The only thing Damian shares with Karl Marx may be the thick beard. In everything else, the Havana engineering student is quite different from the German philosopher who wrote Das Kapital. And the main contrast between them is found in their ways of thinking because for this young man who enjoys sporting the lumberjack style – the “lumberjack” fashion is spreading through the capital – the last thing he wants to talk about is class struggle, historical demands or communism. “Who is for that?” he asks.
To judge by his tone, it seems few. Instead, youngsters like Damian and his girlfriend, or the friends with whom they usually meet in places like the Bertold Brecht café theater or the Cuban Art Factory, prefer to talk about European football leagues while drinking beer paid for in hard currency. Things like the 10 thCongress of the Union of Young Communists (UJC) appear nowhere in their conversations, despite the official propaganda that has been unleashed in an intense campaign about the event. According to the press permitted in Cuba, this “will be a congress that looks like Cuban youth.”
Adhering strictly to that maxim, for starters, a good part of the delegates to the Congress must come from abroad, given the number of people who are leaving Cuba. Of the almost half million who have emigrated in the last ten years, a high percentage are young people seeking opportunities that their country is incapable of offering them. Damian talks about that also, his desire to leave, and about something curious: the majority of his friends who have managed to do it used to belong to the UJC. “It’s a double standard,” he says. The most radical and exclusive leftist militants went on to live under “cruel” capitalism.
Nevertheless, the increasing emigration is a taboo subject in the current municipal assemblies preceding the big meeting of the young communists. According to a leader of the organization interviewed Monday on national television, such assemblies are in their final stage and from them must emerge a document with “the major problems raised” by their members then to be discussed in the “grass-roots committees.” Only then would topics be chosen for taking to the final Congress, and this via mechanisms perhaps too arbitrary, as usually happens in a country governed by an elite that stopped being young a long time ago.
Among those pre-Congress “proposals,” the leader said, “the transformations themselves of the organization” have prominence. Although there are also “recreation as a necessity,” and the ever greater challenges that globalized cultural consumption poses for “proper” values; or the search for fun spaces whose availability in Cuba now depends only on how much money – that beast that communism tried to eradicate with time – the customers are able to offer.
It is also said that other subjects from the official list will be youth employment and opportunities for study. This Congress will be carried out in a context in which the private sector is gaining appeal in the face of the previously omnipresent State and where university courses are of little use in earning a decent wage. The “updating of the economic model” has not prevented the phenomenon of labor migration from skilled positions to others of lower skill but greater remuneration.
One could not miss, among the “proposals made” that the communist leader mentioned, the “responsibility of the youth with respect to the continuity of the Revolution.” Something logical coming from one who defines himself as the “vanguard” of young Cubans and whose main function is indoctrination. “The UJC not only has the responsibility for the revolutionary and communist formation of new generations, but also (…) that the organization that represents them, directs them, guides them, and leads them towards each one of the transformations of our society,” said the interviewee in the morning report.
Accused of being elitist for assuming the right to speak on behalf of the broad spectrum of young society, the Union is demonstrating a lack of a monolithic nature that contrasts with the discourse of assured historical continuity. Rarely do ordinary Cubans hear on official television an expression of lack of trust in an institution that used to be sacred. This is the reason that the organization’s directors themselves are considering working more closely with the “youth universe,” a classification with which they usually refer to non-members.
The most novel feature about this Congress is the new landscape that emerged after December 17 and the consequent view of rapprochement with the United States, the preferred geographic destination of youth who, like the unbeliever Damian, pursue the dream of prospering outside of Cuba.
Belonging to the UJC is no longer a guarantee to access the state meritocracy. Even the most popular singers, even if they keep a prudent distance from the open political opposition, have never carried communist youth membership cards. What icons or deals does the UJC have to offer?
Traditionally, to be part of the organization meant an advantage for those who aspired to good recommendations in their records, obligatory for a university career or a job, the guarantee of belonging to a more favored caste. Today, with young Cubans competing to see who has the best cell phone, it is no longer like that. Without having been officially recognized, the principal enemies today of the Union of Young Communists are political apathy, the loss of its significance and its function as a social placeholder.
The tie to the UJC has turned into a stigma and even a cause of ridicule among youth. Young people often call its members “militontos” (member-idiots) in their private conversations. In a society where intransigence stopped being a virtue and everyone resorts to illegality in order to live, the role of the “correct” has lost too much impact and is even satirized by official media. “Who is for that?” Damian, who definitely “is not for that,” repeats over and over.
Translated by MLK