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
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
``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
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
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
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
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
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
Brito said. ``But officials threaten them with the dossier.''
So they play along.
One morning this June, hundreds of students were gathered at the
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
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:
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.