The Miami Herald
August 6, 2000

 Political rallies on kids' agenda

 Elián case kept 'Pioneers' busy


 The Cuban government will likely remember this past school year as a banner
 year for Pioneros, Cuba's national organization for children.

 It was the year that thousands of Pioneros rode to the capital to demand the
 return of their most famous colleague: Elián González.

 But Roberto De Miranda, president of the dissident Independent Teachers
 Association, will remember it as one of the worst in recent memory -- because of
 those same rallies, coupled with a scarcity of teachers and school supplies and
 deteriorating buildings.

 ``There were many lost school days,'' he said. ``We ask ourselves how the Cuban
 government has found so much money for gas, T-shirts and banners, instead of
 spending it on education.''

 To that, Havana might reply that political rallies are part of children's education.
 The first order of business when a child enters first grade is to make him a

 In a small ceremony, the children are given uniforms and blue kerchiefs. Each
 becomes a ``Moncadista,'' in commemoration of Fidel Castro's failed 1953 attack
 of the Moncada Barracks, which launched his revolution.

 It is then they learn the Pionero salute, five fingers pointed upward at the top of
 the forehead to symbolize the precedence of community over self. They learn their
 motto: ``Pioneers for Communism! We will be like Che [Guevara, the late
 revolutionary icon]!''

 As middle-school children, they become ``José Marti'' Pioneers and don a red
 scarf. The pressure increases for them to engage in political activities such as
 rallies, marches and actos de repudio -- government-sponsored, often violent
 harassment of dissenters.

 At 16, Pioneros are eligible to join the Communist Youth Union, a prelude to
 joining the Cuban Communist Party and virtually the only way to get into college.

 Pioneros' main teaching: vigilance and preparedness.

 ``The enemy is always imperialism,'' De Miranda said. ``Kids are getting ready for
 an invasion that has never come.''

 But children often join for the perks: pool trips, road trips, food.

 Outstanding Pioneers get to go to Pioneer Palaces.

 The Palaces, elite campuses where children are taught vocational and military
 skills, were the focus of a German-produced documentary, Planet of the Children,
 shown at the Miami Film Festival last year.

 In the documentary's haunting final sequence, middle-school children engage in
 an elaborate mock battle after an imaginary invasion. Pioneros, like high school
 students, get hands-on training with weapons, and are taught military tactics
 through games outlined in the Pioneers Manual.

 If children aren't active Pioneros, it's noted year after year on their dossier.

 ``Nobody points a gun to kids' heads to do these things,'' Havana parent Lázara
 Brito said. ``But officials threaten them with the dossier.''

 So they play along.

 One morning this June, hundreds of students were gathered at the Havana
 Amphitheater for an elementary-school graduation ceremony.

 Girls in purple leotards danced. Children sang songs.

 Then a classmate took the stage.

 ``Today is an important day,'' the young boy said. ``Because Elián has returned to

 Mimicking the dozens of speeches broadcast on TV and radio by Cuban officials
 and Castro, the boy railed against the U.S. embargo, which has ``caused so
 much pain,'' he said, and the Cuban Adjustment Act ``which has lured so many to
 risk their lives at sea.''

 His colleagues barely seemed to notice. Their chatter echoed in the coral rock
 amphitheater. They autographed each other's state-issued white uniform shirts as
 an end-of-the-year tradition.

 But that changed when the boy uttered the final words of his speech: ``Pioneers
 for communism!''

 The students, in their Pioneer neckerchiefs, jumped to their feet and threw their
 hands to their head in a salute.

 ``We will be like Che!'' they yelled back.