Cuba: Brain Drain and Naive Youth

Fernando Ravsberg*

Cuban young people have very little decision making power. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — In a recent interview, the Cuban-American writer Uva de Aragon told me that the emigration of thousands of intelligent young Cubans does not constitute “brain drain,” but their “escape” in search of better opportunities in other countries.

The concept is controversial, even more so when it comes to a nation (Cuba) against which enormous economic restrictions are being applied (by the US) for the express purpose of “causing hunger and desperation” among its people, while at the same time the world’s greatest power offers residency.

Yet beyond the differences of opinion, the fact is that every year tens of thousands of young people leave the country by different routes, and many of them are scientists, doctors, athletes, engineers and architects – all trained by Cuba.

I know this because I have two “migration-age” children and many of their friends are already abroad. Most of them came out of the V. I. Lenin High School, an institution where supposedly some of the best talent in the country studies.

And this involves more than their academic training, since the youth at this school are also considered to be especially loyal to the ideology of the revolution. It was expected that the men and women who would lead Cuba in the future would be trained there.

It’s true that the rate and volume of Cuban emigration is not the highest in Latin America, as some would have us believe using inflated figures. However, it does has the characteristic of being composed of those people who are the best trained – from technicians to university graduates.

They leave because they are the ones who earn the least, those who have to live on a salary of $17 USD per month and don’t have the opportunity to do additional work. They are unable to start up a business of their own or pilfer something from their job and resell it on the street.

But money isn’t the only reason. Recently I was interviewed by a Cuban journalist about the characteristics of the youth of the island, something that forced me to collect information. I had to seek out young people and talk to them about what they thought and how they felt.

I discovered that some of them leave the country because they have the feeling that they’re living in a country that isn’t their own. They feel like they’re boarders in a strange house where the rules of conduct are imposed by their grandparents, seniors who for any discrepancy will remind them about everything they owe them.

Plus they’re tired. Gays are weary of waiting for years for parliament to decide to recognize their rights, just as young scientists doing their PhD work abroad are confronted with laws that only allow them to take their spouses and female children abroad if they leave permanently.

Quino asked that young people be allowed to invent their youth. Photo: Raquel Perez

There are things as basic as male medical students having to cut their hair when university authorities consider it too long due to supposed “health concerns” – though these doesn’t apply to women or foreign students.

Surprisingly, this is happening during the government of Raul Castro, the young guerrilla who came down from the Sierra Maestra Mountains with shoulder-length hair, something that was not imposed by the rebel forces even though many of his comrades-in-arms wore their hair much shorter.

I remember when some college students argued for class attendance not to be mandatory, putting the whole apparatus of the Ministry of Higher Education up in arms, with them even threatening the journalist who did a story on the issue.

It’s true that in the end the youth organizations are the entities that make the decisions, but this is only a mirage because often these bodies — instead of representing their members — are mere tools for imposing policies, rules and regulations.

Of course young people want to earn wages that allow them to have fun, dress nicely and think about starting a family and living independently, but they also aspire to build a nation where everything isn’t already etched in stone and where their opinions count.

A young communist told me that he’s sick of his ideas being flung back in his face with no other argument than a condescending “don’t be so naive,” as if all the wisdom of Cuba were in the hands of older people.

Prejudice is neither new nor exclusively Cuban. In the 19th century, the German poet Friedrich Hebbel recognized that young people often think the world began with them, but he immediately warned that old people think even more often that the world ends with them.

“I don’t understand what the fear is all about,” said one university student. “We’re the same age as our leaders were when they took power. It’s true that we’ll make mistakes, but it’s our right, just like they screwed up from time to time.”

They are accused of being too naive and immature, but such “defects” can only be cured with “practice,” giving them the power to make decisions over their own lives and actively participating in the design of a nation that — after all — will inevitably end up in their hands.

(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the orginal posted by BBC Mundo.


3 thoughts on “Cuba: Brain Drain and Naive Youth

  • The author may be right when he says: ” It’s true that the rate and volume of Cuban emigration is not the highest in Latin America”, but what is certainly correct is that Cuba is the only country in Latin America that has extremely repressive laws concerning the right to travel.
    “Illegal exit” or “salida ilegal”, attempting to leave the country without a government exit visa, is punishable by years of imprisonment.
    The law is put in place to ensure that ” the rate and volume of Cuban emigration is not the highest in Latin America”.

  • The tragedy is in the notion that in Cuba young people must choose between loyalty to their country or loyalty to personal improvement. Young Americans also dream of a life abroad. The richness of European culture or the adventure of life in South America seduces many a young American to pack up and leave . This dreams, when realized, do not come with the label “traicon de la patria” or being called a “gusano”. Indeed, if things don’t work out, they return to the ‘States better off for the experience and bring fresh ideas and life choices with them. I absoulutely agree with many of the comments posted here that posit that when Cubans are allowed to travel more freely, they will see Cuba from a far more enlightened perspective and be better able to judge for themselves what the Revolution has really accomplished and what it has not. Cuba, as a whole, will be better off for it.

  • I suspect that should the Cuban government decide to open up travel restrictions abroad for its nationals, Cuba will surely have one of the highest migration rates in the Americas. There are just not enough viable opportunities for young people in the country right now – with emphasis on viable.

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