For 12 years the government allowed a march through the streets in support of L.G.B.T.Q. rights. This year, the regime ordered its cancellation. Nevertheless, I and a group of friends joined others in May and peacefully walked seven blocks before a cordon of police officers violently shut down the march. The confrontation was just another example of a great dichotomy in Cuba, an island divided — and threatened — by age.
Sixty years after the revolution, young Cubans like myself and my friends must decide whether to leave the island to avoid suffering the consequences of dictatorship — authoritarianism, repression and a failed economic model — or stay and push for change. For about 17,000 a year between 2008 and 2016, the decision was to go.
The Castro revolution and the regime’s perennial leaders have grown old together. Today, Cuba faces the quandary of having the largest population of people 60 and over in Latin America. According to data from the National Office of Statistics and Information, by 2030 almost one-third of the population will be at least 60.
The Cuban system never departed from the orthodox doctrines it inherited from the former Soviet Union. The fact that young Cubans are fleeing is an undeniable defeat for the Castro regime. It also means we are facing a future in limbo: Either the dictatorship falls, or the island will become a nation of elderly people.
In raising our voices, we can see a future of possibilities.
The arrival of public Wi-Fi in 2015 resulted in internet connectivity for 56 percent of the island’s 11.2 million people. The internet has reconfigured society by allowing citizens to express themselves freely on its platforms and feel empowered. An alternative to the official voice imposed for years has emerged. Dissent is moving beyond the online world and materializing in real life.
The first evidence of a civil society taking shape appeared in January, when a tornado devastated several Havana municipalities. The country’s population, without the consent of the political party that controls all aspects of life in Cuba, turned out in droves to the affected areas to show solidarity with the victims and provide assistance.
Then, in February, the first constitutional referendum in 43 years was held. Despite the government’s broad campaign promoting the “Yes” vote, more than two million Cubans voted “No,” abstained or left their ballots blank.
Other small acts of insurrection have followed. Hundreds of people marched to demand a law to protect animals and punish their mistreatment. Ecological groups have taken to social networks to organize cleanups of public spaces. Arbitrary arrests, kidnappings and harassment of independent journalists, opposition figures and civil society activists by the government no longer go unnoticed. But these demonstrations of civic advocacy are still rare.
It’s very difficult to plan for life in a nation where the basic salary is around $30 a month, where the government issues decrees to regulate everything from artistic expression to the number of tables and chairs that a restaurant can have, and where a person is fortunate to find toilet paper at the market.
The United Nations International Organization for Migration reports that 1,558,312 Cubans currently reside elsewhere. The history of the revolution has been one of exodus — this is true of all Cubans, but especially of young people.
Not even President Barack Obama’s repeal of the “wet foot, dry foot” policy in 2017 could stop the flow. Cubans may no longer throw themselves into the sea on rafts in hopes of reaching the Florida coast, but they continue to emigrate: A majority of those who flee take on the risky adventure of surrendering themselves to Central American smugglers — coyotes — to arrive at the border posts of Mexico and, from there, pursue the American dream.
Fidel Castro once said that “being internationalist means paying our own debt with humanity.” Paradoxically, the revolution ended up fulfilling the dictator’s wish: Cuba has become one of the world’s largest exporters of human capital. The country gives its professionals free access to education at its universities, but not the freedom to have a career or express themselves without violence.
Cuba’s generational divide threatens to grow. Without the capacities and contributions of young people, it’s impossible to imagine a way out of the systemic crisis that the country is experiencing. By robbing the island of its future, the octogenarian leaders will be left with no successors.
Those of us who stay must maintain an open struggle against an authoritarian government. The only way to change the future is to keep raising our voices and march against the long-lived revolutionary system.
Abraham Jiménez Enoa is a journalist and the director of El Estornudo. This article was translated from the Spanish by Erin Goodman.