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On Fidel’s 87th, Talking Time

Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile

Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile

On Tuesday, Fidel Castro turned 87. The milepost is particularly significant for someone whose death has been foretold a thousand times: I recall the account of a journalist who carried a constantly re-drafted Fidel Castro obituary around with him for years, always certain that the time was near. And yet, despite illness and assassination attempts, he remains.

As years pass, time itself begins to feel weightier in Cuba. How many years to be ruled by Castros? How many years since the capital-R Revolution, or since the fall of the Soviet Union? How many years of the embargo?

The numbers increase, leaders age, and time stretches forward without a clear sense, for many, of what lies ahead.

On age and time, the gap is huge between leaders running the show and Cubans living the country’s realities: a majority of Cubans on the island today were born after the Revolution. An entire generation of Cubans has known only the Cuba of the post-Soviet period, with its attendant economic inefficiencies and privations.

I’ve heard it asked several times, particularly in recent months, why young Cubans are not more motivated — meaning angrier, more politically engaged, more likely to protest. Some ask whether we should expect a “spring” in Cuba.

Certainly there’s cynicism among the young. They have grown up in an environment where stealing from the state is part of what’s necessary to survive. They live in a country where the richest 1%, by a fluke stemming from the values of the revolution, are artists and musicians, and where doctors notoriously make less than taxi drivers.

Still, there’s also a general sense that focusing on day-to-day realities has to be the foremost concern. Young Cubans in their 20s are working on making ends meet, on bringing home enough money to support older relatives under the same roof.

They are, however, frustrated. They want to travel. They want economic opportunities and more options in their professional lives. A quadrilingual friend skipped his dream of becoming a professor in Cuba knowing that he had to earn enough to support his grandmother, and opted to lead tours of Havana instead.

But it’s more complicated than all of this. Because the values of the socialist revolution — free social services, equality of opportunities, and a cooperative ethos — are good, despite all of the imperfections and bastardizations along the way. If there’s a way to maintain that essence while cleaning up house, well, then that might be something worth having.

And the years beat on.

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Melissa Lockhart Fortner
Melissa Lockhart Fortner

Melissa Lockhart Fortner is Senior External Affairs Officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, having served previously as Senior Programs Officer for the Council. From 2007-2009, she held a research position at the University of Southern California (USC) School of International Relations, where she closely followed economic and political developments in Mexico and in Cuba, and analyzed broader Latin American trends. Her research considered the rise and relative successes of Latin American multinationals (multilatinas); economic, social and political changes in Central America since the civil wars in the region; and Wal-Mart’s role in Latin America, among other topics. Melissa is a graduate of Pomona College, and currently resides in Pasadena, California, with her husband, Jeff Fortner.

Follow her on Twitter @LockhartFortner.