For Cuba, a Harsh Self-Assessment

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HAVANA -- There was a time, Alexi remembers, when life in Cuba was simpler. People dressed properly. Children respected their elders. Stealing was stealing.

"My father brought me up with a strict set of values," said Alexi, 46, an unemployed chauffeur from a gritty quarter of the capital. "But that has been lost."

So Alexi had little to argue with this month when President Raúl Castro unleashed his fiercest and lengthiest public lecture to date on the demise of Cuban culture and conduct. In a speech to the National Assembly, Mr. Castro said that Cubans' behavior -- from urinating in the street and raising pigs in cities to taking bribes -- had led him to conclude that, despite five decades of universal education, the island had "regressed in culture and civility."

Cubans build houses without permits, catch endangered fish, cut down trees, gamble, accept bribes and favors, hoard goods and sell them at inflated prices, and harass tourists, Mr. Castro said.

And that is just the start: Islanders yell in the street, curse indiscriminately, disturb their neighbors' sleep with loud music, drink alcohol in public, vandalize telephones, dodge bus fares and throw stones at passing trains, the president lamented.

"They ignore the most basic standards of gentility and respect," Mr. Castro continued. "All this is going on under our noses, without provoking any objection or challenge from other citizens."

"I have the bitter sensation that we are a society that is ever better educated, but not necessarily more enlightened," Mr. Castro said.

His scathing assessment resonated with many Cubans, who bemoan the rise in petty corruption and uncouth behavior, nostalgic for the days when a state salary was enough to live on without needing to pilfer, and Cuba's education system garnered international praise.

But while Mr. Castro rebuked his countrymen for losing their "honesty, decency, sense of shame, decorum, honor and sensitivity to others' problems," many Cubans accused the government of clinging to an unworkable economic system while the country's infrastructure and social services crumbled and, with them, the people's sense of communal duty.

"He should have taken responsibility," said Alexi, who asked that his full name not be used because he was discussing the Cuban leadership.

Cubans' morals had been broken, he said, by the "special period" of severe economic hardship that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, when many people resorted to stealing, scams and, in some cases, prostitution to get by. Standing shirtless outside his small house, Alexi pointed to his 24-year-old son, fixing a hubcap on the sidewalk.

"How could I raise him with the same morals, when just to put rice, beans and pork on the table requires all kinds of illegalities?" he said. "I had to teach him the values of survival."

In her cramped, airless apartment downtown, Rosa Marta Martínez, 65, agreed.

"What do you expect?" said Ms. Martínez, who shares the only bedroom with two grandchildren and a great-grandchild. "People have housing problems. Food prices are high. They are desperate."

In Ms. Martínez's dilapidated building, the thump of reggaeton, which has replaced timba, a form of Cuban dance music, as the national soundtrack, blasted from across the street. Residents said children played in the corridors until late at night and neighbors crashed about at all hours and ignored their complaints. In the nearby streets, garbage was piled on the curb beside empty trash bins.

Still, Havana has avoided the rampant crime and drug violence that plague many Latin American -- and American -- cities. And in spite of complaints about deteriorating manners, many Cubans maintain a sense of community and remain close to family, sharing food or helping out friends and neighbors.

Many Cubans, though, like Miguel Coyula, an expert in urban planning, worry that an entire generation of Cubans has known nothing but the warped economics and privations of the post-Soviet period.

Beyond that, he said, the "inverted social pyramid," in which a doctor earns less than a manicurist, is becoming more pronounced as small-scale entrepreneurs, using the openings Mr. Castro has made to introduce some private enterprise, make money selling pizzas or mobile handsets.

"The money is not in the hands of the most educated," Mr. Coyula said.

Katrin Hansing, a professor of anthropology at City University of New York, who has studied Cuban youth, said growing up in an environment where cheating and duplicity were a way of living had bred cynicism.

"This cynicism feeds into people's lack of engagement," she said. "Individual responsibility toward the collective is very low."

Youth feel alienated from the aging leadership, she said. "There is a very visual discrepancy between who is running the show and who's living it," Dr. Hansing said. Young people "are living in a parallel universe."

Across town from Ms. Martínez's building, Juan, 19, a veterinary student, was spitting on the head of a crocodile at the downtown zoo. The crocodile did not look pleased. Crumpled soda cans, tossed by passing visitors, floated in the scummy water around its snout.

"I just wanted to see if it moved," said Juan, who refused to give his last name when asked about his comportment, adding that many people his age had no interest in education or working hard.

"It's all about clothes, nice sneakers, reggaeton," he said. "Have you heard the lyrics? Very vulgar."

Cuba sets great store by its cultural prestige. After the 1959 revolution, the government set out to purge the decadence that made Havana a magnet for Americans, among others. The state started a national literacy campaign, offered free education to all and established rigorous sports, ballet and music programs.

In a land where moralizing axioms shout from murals and billboards, even some televisions -- including Ms. Martínez's government-issued one -- are programmed to display the saying, when switched on, that "to be cultured is the only way to be free."

But Cubans complain that sliding professional standards, inexperienced teachers who are barely older than their students and a lack of public facilities have helped corrode people's civic-mindedness.

"There is nowhere around here for a kid to play soccer or chess," said Yusaima González, 22, Ms. Martínez's granddaughter, of the noisy warren of streets where she lives. While she talked, her 3-year-old son played ball in the grimy hallway outside.

"Young people needed places to dance, play or listen to music," she said. "Somewhere you can feel part of something."

In his speech, Mr. Castro proposed a combination of education, promotion of culture and enforcement to restore the country's civility. He called on workers' unions, the authorities, teachers, intellectuals and artists, among others, to hold other Cubans to standards of behavior.

Ms. González, however, believes that penalizing small infractions would only open the gap between young people and the authorities. The police fined her brother, 14, about $2 two years ago for playing soccer in the street without a shirt, she said.

"Imagine, fining a 12-year-old," she added.

And scolding young Cubans only further alienates them, some Cubans and experts said.

"What would be great is if the powers that be take this and turn it into an open discussion in Cuban society," Dr. Hansing said.

Rescuing Cuba's cultural values was "not a lost cause," she said. "But it will take a generation, at least."

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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