Miguel Hernandez kneels on the floor of his workspace at the Jose Marti Experimental Studio at the edge of the Avenida del Presidente, central Havana’s main tourist drag, spraying stencils of the Shell Oil logo onto his oil painting of an old-style diver.
“The oils come from my study of art history, and the logos are because I studied advertising,” said the 30-year-old art teacher. “Cuban art is apocalyptic: We gather up those parts of the outside world that wash up on our island, and combine them with our own island identity.”
As President Obama settled in for a milestone three-day visit to the island — the first by a sitting U.S. president since Calvin Coolidge in 1928 — Mr. Hernandez showed exceptional enthusiasm for Cuban art.
Most of the other young people on the island of 11 million say they want to leave.
“It’s very stagnant here,” said accounting student Bryan Ponce, 17, who cut a forlorn figure as he sat in the Plaza de las Armas park after class. “My plan is to get out of here as soon as I can, anyway. I’ll move to Madrid. My father’s there, and eight years is a long time to be without your dad. Plus, people live better in Europe, and I want to see [soccer superstar] Lionel Messi play.”
Cuba’s heavily managed economy, however, means foreign travel visas are hard to come by. Restrictions are also in place for internal migration from the poorer countryside to the more vibrant capital. It also means that while many wish for a change in the political system, they don’t dare to hope for one anytime soon. They express a hope that somehow Mr. Obama’s visit will open the country to new opportunities.
“I hope his visit means an economic advancement for us,” Mr. Ponce said, raising his voice over the noise of renovation works that were part of the feverish preparations for Mr. Obama’s stopover.
Young Cubans display a striking tendency to stretch their means to the limit in pursuit of consumer goods from outside Cuba. Youths with smartphones cluster outside hotels and authorized WiFi spots, paying up to $5 for an hourlong drip-feed of data.
Others buy $2 USB sticks — packed with downloaded torrents of movies, TV series and music — from those with open Internet access. Brand-name goods such as Converse shoes can cost twice what they would fetch in other countries and still find avid buyers, while the skateboarders hopping stacked shoe boxes outside the Prado Gallery wince when asked about the prices of their boards, which are brought in by visitors to the island and resold in the informal economy.
“I work 14 hours a day as a porter at a hospital, and I can’t do anything. I just skate; it’s too expensive to go to clubs,” said Gabriel Iglesias, 19. “As soon as I can afford to, I’m leaving Cuba — I don’t care where. The important thing is to get out.”
Pushed by an average state wage of $20 per month and pulled by the lure of the unknown, young educated Cubans have been trying so hard to leave that Cuban authorities in December imposed a five-year waiting period on emigration for doctors.
A window was opened in January 2013, allowing Cubans to travel freely for the first time in a half-century. That caused a brain drain that seriously hurt the country’s much-vaunted health care system, according to a statement published in the state’s official newspaper, Granma.
Some worry that normalized diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba may mean the end of a policy offering naturalization to Cubans arriving in the United States.
The authorities clearly have their eye on Cuba’s worrying demographics. In addition to having the oldest population in all of Latin America, the country’s birthrate remains low, at 1.45 children per capita in 2012, according to the World Bank. Based on that projection, the organization predicts that almost 40 percent of Cuba’s population will be over retirement age by the time the country marks the centenary of its 1959 revolution — numbers that would stretch any health care system, socialized or not.
Nevertheless, many here are hoping things change, giving an opening to Washington and the rest of the world.
The normalization of relations between Cuba and the European Union is already having benefits for the country’s extensive social services. Enrique Gomez, 43, is the foreman on the building site of a 25-bed retirement home, which he says is funded by EU money, and which is due to open a year from now, “even though it looks like a demolition site at the moment,” he said with a laugh.
Cubans hope for a similar payoff as U.S. ties deepen, but express decidedly mixed feelings about what this will mean for their revolutionary history. Jorge, a 56-year-old taxi driver who would give only his first name, worked as an information technology professor until he was replaced by somebody younger. He hopes to rebuild his fortunes by ferrying U.S. tourists from the airport to their destinations.
Passing the Plaza de la Revolucion, though, with its illuminated murals of the revolutionary leaders Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos, he acknowledged with a smile that “those old stories still really excite me.”
“Fidel and Che, holes in their shoes, taking the boat from Mexico to Cuba — it’s wonderful,” he said. “But I don’t think there’s much for young people here now. My son works with me and studies at the same time. I want more for him than he has now.”
At the Jose Marti Experimental Studio, however, Mr. Hernandez, the art teacher, was far more sanguine about the future, regardless of what happens.
“I call it Obama’s ‘supposed proposal,’” he said. “If we open up, part of me is worried about Cubans getting in the same silliness as I see among tourists. They have access to this infinite library of movies and books on the Internet, and they take pictures of what they ate, pose with selfie sticks. That’s all young people will be doing soon.
“One thing that gives me hope is that Cuba is an island of resistance — from colonization to Batista to whatever it is Obama is bringing now, we’ve resisted, keeping our identity and critical intelligence,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to cultivate in kids here, so they don’t all have to leave.”