Latin America & Caribbean

What does Cuba's youth think of US thaw?

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Media captionWill Grant spoke to young Cubans about the US thaw

Cuba and the US have begun to re-establish their relations following talks in Havana in January. Among the key decision-makers are some of the original leaders of the Cuban revolution, men who are now in their eighties. The BBC's Will Grant went to the first major youth rally since the changes were announced in December to ask what young Cubans make of the thaw.

Every year on the anniversary of his birth, Cuban students light a flame to the country's revered poet and independence hero, Jose Marti.

The March of the Torches is held at the University of Havana to commemorate a man who embodied the rebelliousness of Cuban youth.

At this year's event, the young people welcomed the announcement of a thaw with Washington.

"In the past, the two countries have had their problems, not between the people but our governments," says 18-year-old Daimara. "But now we can improve relations with the US and the whole world."

"It was about time!" her friend, Sandra, chimes in. "It's a step forward, a step towards better ties with everyone."

Image copyright Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Image caption The March of Torches is held every year at the University of Havana
Image copyright Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Image caption It commemorates Jose Marti, the country's revered poet and independence hero
Image copyright Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Image caption Students light torches to mark the day of his birth

Several theories have been put forward about why Cuba has chosen to take this diplomatic step with Washington now.

Some suggest it is largely driven by economic need, with the plummeting oil price affecting Cuba's principal benefactor - oil-rich Venezuela.

But others think there are social factors at play too, among them age.

Unlike Jose Marti, who was just 42 when he died on the battlefield, some members of the Cuban politburo are in their mid-eighties.

Recently, there have been signs that the Cuban leadership may be wary of losing touch with the country's youth.

It was noticeable that photos of former President Fidel Castro published last month showed him not with a visiting foreign dignitary or the Cuban Five, a group of Cuban spies imprisoned in the US and recently released, but with the head of a Cuban student union.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Randy Perdomo said the pictures were taken during a meeting on 23 January 2015

In an accompanying article, student leader Randy Perdomo described how Mr Castro recalled his own entrance into the University of Havana 70 years earlier.

It may have been partly a message about the continuity and longevity of the communist system in Cuba in the wake of the thaw.

Blogger Harold Cardenas explains why: "There's always the risk of losing the hearts and minds of the younger generations in every country in the world.".

"Cuba is no exception. It's a big issue here," he says.

Young, erudite and fluent in English, Mr Cardenas is part of a new Left on the island.

"Every different generation in this country has been formed in a different reality. So our priorities are very, very different," he says referring to issues like greater internet access and seeing new faces in the Cuban leadership.

'Young people want change'

Cuba's former consul to Washington, Jesus Arboleya, disputes the idea that the older generation of Cuban technocrats have held back the island.

"I honestly don't think that older people have put the brakes on change. In fact you can find young people who have much more conservative visions of the Cuban reality than their elders," he says.

He acknowledges that "young people want change" but thinks the politburo's collective age has been exaggerated.

"Public perception of the age of the Cuban leadership is erroneous. There are people in key roles who are undeniably much older, but directly beneath them are men in their fifties."

Cuban President Raul Castro has announced that he will step down in three years, with the younger vice-president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, widely expected to take over.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption President Raul Castro is expected to stand down in three years' time

"The baton will pass in 2018 and I'd half-expected the Americans to wait until then for talks," says Mr Arboleya.

Some also see a wider global problem of political fatigue at play.

"A lot of people are saturated with politics," points out Mr Cardenas. They're exhausted with it because there's a lot of bombastic political rhetoric here. I think that's very troubling."

Added to that indifference is the constant outward flow of young Cubans to the US.

The Cuban Adjustment Act guarantees Cubans preferential rights to become US residents - laws recently described by the Cuban government as a "reprehensible brain-drain practice".

Leandro Del Rey is scared of missing out on those rights and has decided to leave no matter what the thaw brings.

Image caption Leandro Del Rey says that he will leave Cuba regardless of the changes that the thaw may bring

"I'm not interested in staying," says the mobile phone repairman from his cramped Havana home.

"I'm 34 and don't have time to wait for these changes to happen. I have skills that I want to exploit and I can't do that here."

So how can the government dissuade people like him from leaving and to re-engage with the revolution?

For Mr Cardenas, the answer partly lies in the tone of the message.

"They should stop always talking about the past and should project to the future, so that people realise that this boat is going somewhere."

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