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New Book Explores Cuban Youth's Attitude Towards Che Guevara

Cuban American author Teresa Doval knows very well what it means to come of age in communist Cuba. Her memories of tilling fields of tobacco with her schoolmates in the 1980s to prove their dedication to the revolution inspired her novel, A Girl Like Che Guevara. Ms. Doval explores why her generation wanted to be like the Marxist revolutionary and the contradictions that that desire forced most of them to live with. Sixteen-year-old Lourdes is a proud revolutionary Cuban, excited about leaving her comfortable home in Havana for a four month work camp in Pinar del Rio.

"Lourdes starts out very committed to the revolution," explains Teresa Doval. "She is a daughter of a Scientific Communism professor at the University of Havana."

Author Doval says Lourdes, the main character in her novel A Girl Like Che Guevara, is a typical Cuban teenager. She idolizes Che Guevara, the Argentine-born revolutionary who fought to build communism in Cuba. But at the same time, she longs to wear smuggled Jordache jeans, watch American cartoons and eat steak whenever she wants to. Ms. Doval says Lourdes' experience at that summer work camp highlights the contradictions in her life.

"She sees things that don't look right to her," the author explains. "And things that happen between students and teachers are not the things that should happen. She is finally expelled from the camp because she finds out the principal is doing something inappropriate, and she denounces him. So by the end, she was ready to reconsider her values... political values and even moral values."

Gregorio Candelrio can relate to that feeling. The 41-year-old Cuban American has been living in Miami since 1993. He says it was hard for him - as for many of his generation - to realize that the ideology they believed in couldn't solve real world problems.

"We started to realize that the system was falling apart," he says. "The socialism or the communism was not what we were told. Nothing was functional. So after the end of the Soviet Union, around 1989, Cuba was left alone. We didn't receive anymore the free supply from the Soviet Union or other communist countries and the economy went down. In everybody's eyes the solution was, 'O.K. Castro is neither going to change nor going to introduce any major reform. So the solution is to get out of the country."

But Mr. Candelario says he never felt that he didn't want to be like Che.

"That never happened to me, even to this day I still believe that his message is still needed and the world still needs people like him," he says

Like Mr. Candelario, Teresa Doval joined her classmates in the daily pledge to be like Che Guevara." Unlike him, she stopped believing that.

"That was a big challenge to live up to the ideas of Che Guevara," she says. "And it was much more difficult later on when many of us realized that we really didn't want to be like Che. We didn't want to go to a foreign country and fight there or die there."

She says today's Cuban teens are facing the same contradictions.

"I mean they still have to say, 'We'll be like Che.' That has not changed," she adds. "We went to High School in the field camp from 45 days to three months depending on the agricultural needs. Now, the entire three years of the high school must be spent in the fields. And students go back only to visit their families twice a month. I think this is unfortunate because this is the time when kids are in a great need for guidance and support of their parents."

Gregorio Candelario agrees that most Cuban teenagers today need more than a revolutionary.

"In my view, I don't think there are as many people as during my time, that think that Che is that great icon and that they want to be like him," he says. "I think the new generation wants change."

When author Teresa Doval immigrated to the United States in 1994, she says she decided to leave Che Guevara behind. To her surprise, she found he didn't leave her. His face is displayed on T-shirts and posters sold around the United States. His journal of his motorcycle trip across South America as a young man has become a critically acclaimed new movie. So, 37 years after his death, on clothing, in theaters, and in bookstores… the legend of Che Guevara lives on.

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    Faiza Elmasry

    Faiza Elmasry writes stories about life in America. She wrote for several newspapers and magazines in the Middle East, covering current affairs, art, family and women issues.  Faiza joined VOA after working in broadcasting in Cairo for the Egyptian Radio and Television Corporation and in Tokyo for Radio Japan.