When it comes to Cuba, the world’s media tends to focus on the obvious: the possible outcome of the new US Administration’s policy review, the multiple difficulties faced by Cuba’s over-centralised planned economy, or the implications of Fidel Castro’s passing. Few journalists, it seems, take the trouble to observe the public signals that indicate the strategic challenges facing Cuban society, or try to see change through Cuban eyes.
If they did, they would observe in the state media, alongside reports of events and exhortations, new themes addressing, for example, issues such as how best to relate the country’s past to its future; the encouragement of individual initiative; the challenge of reinvigorating tired mass organisations; and recent moves to engage the country’s 0.5m self-employed workers to be sure they receive their correct social security entitlement.
But more significantly they would observe that both government and the Cuban Communist Party have recognised the need to more closely involve Cuba’s young, and to re-emphasise Cuban values in ways they can relate to. This new approach started to become evident early in 2016. Then, reports began to appear of meetings of the young communists, student bodies, and other mass organisations involving young people at which it was agreed that there was a need to find new ways to relate to the country’s less than involved young, to ensure that the country’s political and social objectives, and its history, were better understood.
It is a process that appears to have accelerated since the death of Fidel Castro, to the extent that the Cuban official media now give almost daily prominence to young people’s central role in Cuban society.
In one of the most telling indications explicitly recognising the need for a changed approach, Cuba’s Union of Young Communists (UJC) recently observed that one of the main challenges facing the organisation is to remain in the vanguard of Cuban youth. Speaking about the organisation’s plans to celebrate its 55th anniversary this April, Susely Morfa González, the UJC’s First Secretary, was quoted by Granma on January 27 as saying that “as a political organization, we want to strengthen young people ideologically, but in a fresh, revitalised way, that comes close to their interests and leaves traces.” She also announced a series of activities aimed at putting young people at the centre of events, noting: “Our aim is for young people, militants or not from our organisation, to feel committed to Cuba and its revolutionary project. We want to convey to them both enthusiasm and teachings.” In a parallel process, members of the Cuban National Assembly have been holding meetings with students at universities, high schools and technical colleges to explain the country’s political and electoral system and they say, the merits of Cuba’s indigenous model of democracy. The initiative follows discussions in the National Assembly and research that indicated that greater awareness among the young was required.
Elsewhere, in an apparent demonstration of preparation for generational change, President Castro and other members of the country’s historic leadership have been attending and being photographed at youth dominated events such as the traditional March of the Torches which involves thousands of young people paying homage to Cuba’s National Hero, José Martí, on his birthday.
There have also been other signs, including occasional more personal coverage being given to younger political role models; the appearance of websites such El Joven Cubano encouraging online debate among the young; the development of Cuban apps and games; and seeming acceptance of ‘the daily package’ which informally enables the wide distribution of all sorts of online material by memory stick.
Just as tellingly a high-level debate has been underway for over a year as to the purpose of the internet, its relationship to Cuban values, and whether its purpose is education rather than entertainment. It is also clear from the speed of official reaction to problems with the internet that there is increasing sensitivity about the inability of ETECSA, the state communications provider not to just make available access at a reasonable price, but to provide a reliable service at acceptable speeds, and most importantly find ways to enable the kind of freer internet access that many young people want.
This is an issue of particular relevance at a time when uniquely from a regional perspective, thousands are graduating from specialist IT universities, suggesting that Cuba proportionately will become one of the most IT-literate and internet hungry nations in the world.
Added to this has been commentary of a kind that seeks to make clear that while the young may be different in outlook and appearance, they, like their elders, are thinking patriots.
As one writer in Granma recently put it: ‘It does not matter if some skewers are placed in their hair, they wear hip pants or prefer reggaeton. What is most significant is the immense pride of being Cubans and the desire to contribute… This implies a permanent disposition… to be better citizens, not just approve or criticize, applaud or lower their heads; but think.’
Some would argue that these developments point only to a desire to maintain the party and the state’s future control. However, a more balanced assessment might suggest that what is emerging is a long overdue awareness that that Cuba’s high level of educational attainment and the growing expectations of youth require commensurate change, if the country is to retain the commitment of its globally aware new generations.
This is not to ignore the sense of hopelessness felt by some young Cubans, or the desire of others to find opportunity elsewhere, but to suggest that some of the themes now emerging in public discourse imply that the Cuban leadership has belatedly recognised that much more needs to be done if the country is to successfully make the transition to the next generation, and retain its undoubted talent.
It remains to be seen whether all of this is enough to embrace the thinking of the young in the same way as those who are committed party members. However, what is being said seems to speak positively about a new, much younger country emerging within a favourable social environment; and one seen by the young through the prism of pride in national achievement, hope for a more liberal interpretation of life, and a desire to benefit more equitably from their common social commitment.
These are aspirations that are common to young people across the region, and a subject that this column will return to.