HAVANA – In a eulogy last week in Havana for his brother Fidel Castro, Cuban President Raúl Castro often saluted los jóvenes – young people. But it couldn’t hide the fact that communist Cuba is still run by much older people. Like Raúl, who’s 85.
Raúl has pushed limited economic reforms. But until he and his comrades known as “los históricos” are gone, deeper change in Cuba is likely to be slow – as Cubans like Kariel González are all too aware.
“We have to change. We have to evolve,” says González, a 35-year-old accounting professor at the University of Havana.
“I mean, the world has changed. Many young people here in Cuba they want to have a new, fresh revolution: freedom to speak freely, freedom to gather, the freedom of business, especially for the entrepreneurs – and access to the Internet. But they’re not allowed. The historical leaders are paralyzing the process.”
González also consults the same private Cuban entrepreneurs the U.S. is trying to promote. But he’s not a Cuban dissident – far from it.
“I support the revolution,” he says, referring to the regime Fidel Castro founded 57 years ago.
Last week, like millions of other Cubans, González went out to mourn Fidel Castro, who died Nov. 25, and he praised what he called the revolution’s social achievements. He was angry that Cuban-Americans in Miami celebrated Fidel’s death.
“When President Reagan was shot we did not enjoy that, have fun with that,” says González, “even though President Reagan was one of the greatest enemies of the Cuban Revolution.”
González belongs to a large cadre of Cubans, mostly but not all millennials, who support the revolution and reform.
Conservative communists in Havana and conservative anti-communists in Miami view them with suspicion. And they’re often accused of wanting it both ways – of too conveniently separating Fidel’s lofty socialist ideals from his brutal communist realities.
But they’re also a key bridge on the island. They can speak to the dire need for democratic change – and to the rigid leadership that pulls the levers.
“You can keep the achievements of the revolution, but you can have a market economy and the exchange of opinions,” says González. “The historical leaders, they have the idea that that’s bad, that’s going to destroy the revolution. And it’s not like that.”
“It’s hard for Americans to understand, but I still hold Fidel in high regard, if only because since I was born I was told what a god he was,” says a Havana doctor who has worked around the world on behalf of the revolution. “But this regime’s effectiveness expired years ago.”
Cubans like him feel especially anxious right now. In Cuba, Fidel’s death may prompt los históricos to become more hard-line. In the U.S., President-elect Donald Trump has pledged to cut off renewed relations with Cuba until Cuba produces more political change.
“I talked to one of the entrepreneurs I consult here in Cuba and he said, ‘It’s something incoherent,’” says González. “’The United States is promoting private business here. So if Trump closes that door, he would be against his own interests.’”
Many other reform-minded Cubans agree.
Like Caridad Limonta. The revolution allowed Limonta’s Afro-Cuban mother to work her way up from a hospital janitor to a registered nurse. Limonta became an economist – and one of the first female vice ministers of small industry in Cuba.
But then, five years ago, Raúl Castro opened the door wider to private entrepreneurship. Limonta quit the government and started a successful clothing business called Procle – largely because, having seen Cuba’s economic paralysis up close, she considers this Cuba’s future.
“I can’t separate my success as an entrepreneur from the preparation the revolution gave me – and the U.S. has to drop its economic embargo against us,” Limonta says. “But I do want my country to change and improve.”
Equally, she can’t understand why Trump would reverse U.S.-Cuba normalization.
“Why would he want to asphyxiate Cubans like me?” Limonta asks.
Limonta’s son, 25-year-old Oscar Matienzo, is her marketing man. Last summer he attended an entrepreneur program at Florida International University in Miami. Matienzo, too, says that between Trump's rise and Fidel’s demise, his generation feels as if it’s in a precarious limbo right now.
“Trump should realize private enterprise is helping Cuba change,” says Matienzo. “The Cuban government should realize this is a tool that will help the revolution achieve its goals.”
But chances are, both the regime and Trump will keep Cuba’s political and economic advancement on hold – at least until Raúl Castro leaves the presidency in about two years, most Cubans predict.
“After 2018 I think we’re going to see real changes,” says González.
If those real changes don’t happen, keep in mind the earliest Trump is slated to leave the U.S. presidency is 2021.