For years, Fidel Castro has been a living anachronism. A stalwart communist in an age of free markets and democracy, he ruled a Cuba largely cut off from a world prospering through international trade. By the end he was out of touch at home as well, both metaphorically and literally. For 19 months, the ailing 81-year-old leader had stayed out of sight, too sick to venture out, reduced to publishing ponderous "reflections" on the front page of the Cuban Communist Party's organ, Granma. By the time he resigned last week, there was something almost anticlimactic about it. Cubans—including émigrés in Miami and elsewhere—have waited so long for a change they barely knew what to make of the abrupt announcement. The streets of Havana remained quiet.
But even before Castro's resignation, things had started to shift under the surface. A new generation of Cubans had started to give voice to their anger and frustration in ways unthinkable just a few years ago. [See León Krauze's column on the Castro myth.] According to some estimates, more than half of Cuba's population are between 15 and 45 years of age, and to them it hardly matters whether Fidel's brother, Raúl, is formally chosen as his successor this week, or whether another aging communist gets the nod. Young Cubans are starting to publicly demand that the regime make tangible improvements in their lives. Their wish lists are decidedly apolitical. Instead of pining for democracy, most are focused on things foreign peers take for granted: the freedom to travel abroad, unrestricted Internet access, enough disposable income to buy a cell phone or an iPod. "These young students are asking, 'Why are things banned, why are we not allowed to leave the island?'" notes Miriam Leiva, a dissident who once held a high-level post in the Cuban Foreign Ministry.
Many have fled. An estimated 77,000 Cubans immigrated to the United States during a two-year period ending last September, the largest exodus from the island since the early 1970s. A disproportionate share of those refugees were teenagers or twenty-somethings. "Young people are fed up," says Julia Núñez Pacheco, the wife of Adolfo Fernández Sainz, a jailed independent journalist whose 32-year-old daughter, Joana, left Cuba last year to join her husband in Miami. "Many are escaping, either by hurling themselves into the sea on rafts or by arranging marriages of convenience with foreigners."
But symptoms of mounting discontent are appearing at home, too. Last November, the rape of a young woman at Santiago University triggered a wave of student protest over appalling living conditions and other longstanding grievances. Students gathered more than 5,000 signatures on a petition demanding greater autonomy from Havana's bureaucracy. Then, in January, students at the prestigious University of Information Sciences met with Ricardo Alarcón, the longtime president of Cuba's rubber-stamp national Parliament. One student boldly told him that last month's legislative elections had been a sham, since all the candidates had come from the ruling party. Another asked Alarcón what he should say to his peers who yearn to go abroad, adding that he himself wanted to visit a monument in Bolivia to revolutionary icon Ernesto (Che) Guevara. The whole exchange was clandestinely filmed and circulated within days, showing a flustered Alarcón unable to respond to the challenges.
Many of the students in this now celebrated tête-à-tête were the privileged sons and daughters of the Communist Party's nomenklatura, suggesting that youth discontent is rising to the very top of Cuban society. These youngsters came of age in the so-called Special Period, an era of extreme belt-tightening beginning in the early 1990s, when the regime tottered on the brink of collapse after the fall of the Soviet Union. The Special Period put to rest any remaining traces of idealism in Cuba. Those reared in that era saw nothing but food shortages, a decaying public health-care system and the prospect of a $17-a-month job at the end of their studies.
In some ways, 32-year-old Yoani Sánchez is typical. "Unlike our parents, we never believed in anything," she says. "Our defining characteristic is cynicism, but that's a double-edged sword. It protects you from crushing disappointment, but it paralyzes you from doing anything." Yet Sánchez, at least, has done something. In April, she started a groundbreaking blog, Generación Y, that delivers stinging barbs about the day-to-day hassles of life in Cuba: the food shortages at her 12-year-old son's school; the daunting difficulties facing a young couple who want to move out of their parents' households and get their own apartment. Sánchez has become a torchbearer for her generation, and roughly one fourth of the 800,000 hits her site received last month came from within the island. "I want to see how far we can push the walls of this regime," she says.
To some extent, the rise in dissent is the result of Raúl Castro's policies. Soon after he assumed effective power in the summer of 2006, he called on Cubans to denounce corruption and devise innovative cures for the island's many ills. The state-run newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth) took the lead in running investigative stories exposing petty crimes, and then went further by explaining how these crimes were a direct result of "systemic" flaws in the socialist economic model. In allowing such criticism, Raúl seemed to be signaling the time had come for sweeping change. Then nothing happened. Raúl cautiously stayed the course, taking no concrete steps to open the state-dominated economy or encourage greater private initiative and investment. No senior officials were publicly held accountable for incompetence, apart from the country's Transportation minister, and the elder Castro seemed to act as a brake on Raúl's plans to reform the island's economy along Chinese lines. In a high-profile speech last summer, Raúl acknowledged the painfully obvious: salaries were too low, food production and distribution were dysfunctional, and the system was full of problems that needed to be addressed. But he was unable to do anything about these woes.
Yet the communists' lock on power remains strong. Fidel's resignation signals no immediate change in government policy, much less an overhaul. Cuba's disenchanted youth have no organized means for expressing their grievances. None took to the streets in the wake of Fidel's resignation to test the government's patience. "You're starting to see more and more examples of dissidence, but they are still not very organized or united," says Laura Pollán, a human-rights activist. But it's a start, and the emergence of dynamic youth protest movements has often breathed new life into dispirited oppositions. How long will it take? No one knows, but the answer might surprise even the country's most optimistic young protesters.