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July 2006
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Fidel's battle for the Elian generation

Fidel’s battle for the Elian generation

Next month, Cuba will celebrate Castro’s 80th birthday, with thousands
attending the party for the world’s longest-serving leader. Next to him
on the podium in Havana will be the 12-year-old who embodies his hopes
for saving the revolution. Andres Schipani-Aduriz reports from Cardenas

Andres Schipani-Aduriz in Cardenas
Sunday July 2, 2006
The Observer

It is a broiling, humid afternoon in the dusty, flat provincial town of
Cardenas. The smell of petrol hangs thickly in the air from a refinery
in the nearby bay. On a side street, the horse-drawn buses are passing
in front of the shiny, smart blue buildings of the Esteban Hernandez
Secondary School. Under the palm tree in the playground, schoolchildren

In the centre of this group is Elian Gonzalez Brotons, the boy pulled
out of the sea near Miami late in November 1999 to become the centre of
a bitter international custody battle involving politicians, presidents
and Cubans on both sides of the Florida straits. He was found in the
water, tied to a bicycle inner tube, the only survivor of a makeshift
boat full of refugees that had disintegrated in the water. His mother
and nine other Cubans had drowned in their attempt to escape from Cuba.

The American authorities who found him delivered Elian into the care of
relatives in Miami. The case ignited old hostilities between the two
countries. Finally, in early July 2000, the US Supreme Court ruled that
he should be returned to Cuba. Welcomed by his delighted father, Juan
Miguel, a smiling Elian landed on the island. ‘It was the happiest day
of my life,’ he said and, today, dressed in mustard-coloured trousers
and a pressed white shirt that holds a little badge with the Cuban flag
colours and the signature of the revolutionary hero Ernesto ‘Che’
Guevara, the 12-year-old does look happy as he talks to classmates. But
that is as close as you get to Elian these days. He is a heavily guarded
boy, always shadowed by state security officers. He is also a privileged
child, the only boy in Cuba whose birthday party is attended by
President . He is also a symbol of the island’s resistance
to the power of the US, a symbol that Cuba will stand up for itself, its
children and its revolution.

‘He is not a museum object,’ insists Idania Doubrellat, a committed
supporter of the revolution who gives Elian his weekly computer lessons
in the local museum, where a room is dedicated to the boy. The museum’s
label for the exhibit about him – ‘The Battle of Ideas’ – gives a fuller
sense of Elian’s significance in the island. The struggle to bring him
back from the US sparked an official ‘battle of ideas’ aimed at
rekindling the revolutionary spirit after the dark days of the Nineties,
known in Cuba as the ‘Special Period’, when the loss of its main market
and supplier, the communist bloc, brought deprivation.

The battle for Elian has now been won in every sense. ‘He is a very good
humble boy and very responsible, very disciplined,’ one of his
schoolmates told The Observer. ‘Well, he has to be, as he is friends
with our Commander-in-Chief [Castro].’ He has become one of the town’s
five leaders of the pioneros [pioneers], an organisation that, according
to the President, is the ‘school where children prepare themselves for
life’ by ‘ratifying the irrevocability of the socialist character of our

Elian is becoming a model of what the next generation of Cuban
revolutionaries should be. But the battle for Elian’s contemporaries is
still being fought. A few blocks away from the school, some of them
recount a joke that ends with the naughtiest boy in one class being sent
home as punishment for saying that Fidel has to be buried in Jerusalem.
‘Oh boy, not in Jerusalem!’ exclaims his grandmother. ‘Don’t you know
that people there rise again after three days?’

Back in Havana, the battle for the minds of some older students seems to
suffer a similar fate. Alfredo is the kind of student who
will go on to staff Cuba’s civil service. But he does not seem happy
about that prospect or about the regime. ‘I want to have the possibility
of seeing different things, of aiming for different things, of opting
for different things’, he says, but he has to walk a fine line. ‘The
people from the Federation of University Students are breathing on the
nape of your neck all the time, controlling if you’re a “proper”
revolutionary; if not, you can lose everything. You have to be like a
clown, smiling on the outside but crying on the inside,’ he says.

It is easy to find ‘proper’ revolutionaries. Alejandra is a federation
activist and is beginning to take her role as guardian beyond Havana
university. She has spent stints in state-owned companies on internships
to ‘check that everything is working the way it should work’. Because,
she explains, for many people ‘stealing from work is not stealing’.

In recent years Castro has surrounded himself with young people,
seemingly aware that the revolution has to win the hearts and minds of
the young. He is 80 on 13 August, and talk of a future without him is
creeping into his speeches. Last November he openly voiced concerns for
the future of the revolution. Not coincidentally, the speech was at the
main lecture theatre of Havana university. ‘Is it that revolutions are
doomed to fall apart?’ he asked a crowd of students. ‘When those who
were the forerunners start disappearing and making room for new
generations of leaders, what will be done?’

That sentence touched on one of the key issues facing Cuba. From three
weeks after the 1959 taking of power, Fidel’s brother Raul has been his
designated successor. But, almost as old as his brother (75 last month)
and lacking in charisma, Raul could only be a stopgap. The leadership,
some believe, will devolve to a younger generation of committed
revolutionaries such as Finance Minister Carlos Lage and Foreign
Minister Felipe Perez Roque. But Castro’s broader question – whether the
revolution is doomed to fail – masks a deeper fear that the regime might
be ousted by youngsters taking to the streets. ‘It is not easy with the
younger ones, we have to fight hard to make them understand that the
future of the revolution lies with them,’ says Ramon Reyes of the
Association of Veterans of the Cuban Revolution. ‘Yes,’ adds his friend
Roberto Brunel, ‘we might have to fight with machetes with those younger
ones to make them understand.’ Roberto and Ramon are both of the Castro
generation, having joined the Commander’s guerrilla movement in the
Sierra Maestra in 1958.

Next door to Perez Roque’s office, at the Raul Roa Institute of
International Relations, Dr Jorge Casals Llano, believes the
velvet-style revolutions of eastern Europe, led by the young, are not an
option in Cuba because ‘they are just a Yankee invention’. He emphasises
the idea that the generation of Lage and Perez Roque are ‘capable enough
of taking the lead’. So the greater fear is that the system will be
hollowed out. Castro made clear in his November speech that he had
identified the biggest threat. He has been recruiting such people as
Alejandra, vigilantes against corruption. ‘We’re not aiming at a
perestroika, because it is not renew
al or openness that we’re looking
for now, but a correction of mistakes, a search for justice,’ she says.
‘If we don’t fight for what we believe, then the liberal globalisation
is going to come and eat us’.

Alejandra may be in the student vanguard, but among the young the main
guardians of the revolution are nearly 30,000 youngsters, most of whom
did not make it to university. They are the Trabajadores Sociales
(Social Workers) – or, as former diplomat and lecturer Gabriel Calaforra
calls them, Cuba’s equivalent of ‘Mao Zedong’s young Red Guards’. Castro
calls them ‘soul doctors’ whose role is to cure Cubans of ‘vices’ such
as ‘thievery’ and ‘diversion of materials’.

Many of them can be found at filling stations. Odalys is one of them.
She is sitting near the pumps, outside the city of Matanzas proudly
wearing a Trabajadores Sociales T-shirt. She should not be on duty, ‘but
I like to be around to see how the revolution is really working’. The
deployment of Odalys and others to replace regular pump attendants has
apparently been a success: it has revealed that more than half of the
petrol previously sold in the country was not accounted for.

But perhaps Castro’s diagnosis is wrong. The task of the ‘soul doctors’
is to ‘identify the rotten apples’. But Cuba has many people with the
same job. The Revolutionary Police are everywhere and their visibility
is turning some young apples sour. In a narrow street of old buildings
in central Havana, shirtless teenagers play baseball with a stick from a
door and the lid of a plastic bottle. It is an innocuous scene, but an
officer of the Revolutionary Police stands at the corner, prompting one
boy to quip: ‘We have 11 million inhabitants and six million police
officers now.’

One of those who thinks the problems run deeper than a few rotten apples
is Carlos, a historian. ‘Revolution was necessary, not only in Cuba but
in the whole of Latin America,’ he says, ‘but this revolution is in
desperate need of evolution.’

A former researcher on youth issues, he says it is no surprise that the
younger generation who suffered dramatically during the ‘special
period’, have friends who left the country, and are enchanted with the
‘forbidden fruit’ of consumerism are the most disenchanted with the
revolutionary process. Certainly, there is little to consume in Cuba.
Monthly rations are meagre, featuring, for example, a quarter-litre of
cooking oil, half a dozen eggs, and 4 kilos of and beans. ‘But I
cannot complain much because this is the only country without problems,’
says Juan, 68, who is fishing from the Malecon, Havana’s ocean
promenade, for ‘something to add to the rice’ today. ‘Sometimes I would
like to have a bit more to eat, but for the rest I really thank our
Commander-in-Chief.’ It is a comment that causes Miguel, 31, sitting
next to him, to glare. ‘We definitely need more to eat; and not only
that.’ Using his hands to mimic a beard, he says: ‘The bearded one is
grabbing us all very tight.’

This captures the generation gap. The revolution provided things Cubans
needed; an education that ensured no Cuban is illiterate, and a free
health system. But such people as Miguel have grown up with those
advantages. What they miss are signs of new ones. Some, like Abel, 30, a
doctor, see the old achievements being reversed: ‘We have medicine
without medicines.’ Drugs are scarce, mainly owing to the US blockade,
and those available are costly. ‘Soon we will have medicine without
medics if they keep exporting us.’ He means the outflow of Cubans sent
to practise in countries such as , Bolivia and Ecuador. Cuba
has sent 23,376 doctors abroad in recent years. However, Dr Omar
Everleny, of the Centre of Studies of the Cuban Economy, said the export
of doctors, medicines, biotechnology and genetic engineering skills has
given Cuba a trade surplus of £900m. ‘If there is a shortage now,’
Everleny argued, ‘then that is the sacrifice we have to make for a
better future.’

But with Castro’s 80th birthday approaching, the ‘better future’ may
need to come quickly. Cubans may not be willing to accept sacrifices
when he is gone, because his charisma is vital to the regime. As a
result, Castro’s image may be an early sacrifice by his successors,
argues Carlos the historian. ‘Castro is a well-loved leader for a
considerable portion of the country, but there is a massive part of the
population who are highly critical.’ Carlos thinks that disgracing the
image of the former leader might be, for the party’s younger generation,
‘the only way of keeping the revolution alive’.

Occasionally, there is an almost palpable sense of fear of the future.
Ernesto, 34, named after Guevara, says while driving a truck of bananas
to market that he is ‘proud of Che, but definitely not of Castro. But I
hope Fidel lasts for another 50, 100, 150 more years, because once gone,
there is going to be chaos, real chaos.’

Most of all there is uncertainty, even on the Plaza de la Revolucion,
dominated by the gods of the revolution – a statue of the poet and
liberator from Spanish dominion, Jose Marti, and a metal silhouette of
Guevara on the front of the Interior Ministry. A young guard, dressed in
olive green, crosses the plaza, looking to hitch a lift home in one of
the vintage cars so associated with Cuba.

I ask him what he thinks will happen after the Commander’s death. ‘Who
knows? No one knows,’ he replies. And he indicates with his chin the
figures of Marti and Che. ‘Not even they know.’,,1810726,00.html

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