Young Americans Embrace Socialism as Young Cubans Become Entrepreneurs
Young Americans Embrace Socialism as Young Cubans Become Entrepreneurs
By Christopher J. Cloonan
As polls show young Americans are increasingly embracing socialist ideas, fueling the rise of Democratic Socialist candidates across the nation as an answer to the economic struggles of their generation, young Cubans are embracing entrepreneurship as the solution to their economic challenges. It is the young people of both countries, both witnesses to and victims of the failures of their respective economic systems, that push the economies of their long adversarial countries in opposite directions, ironically closer to one another. As noted in Michelle Goldberg’s New York Times op-ed The Millennial Socialists Are Coming, the oft-maligned Millennial generation of Americans grew up with no memory of the collapse of Communism across Europe. It grew up during the Great Recession, and left college with a record amount of debt, and with degrees that often can’t get them a job in their field, leaving those young Americans struggling to pay back their student loans. They also struggle to afford healthcare and rent as they remain part of the both the most underpaid and most educated generation. Socialism, once taboo in American politics, has become more attractive as American capitalism has continued to fail a growing number of struggling Millennials, denying the opportunities once afforded to previous American generations. Young Cubans, on the other hand, grew up with no memory of the socialist glory days of the 1980s, when the Cuban economy was subsidized by the Soviet Union and Cuba enjoyed its highest standard of living. They also grew up with no memory of life before the Revolution (which triumphed in 1959), never knowing a life without access to healthcare and education. Young Cubans grew up during the nightmare of the 1990s, known as the Special Period. The collapse of the Soviet Union led to an economic catastrophe in Cuba, which brought the sight of rafters fleeing to South Florida and the Cuban people struggling to feed themselves or keep the lights on. Though still proudly nationalist, young Cubans are the least Revolutionary generation yet, as they take the Revolution’s achievements for granted while lamenting the harsh economic struggles they’ve been raised in. Unlike some young Americans, convinced their right to vote gives them power within their democracy, young Cubans are apathetic to their one-party system in which they have no real say unless action is taken as a collective. Young Cubans are focused on putting food on the table and living a good life spent with family. Young Americans view the future dimly, as a generations-long struggle for economic (among other) justice to be achieved through the ballot box, while struggling in their personal lives to find a way to succeed with the deck stacked against them. Young Cubans have no such worries, knowing change will come slow-and-steady to their island. Their outlook long-term is bright. Cuba’s economy will improve as freedoms continue to expand under their new president and constitution, and relations with the United States likely improve once American President Donald Trump leaves office. Young Cubans do face struggles that young Americans do not: Store shelves that are rarely full. Crumbling infrastructure. Special treatment for foreigners and discrimination against Cubans in their own country. A highly bureaucratic system that, as many Cubans say, finds a problem for every solution. Cuba’s economy struggles under heavy US sanctions and low wages
in a public sector that employs most of the country. Cubans are forced to live off a thriving black market for nearly anything they need. Entrepreneurs also deal with a lack of practical access to any type of credit, forcing many to call on wealthy relatives abroad for under-the-table seed money to start their businesses. Cubans also do not have the same freedoms Americans do: of the press, assembly, to bear arms, or to directly elect the country’s top political leaders, among others. But it’s what Cuba does have that allows its young people to be optimistic about its future and feel for the first time a reason to want to stay and build their lives on the island. The Cuban Revolution, for all its faults, including a dark but improved human rights record, provides the Cuban people a base from which they can survive. Even for a fully-developed country, but particularly for a developing one, Cuba has a remarkable lack of homeless, starving, uneducated, or sick without access to medical care. For Cubans, becoming a cuenta propista (small-business person) is possible now partially because the Cuban people bear very little, if any, costs for their education, housing, healthcare, and other basic needs. They can invest their relatively meager financial resources into their businesses. This structure is why the Cuban government pointedly says it is not “transitioning to capitalism”, rather it is “updating socialism”. Young Cubans, without the burden of debt borne by their American counterparts, can start their businesses knowing their basic human needs will be taken care of by the state. Young Americans, living in a country where far more material goods and financial resources are available, are stuck delaying major life events such as marriage or starting a business or even moving out of their parents’ homes, as they feel like they are getting crushed by American capitalism’s student-debt structure (among other debts), bearing much of the costs and reaping few of the rewards of the economic system in which they live. What struggling young Americans want is to have the same economic opportunities as previous American generations and in many ways the same opportunities that young Cubans have, although obviously without the same constraints their Cuban counterparts must deal with. What young Cubans wish for is to have the economic and material resources available to their American counterparts, though without the same crushing debt or high costs young Americans are forced to endure. Notably, Cubans of all ages do not wish the chaos of American-style democracy onto their island; just as Americans, while more open to specifically “democratic” socialism, do not wish a Cuban-style political system in the United States. After decades of older generations bring entangled in a Cold War standoff, each side labeling the other as an enemy abroad, it is now the young people of both countries that look to import the successes of the other to solve their respective problems. But perhaps the biggest shame is that largely due to the US embargo, called el bloqueo (the blockade) in Cuba, is that American and Cuban counterparts will face considerable restrictions in learning such lessons from each other for the foreseeable future, as the American government restricts travel to Cuba by its citizens to a handful of approved categories, and has suspended most visa applications for Cubans. When previously allowed to apply, Cubans faced the highest denial rate in the world, at 82%, largely due to the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, which allows Cubans to legally stay in the US once they arrive with a visa.
Coincidentally, and perhaps with some irony, it may end up being the young socialist Millennials who are the ones to lift the Cuban embargo, allowing young Cuban entrepreneurs to more fully embrace capitalism as the structure of the two economies grow closer.