Cuba: Isle of Failed Promises

The phone woke Yoani Sanchez long before dawn in her 12th-floor Havana apartment. It was a French TV network calling to get her reaction to the Cuban government's announcement: Fidel Castro was finally resigning as president. Half asleep and utterly stunned by the news, Sánchez could hardly think what to say.

That had to be a strange sensation. The 32-year-old Sánchez's fearlessly critical blog, Generación Y, has won rapt attention from Cuba watchers in recent months, making her an unofficial spokesperson for the island's young people. While the party newspaper, Granma, devotes its front page to ponderous "reflections" by the ailing, 81-year-old Castro on climate change, Sánchez writes stinging accounts of daily ordeals in Cuba—like the food shortages at her 12-year-old son's school, or the obstacles facing a young couple who want a place of their own instead of a room with their parents. Sánchez doesn't hide her disdain for Castro and his brother, Raúl, 76, who has sat in as president since Fidel fell ill in the summer of 2006. "They're washed up," she told NEWSWEEK last week. "With each passing day they have less and less time to fulfill their promises."

Most Cubans have been waiting all their lives for those promises to be met. Although the lot of some older Cubans may have been improved by the revolution that toppled dictator Fulgencio Batista in January 1959, an estimated 70 percent of Cuba's 11.3 million people weren't even born then. Younger Cubans now mostly identify "Fidelismo" with hardship, especially those who, like Sánchez, came of age during the 1990s. That was the island's "Special Period"—an era of extreme belt-tightening after Castro's aid pipeline dried up with the collapse of the Soviet Union. (The nickname Generación Y derives from a Cuban fad in the '70s and '80s for baby names beginning with that letter.) "Unlike our parents, we never believed in anything," says Sánchez. "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."

Raised on a relentless diet of antiimperialist harangues and exhortations to ever-greater sacrifice, millions of young Cubans want the regime to cut the rhetoric and make tangible improvements in their lives. Many have given up hope: from October 2005 through September 2007, an estimated 77,000 Cubans fled to the United States, the biggest exodus since the Mariel boatlift of 1980, when 125,000 Cubans escaped to Florida in six months. "Young people are very fed up with the situation," says Julia Núñez Pacheco, the wife of jailed independent journalist Adolfo Fernández Sainz. "Many are escaping, either by hurling themselves into the sea on a raft or arranging a marriage of convenience with foreigners." The couple's 32-year-old daughter, Joana, left Cuba to join her husband in Miami last year.

Most young Cubans' aspirations are decidedly apolitical. Forget about democracy or free speech; the serious focus is on things taken for granted by youngsters elsewhere: freedom to travel abroad, unrestricted access to the Internet, enough disposable income to buy a mobile phone or an iPod—even the simple right to walk into a five-star hotel in their own country and buy a beer. "These young students are asking, 'Why are things banned? Why are we not allowed to leave the island?' " says Miriam Leiva, a prominent dissident leader who once held a high-level post in the Cuban Foreign Ministry. "They look around at other young people grouped on the corner playing dominoes out of boredom, and they want something different."

Raúl Castro has only himself to blame for their undisguised impatience. Within weeks of stepping in for his bedridden older brother, he urged Cubans to blow the whistle on government corruption and to find new solutions for the country's many problems. Cuba's young could hardly have agreed more: sweeping changes were overdue. And what happened next? Nothing. In a major speech last summer, after nearly a year in charge, the younger Castro acknowledged failures that were painfully self-evident: salaries were too low, food production and distribution were dysfunctional and the system remained as full as ever of unaddressed problems.

By the end of the year, discontent was rising. Student protests at Santiago University, set off by a rape on the decaying campus, quickly expanded to encompass complaints about the school's miserable housing conditions, inedible food and other chronic grievances. Student leaders collected 5,000 signatures on a petition demanding greater autonomy from the Education Ministry. A few weeks ago Ricardo Alarcón, longtime president of Cuba's rubber-stamp Parliament, was blindsided by students at Havana's elite University of Information Sciences when they turned a routine speaking engagement into an open indictment of the regime. One student stood up to denounce this January's legislative elections as a sham; another asked why Cubans weren't allowed to take vacation trips abroad. A clandestine video of the session was soon in circulation, and people who have seen it say Alarcón's performance was less than inspiring.

No one took to the streets last week to test the limits of the regime's forbearance. "You're starting to see more and more examples of dissidence, but they are still not very organized or united," says prominent human-rights activist Laura Pollán, 60, whose husband has been jailed since 2003. Still, change is coming, Yoani Sánchez is convinced. Although most Cubans still have no Internet access, she says fans of her blog sometimes recognize her on the street now, and about 200,000 of the 800,000 hits on Generación Y last month came from computers on the island. "I want to see how far we can push the walls of this regime," she says. Fidel Castro may not like the answer—if he lives that long.