It has been nearly 70 years since the Castro brothers came down from the mountains and foisted their dictatorship, in the guise of idealistic guerrilla rebels, on the people of Cuba. Fidel and Raul were young men then. They would stay in such complete power for so long that the children born in those first few decades after their revolution would become known as Cuba’s “lost generation.”
After a decade in office following the death of his brother, Raul Castro will finally step down on April 19. He is expected to hand the reins of power over to his Vice President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, a longstanding member of the lost generation of Cubans who will now try to find ways to lead their country out of poverty and darkness.
The younger Castro attempted a spate of half-hearted reforms in this last decade, but they did nothing to relieve Cuba from its prison of economic stagnation. Any change of significance is going to be painful, as the Associated Press suggests, like the elimination of a dual-currency system that has created damaging economic distortions.
“A great number of this country’s young people will be watching to see if they’re capable of changing things, of offering something new, of going beyond what’s seemed like a great grayness until now,” Yassel Padron Kunakbaeva, a 27-year-old blogger who writes often from what he describes as a Marxist, revolutionary perspective, told the AP.
Along with Diaz-Canel, a group of middle-aged leaders are being closely watched as candidates for more powerful positions. They include 60-year-old Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, 54-year-old Havana party leader Mercedes Lopez Acea, 57-year-old economic reform czar Marino Murillo and 63-year-old Lazaro Exposito, party head in Cuba’s second most-populated province, Santiago.
Whatever his style, the Cuba that Diaz-Canel will lead is radically different from the country that he knew as both a child and a younger adult when Russian provided products and entertainment controlled the lives of the people on island — people who knew little to nothing of an outside world with greater opportunity for success or failure — people mostly contented with the status quo their communist government provided them because they knew of nothing else. Most of the Cubans that knew of better opportunities had fled the island or perished during the revolution or were still serving prison sentences for their opposition to the Castros and their regime.
Inside Cuba since 1959, times were brutal for those who disagreed with the government. Public gatherings were organized to “repudiate” those who spoke against the system or wanted to emigrate. Gays and even mild dissenters were sent to work camps, “hippies” forced to cut their hair and hide their rock-and-roll records in album covers of more acceptable musicians. And then life changed dramatically after the fall of the Soviet Union, which nearly eliminated Cuba’s exports and imports, and cut gross domestic product by more than 30 percent in a crisis known as the Special Period. There were blackouts, shortages and serious questions about the efficacy of domestic and foreign policy.
Around 125,000 fled in 1980 when Fidel Castro allowed free migration from the port of Mariel outside Havana during the Special Period. Tens of thousands more Cubans fled on homemade rafts. And Raul Castro’s elimination of mandatory exit permits for most Cubans saw hundreds of thousands other Cubans leave over the last decade.
As a result of the migratory waves, hundreds of thousands of Cubans in their 50s and 60s have regular contact with friends and relatives in other countries, a sharp distinction from Cuba’s original revolutionaries. A light has been shone where once there was none.
After years in the shadows, Diaz-Canel and his generation now must show they are able to lead a nation facing deep economic problems, a hostile U.S. administration, dwindling ranks of regional allies and increasing disenchantment among younger generations of Cubans. But just a week before a new president takes office, many Cubans are unconvinced leaders from the lost generation will be able to fix the problems they have inherited from the founders of communist Cuba,” noted the AP.
The ball will now be in the court of am aging generation of leaders that have never been allowed to make policy suggestions or strategies of their own. The world and the Cuban people, especially the diaspora, will be watching the direction they take.
Featured Image Courtesy of the Associated Press