Fidel Castro is outraging international rights groups and others with a crackdown against dissidents, sentencing activists and journalists to long prison sentences, Richard is one of a growing number of young Cubans who are protesting the regime in their own way. Unlike the dissidents in the headlines, who publish incendiary literature about the government or question Cuba's human rights record, their forms of dissent are more subtle: possession of a foreign magazine or CD, a rooftop satellite dish to catch foreign stations or running a small private enterprise operation out of a living room.

Richard's main connection to the street now is friends who visit. Sometimes they bring him an American flick, like "The Matrix" or "Pulp Fiction," or a music CD, bought from sailors who get them from abroad and resell them on Cuba's black market, or bolsa negra. "Anything that you want to buy, if you have dollars, you can get," says Alejandro G., an 18-year-old with spiky hair who sports trendy clothes and a messenger bag. "So much for the (U.S.) embargo."

FidelAmerican and other foreign movies are regularly shown on Cuban TV, unless they are critical of Cuba or the socialist system in general. Political documentaries from other countries are almost impossible to get, and pornography is out of the question. Although they consume any movies Cuba's two state-run channels throw at them, Richard and his friends prefer action-packed Hollywood titles like "The Fast and the Furious" and "Fight Club."

"Whatever brings us closer to the U.S. or other countries, we want to see," says Richard, who like the other youths asked that his last name not be used out of fear of reprisal. Fashion trends, slang and musical choices from abroad are things many young Cubans thirst for because it gives them a glimpse into a life they've never had -- the Cuban revolution dates to l959.

Besides curiosity, Richard has another big reason for keeping up with the news from America: he's been waiting for a visa for six years to join his older brother, grandmother and other relatives in Miami. He envisions flying across the 90 miles of water that separate the two countries and finally setting foot on American soil. He doesn't have plans except to study English and work.

"I don't know what to expect or what I'll do there, because I haven't seen it. All I know is that it's like a whole different universe," he says.

The Internet is quickly bridging the gap between the reality Cuban youth live and what exists in other countries. University students have access to e-mail and a heavily censored Internet, with sites like Hotmail messenger and Miami newspapers and TV stations blocked. Others can use post offices, where all e-mail is reviewed; customers must buy a card, usually for dollars, to access the Internet.

Books banned from Cuban stores include those by famous Latin American authors like Luis Borges, Mario Vargas Llosa and the new autobiography by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Havana student"The rest of the world is reading them, but we can't because we're Cubans," says Yuri, a 27-year-old economics student at the University of Havana who wants a scholarship to go to the United States or Germany. Yuri says he has felt like a second-class citizen in his own country ever since he was nine and a barber skipped him to attend to a customer from Spain. The tourist had precious dollars and Yuri, of course, did not. The incident made Yuri believe he would never be treated fairly in Cuba.

"I think the goal of many, many Cuban teens is to leave," says Alejandro, a 25-year-old who used to study law at the University of Havana but dropped out to start a movie rental business run out of his home. The business is illegal; he could be fined. "Of course, I am a little afraid, but you have to survive somehow," Alejandro says.

While they wait for visas out, Alejandro, Richard and countless others have learned to adapt to Cuba's closed society. They don't talk about anything controversial on the street and in school are careful not to express certain opinions. Not all are as hermetic as Richard, but on the street they try to blend in or steer clear of authorities or official organizations. Yet Richard and his friends don't clamor for regime change in Cuba. "Nobody wants to fight or have another revolution," says Richard. "They just want to put it all behind them."

Until they do, there is always another black market CD to listen to, or another movie to watch.

Karina Ioffee ( is an award-winning freelance writer who has contributed to El Andar magazine.

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