HAVANA TIMES – If anything surprised the Cuban government during the July 11, 2021, protests, it was the large number of teenagers who took to the streets. Engaged in the surveillance of activists and independent media, or focusing their attention on workplaces and universities, it seems that State Security neglected boys under 18 years of age.
They were the ones, cell phone in hand, who managed to keep the VPNs active and inform their families about the situation in the country. The price they paid was high: according to the Attorney General’s Office, of the 760 prosecuted after the protests, 55 are between 14 and 17 years old. Since then, caution has been redoubled in secondary and pre-university (high) schools.
However, and despite the fear injected in schools and families by the regime, the boys “have not learned their lesson.” Through Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, thousands of adolescents speak — loudly, using their own jargon, through codes and double meanings — about their main problems: the lack of a future, the need for money, family anguish due to blackouts or food, migration, indoctrination in the educational system, military service, and precocious habit of snitching at school.
I tell K. — let’s call him K., like the Kafka character — that I’m interested in knowing what Cuba looks like from the daily life of an adolescent. That notion is relatively new. My grandparents — born and raised in the most provincial of small-towns Cuba — believed that, at 16 years old, boys were men and girls were women. Today, adulthood is delayed, at least until 18; life runs at a different pace.
This does not prevent K. from having opinions — most of them clear and affirmative — about politics, society and the economy of his country. He sometimes watches the news, likes coffee and makes a habit of singing the choruses of reggae songs. “Music gives everything a bit of color,” he says, “otherwise I’d be burned out by now.”
He’s in his second year of ‘pre-university’ — as high school is called — but that’s just a saying. In Cuba no one is preparing for university, and even less for the future. But that’s where he has his friends and he has to pass the time somehow.
“I get up in the morning, eat the breakfast that my mother works so hard to obtain. On the days that I have classes, under a Caribbean sun at its highest point, I walk more than two kilometers to school, since there is no consistent or efficient public transportation system.”
I am acquainted with the route: a long street that crosses the city and where only horse carts roam. The dust, the manure, the potholes and the coachmen – surly and unfriendly – give the road the atmosphere of a western movie.
“Well,” continues K., “at lunch time, I come home from school. The same story of the sun and the walk is repeated. I arrive, take a shower, eat something for lunch and return, walking through the sad streets and seeing the facades destroyed by the path of ‘hurricane dictatorship’. I enter my classroom with the cement floor full of holes. Heat, mosquitoes. The bathroom smell is overwhelming.”
“And in addition, with no desire to study: a Cuban degree is useless anywhere in the world. I return home. Calculate this: I have already walked eight kilometers on foot. I arrive exhausted, take off my uniform and lie down to rest for a while. When I get up, the “boring process” begins: there aren’t even any parks to go to. So, I sit on the armchairs for a while to talk with my family about the near future outside this prison-island. Afterwards, I go to sleep.”
I made the mistake of asking K. how he saw Cuba in five years. “I don’t even want to imagine it,” he replies. “If communism failed, I wouldn’t stay. It will take many, but many years for Cuba to become a country. And those who don’t know their history are condemned to repeat it.”
Sometimes K. speaks with the bad habits of an adult, as if he had had to put up with too many blows. It’s natural. The Cuban child is almost always educated among older relatives and in very small households. As he grows up, domestic problems and anxieties are passed down, discussed, and grieved together.
It is the accumulation of these concerns at the wrong time that makes the Cuban teenager more aware and more mature, but it also throws him into a kind of congenital bitterness which he carries throughout his whole life.
An additional factor of that anxiety is the Military Service — “the green” — mandatory in Cuba, which functions as a rite of passage in the totalitarian society. “There is a part of the parents who think that ‘the green’ makes us more manly but, for me, that does not influence anything. It is unfair because it is forced. You cannot even ‘pledge to the flag’ personally. Another person does it for you. And if you protest about that…”
K is not far from the Military Service, but he is more concerned about high school and what it has become: “There is massive indoctrination. The classes are the worst. They teach us a number of absurd things. We hardly have any teachers. Everything is a mess.”
I ask if there are snitches in his classroom. “All my friends are frustrated by the situation in Cuba,” admits K., “and our only topic of conversation is about leaving the country. The idea of one day leaving here completely dissociates us from everything. With things being so unattainable for our parents’ pockets, we cannot dress as we would like. It is obvious that I want to leave. Some are afraid to say it because of the great repression that exists, and because some girls report to the teachers. They snitch on you for just about anything.”
“And what can I tell you about the neighborhood? You already know how a neighborhood functions here, so you can complete that part.” he tells me, already a little bored by the “questioning.”
K has a cousin his age in the United States. His father recently “sponsored” him, and after nearly a month in Guyana he managed to get him on the plane to Hialeah. I ask him the same questions as K., but now I am interested in understanding how one feels about Cuba when one leaves so young.
“From the outside, Cuba looks like a backward country. And there are times when you don’t realize how backward it really is. My life, of course, is different. What I did there has nothing to do with what I do here. Living in this country doesn’t change me as a person. But it’s hard for me to get used to it. One has always been there. I miss my family. It’s a bit difficult, because one longs for the family.”
K.’s cousin doesn’t talk much and has always been discreet when talking about the government. But now there is no problem. He can tell me —without fear of an agent listening in — that they are “a shameless gang, eating up the people with lies. That’s what I think, but I don’t really care much about politics. I don’t care, really.”
I want to know if he will ever return to Cuba. “I don’t know. I suppose so. I suppose that if communism fails, things will improve.”
K and his cousin agree on something. One inside and the other outside, they belong to a generation that no longer has fears or complexes. They know they are being watched, they understand the limits of the manipulation and fear that comes “from above,” but they care very little when they see the family’s asphyxia. They feel responsible, they are tired. But they are stronger than ever.
I ask K. what pseudonym he prefers me to use when I write about him. “What are you going to use? My name with his two surnames, of course.” I tell him no, that I have to protect his identity, the source and all that. “Well, then write…”
I am not going to say the names that he told me next, because they could offend the sensibilities of the ministers and presidents of the republic. But be warned: there is a hurricane coming.