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How to Think about Cuba: The Cuban Five and “El Sexto”

Today, there are five Cuban intelligence officers in U.S. maximum security prisons. In Cuba, they’re often referred to as “The Five Heroes” or “The Five Prisoners of the Empire.” “The Cuban Five,” as they’re called in the United States, were convicted in 2001 of espionage and conspiracy to commit murder.

The convictions are suspect. The Five had been in the United States to gather intelligence on Cuban exile groups, some of which had a history of violent acts against Cuba. One of the Five, Antonio Guerrero, worked in the metal shop of a U.S. naval base in Florida. According to his attorney, Leonard Weinglass, “Guerrero had never applied for a security clearance, had no access to restricted areas, and had never tried to enter any.” Nonetheless, the Five received sentences ranging from 15 years to double-life.

The story of the Cuban Five has sparked an international humanitarian campaign. Eight Nobel laureates, including South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, have called for their release. In Cuba, they’re household names. They likely occupy more government billboard space on the island than any other national figure, including Che Guevara, Raul Castro, Fidel Castro, and Jose Martí.

But in Havana, they’ve also inspired another prominent feature of the capital’s street scape. All over the city, spray paint scrawls reading “El Sexto” pepper walls, billboards, and other public surfaces. In English, it means “The Sixth."

Graffiti is present in Havana, but not ubiquitous. “El Sexto,” which appears to be the work of one person, may not be noticed by passerby or tourists—let alone understood. But most young Havana residents can explain what the cryptic scrawling means. Simply put, “The Sixth” is the sixth prisoner—after the Cuban Five—and this prisoner can supposedly be found on every Havana street. It’s a reference to the excessive controls the Cuban government places on the international travel of its citizens. As one young Cuban told me, “we’re prisoners in our own country.”

It’s all symbolic of the huge generational gap that exists in Cuba today. Support for the government, engagement in political life, and mobilization for causes like the Cuban Five are widespread among Cubans today who are over 30 or so years of age. But most Cubans who are 25-ish or younger are politically and socially disengaged from Revolutionary society, prompting such cynical displays as “El Sexto.”

Why the fissure? Older Cubans matured in the glory days of the Revolution, when almost all of the Cuban populace was electrified by the Revolutionary process, and its major achievements in human development and social justice. But then Eastern European socialism collapsed, and with it 85 percent of Cuba’s foreign trade. The crisis beginning in 1990 was termed the “Special Period,” and the consequences were devastating. Gasoline shortages were the norm. Gross domestic product fell by 30 percent. And the average Cuban lost between 20 and 25 pounds.

Things aren’t so dire today, but Cuban youth haven’t known anything except the Special Period, during which many of the Revolution’s lofty social goals were deferred in favor of economic survival. This made its mark on young Cubans. According to a 2004 RAND Corporation report:

“The regime’s Special Period accelerated the widening distance between the state and youth as heightened austerity not only crushed personal aspirations and rendered accomplished skills useless but also contradicted the socialist and nationalist ideals that youths had absorbed.”

RAND quotes a saying that was reportedly popular among youth in the 1990s: “I neither believe in communism, nor in socialism, nor in capitalism. I [only] believe in me-ism.” It’s an apt expression of the political apathy of many young Cubans. While young Cubans don’t support the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, they’re far less likely than older generations to mobilize for such causes. They’re far less interested in the accomplishments of octogenarian leaders like Fidel Castro, and far more concerned with the irrelevance of government rhetoric in their daily lives. “El Sexto” captures this disinterest and cynicism in perfect microcosm.

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