Young Cuban communists gather here this weekend to map a future without Fidel and Raul Castro amid a deepening economic crisis, generational apathy and disenchantment with the revolution.
The Union of Communist Youth has embraced a slogan of socialist continuity for its conference, which is held every five years.
“There will be no turnover, only continuity,” said Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, Cuba’s first vice president, in preparatory meetings for the conference, rejecting out of hand changes in the country’s socialist system.
But the gathering is being watched closely for signs of change because it precedes what even President Raul Castro concedes will be the last Communist Party conference headed by the revolution’s historic leaders.
Castro has exhorted the party’s youth to work hard to overcome a host of difficulties facing the country—a lack of productivity, entrenched bureaucracy, economic centralization, corruption and the global economic crisis.
Thousands of young Cubans do not work and show no interest in working, used to a paternalistic state taking care of them and turned off by salaries that amount to the equivalent of 20 dollars a month.
In a country of 11.2 million people with one of the oldest populations in Latin America
, an estimated 30,000 people emigrate each year to the United States or Europe, and most of those are young people in search of economic opportunities.
Having come of age during the crisis that engulfed Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union, young people here have been affected more than most by the hardships of daily life, the growing inequality and the “collapse of expectations,” a recent analysis in the party organ Juventud Rebelde said.
The revolutionary slogans and appeals that moved their parents provoke indifference at best in many young people, prompting the authorities to intensify ideological education.
The youth conference also comes at a time of political ferment over the death of dissident Orlando Zapata in a prison hunger strike over a month ago, which has aroused dissident protests and international criticism of the government’s human rights record.
“I think this is a moment in which the revolution, the life of the country, is crying out for a review of a bunch of things, a bunch of concepts and even institutions,” said Silvio Rodriguez, a singer-songwriter much admired by the young.
Upon assuming power in July 2006 after his brother Fidel fell ill, Raul raised expectations of changes, especially among younger members of the population demanding a greater role to play.
Governed for half a century by the old guard of the Cuban Communist Party, the country has no young leaders positioned to replace the Castro brothers’ generation.
Last year, the revolution’s only fresh faces—vice president Carlos Lage and foreign minister Felipe Perez Roque—were abruptly dismissed from their posts.
Liudmila Alamo, the first secretary of the Union of Communist Youth, said the survival of the communist system as the main challenge facing the country’s youth and called on them to confront “pseudo revolutionaries.”
With 600,000 members, the union is considered the “vanguard” of a youthful generation that will have the last word on the future of the island’s communist government.