Cuban 20-somethings brace for change

I wrote this piece for USA Today. It was published on Sept. 5. (See original version).

HAVANA — Natalie Baez tidies up the souvenir shop, dusting off wooden statuettes and straightening T-shirts as several Europeans glance inside.

“Have a look around,” says Baez, 21, waving them in. But the tourists don’t bite. Five hours into her shift, Baez has sold just one key chain for $1.10. Her commission: 11 cents, barely enough for a piece of gum. “No one’s buying anything,” she laments.

One of the more than 1.5 million 20-somethings in Cuba, Baez plans to stick around despite her low-paying job to see how this island nation — already on the verge of sweeping change — will evolve now that the United States and Cuba are restoring diplomatic ties after more than five decades of hostility.

Baez is optimistic about her prospects despite her current financial challenges. She dreams of finding success as an actress and buying a home. “Cuba is not going to be the same in five years, I’m almost sure,” she says. “Who knows, I’ll probably have my own house. I’ll be able to help my mother.”

Even before President Obama announced the renewal of diplomatic relations in December, Cuba was transforming. Now, private businesses — from restaurants to laptop repair shops — are springing up all over the capital of Havana, catering to Cubans who suddenly find they have money to spend.

“My life and the lives of everyone are going to change as this process moves ahead,” says Cuban journalist Jasan Nieves. “The landscape is still very gray,” but change is “inevitable.”

Nieves, 27, works at OnCuba, a monthly magazine with a ninth-floor office overlooking Havana’s famed seawall, the Malecon. Like other Cubans of his generation, he has never seen a prosperous Cuba. “My memories begin during a time of crisis. I don’t have any memories of a moment of economic prosperity in Cuba,” he says.

Nieves was born during the height of Cuba’s “Special Period,” a time of extreme hardship that began in 1990, after Cuba’s chief sponsor, the Soviet Union, cut off support. He has no memory of the 1959 revolution or the failed CIA-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion and welcomes normalized relations with the U.S.

“No one can imagine the country we will have in three years. Relations with the United States will never be normal,” Nieves says. The U.S. is “the epitome of capitalism and here they are trying to build a political system that is the antithesis.”

Musician Julio Cesar Oñate, 27, hopes for the day when Cuban and American artists travel freely between the two countries, and he meets an American music executive who can promote his work, which blends Jamaican dance hall and hip hop music. “My dream is to bring my music to the entire world,” he says. “Cuba is a source of unimaginable talent.”

Other 20-something Cubans are already feeling the impact of improved U.S.-Cuba relations. Business is up at spots such as Doña Eutimia, which made Newsweek’s 2012 list of the “101 best places to eat around the world.” “American tourism has been rising,” says Yasmany Navarro Lorenzo, 27, the restaurant’s headwaiter.

Recent visitors include singer Rihanna, who sampled the shredded lamb, the pork and the picadillo, made from ground meat, onions, tomatoes, raisins and other ingredients. “No one bothered her,” Navarro says. But he doesn’t expect that Havana will be a tranquil spot for celebrities forever. “Soon Havana will have its share of paparazzi,” he says.

Some Cuban officials are wary of capitalist ventures and the changes they are bringing to society. Young people shouldn’t be “dazzled by consumerism and beautiful things,” Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, second secretary of Cuba’s Communist Party behind President Raul Castro, said in a July 11 interview in the state-run newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth). He urged young Cubans to remember the “profound confrontation we have had with U.S. imperialism.” He added: “Socialism is the future. We are not bankrupt.”

Arelys Blanco, 22, doesn’t buy that. She belongs to the opposition group Las Damas de Blanco, (Ladies in White), whose members are routinely arrested by Cuban authorities after protest marches in Havana on Sundays.

“I’ve never agreed with this regime,” she says. “My dream is that Cuba be free, that there’s a total change, that we don’t live in misery anymore. There’s practically no food, there’s no money, nothing.”

Blanco says she’s been left with her hands cuffed behind her back for as long as six hours. “We go through a lot of pain, repression, abuse.”

Darian Reyes Fernandez, 28, has no interest in politics. He and his wife, Claudia, design web pages and mobile and desktop applications. They see great potential in online sales as more Cubans acquire wealth and more Americans visit the island.

Although most of his computer engineering classmates have fled the island, Reyes says he’s staying: “Most of our family is here. We don’t aspire to be rich or have that American dream. We just want to do our job well. And we like living in Cuba.”

In Old Havana, Baez works in the souvenir shop part-time only so she can pursue an acting career. Her latest role was as an agent on a popular Cuban police show, Tras la Huella (In Search of the Fingerprint). She earns just $10 per month for such parts but dreams of making it big in Cuba.

“I want to help my mother, who lives on the other side of the country and who has given me everything. She made me the kind of person I am,”

Baez said. “That’s what I want the most.”

Eaton traveled to Cuba with support from the non-profit Pulitzer Center.