Cuba: Limited Opportunity Drives Migration

By Ricardo Torres*

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A generation of young Cubans is eager to leave the island because they feel that recent reforms have opened scant opportunities for them, and they see a much brighter economic future for themselves in the United States or Latin America. Cuba has made vast investments over the years in education, generating a population with high levels of human capital and technological potential, but job opportunities – in the declining state sector, in the 200 or so occupations now authorized for cuentapropismo, and in the slowly opening cooperative sector – hold little promise for Cubans under 30. Although statistics on the socioeconomic background of migrants are lacking, a strong body of anecdotal information indicates that this generation, with aspirations of a career that matches their intellectual and technical capabilities, is concluding that there is little for them in Cuba. For a number of reasons, the conditions necessary to start a new business – such as financing and markets – are simply not there.

Mainstream technologies that are now common in modern societies are lacking in Cuba, hindering it from unleashing the potential of its human capital. Inconsistent and excessively controlled access to computer technology and the internet is also discouraging youths to have hope. Free education, healthcare, and a low crime rate set Cuba apart from most other countries in the region producing large numbers of migrants, but those same factors have created expectations among youths that they should have fulfilling, better-paying jobs – which simply are not abundant. Moreover, people under 35 have fewer emotional or historical attachments to the Revolution. They did not experience the purported “Golden Age” of the 1980s, and the “revolutionary and socialist” Cuba they know is one of only economic hardship.

For migrants elsewhere in the region – driven by endemic poverty, violence, and weak, corrupt institutions – young Cubans’ reasons for leaving the island may appear exaggerated. Cubans’ education, health, and relative security, however, do not discount their profound desire, engendered in part by the Communist Party’s own unfulfilled rhetoric about a better life, to seek better fortunes outside their country. They have been trained for knowledge-based economy, but Cuba’s current development model relegates them to low value-added occupations that cannot generate the rewards to which they aspire (or the prosperity that the society needs and in principle could achieve). U.S.-Cuba normalization, particularly if the two governments allow capital and goods to flow freely, and accelerated reforms in Cuba hold some promise of reducing migration pressures from the island in the future, but persuading Cubans that building a better life on the island rather than emigrating elsewhere will take time and vision.

December 17, 2015

*Ricardo Torres, a CLALS Research Fellow, is Professor of Economics and Cuban economy at the University of Havana, and is affiliated with the UH’s Center for the Study of the Cuban Economy.

Brazil: Jailing the Youth

By Paula Orlando*

Brazilian Penitentiary System.  Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian Penitentiary System. Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

A push for legislation to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years could worsen court backlogs and overcrowding in Brazil’s notorious prisons.  According to the International Center for Prison Studies (ICPS), the country’s jails now hold the fourth largest prison population in the world, behind the United States, China, and Russia.  The Brazilian inmate population has doubled in the past ten years – from 296,919 people in 2005 to over 615,000 now – boosted by arrests of young and black people.  The Map of Incarceration, a study released this month by researchers at the Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCAR), shows that prisoners are increasingly between the ages of 18 and 29 (54.8 percent) and black (60.85 percent), with a growing presence of females (from 4.35 percent in 2005 to 6.17 percent in 2012).  The study also notes that the main reasons for arrest are crimes against property and “involvement in drug trafficking.”  Further, on average 38 percent – or four in every ten inmates – are awaiting trial.  According to a report by the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the wait times may vary from months to years – sometimes longer than the actual sentence for the crime committed.  Of the total jail population, over 18 percent would be eligible for alternative sentences, but they either haven’t gone to trial yet or the judges have opted for heavier sentences.

A group of hardline conservative legislators – the “bullet caucus” – is pushing aggressively for a law that would lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 and consequently place more youth in the already overcrowded adult jails.  Currently, the Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA) establishes that those between 12 and 17 years of age who committed a crime should be sent to juvenile centers, and for a maximum of three years.  The proposal to lower the age has received overwhelming popular support. This support is generally based on the perception that minors commit more violent crimes because they are not currently accountable as adults – and that harsher sentences would deter them.  However, official data shows that, among those in the juvenile system, only 9 percent committed violent crimes.  On the other hand, homicide is the leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 15 and 29.  Out of the 56,000 yearly homicides, 30,000 victims are young.  By crossing data from the Ministry of Justice and the 2014 Map of Violence, the report also debunks the popular perception that more arrests lead to safer cities.  On the contrary, just as incarceration grows, homicide rates have also steadily risen in the country.  According to press reports and other observers, there’s a good chance the legislation will move forward in the next few weeks.

Since the bill amends the Brazilian Constitution, it must pass both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate with at least two-thirds of the votes.  In addition to increasing youth incarcerations, if passed, the initiative will undermine the 1990 Child and Adolescent Statute, considered a landmark by children’s rights advocates.  It will further remove the state from its responsibility for the protection and education of the youth, essentially eliminating any chance of youths’ rehabilitation while broadening the “school-to-prison pipeline” that envelopes many.   Moreover, passage of this reform, under the banner of law and order, will strengthen the ultra-conservative sectors – including some religious leaders and representatives of agribusiness – who already dominate the Brazilian Congress in an open crusade against social welfare policies and minority rights. 

 June 29, 2015

*Paula Orlando is a CLALS fellow and a PhD candidate at the School of Communication at American University.

Invisibility and Violence in Brazil

By Paula Orlando

Anistia Internacional Brasil / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Anistia Internacional Brasil / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Staggering statistics of violence in Brazil continue to make headlines in the country and abroad, but the invisibility of the victims and indifference toward them blunt the impact of the numbers.  According to the 2014 Map of Violence published by FLACSO-Brazil sociologist Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, 30,000 people between the ages of 15 and 29 – 77 percent of whom are black – are murdered in Brazil every year.  Additionally, the annual report of the widely respected Brazilian Public Security Forum indicates that in 2008-2013 the police killed at a rate of six people per day, while a research group at the Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCAR) found recently that 61 percent of those killed by the police in Sao Paolo State are black.  The absence of popular outrage over these facts is being addressed by a range of initiatives, and social media – of which Brazilians are avid users – are an important tool to this end.

  • Amnesty International’s newly launched campaign, Jovem Negro Vivo, uses social media to raise consciousness about the rates of violence and societal responses to it. One of the main parts of the campaign is a video showing a black teen traveling through his neighborhood and city, successively encountering other invisible people.  At the end, the teen faces a similar fate – death and invisibility.  The campaign questions the trivialization of violent deaths and society’s silence about it.  The campaign asks: “84 homicides per day.  Do you care?” And adds: “More shocking than this reality, just indifference.”
  • Rede Jovem, an internationally acclaimed NGO created in 2000, is conducting Projeto Wikimapa with collaborative technologies to identify neighborhoods, streets and services in communities that are invisible – that is, not shown on official maps – even though many are heavily populated. A number of local projects are redrawing the maps of various cities, including Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo.  The resulting maps, which can be accessed on the Web and handheld devices, expose communities’ rich social structures to the world.  Some of this work is presented in a new released documentary, Todo mapa tem um discurso – “Every map has a discourse.”

In a society in which significant numbers of communities and individuals are still invisible to the state and fellow citizens, violence is not surprising.  During the recent and run-off campaigns Dilma Rousseff met with grassroots leaders who demanded urgent action to end systematic violence against poor youth and police abuse.  She promised them that she would push further implementation of specific youth programs such as Juventude Viva, while also recognizing the need to continue confronting racism and start taking serious measures against police abuse.  Human rights organizations and community activists have pledged to hold her to her word.  Communication and technology tools – which activists used during protests last year to gather evidence of police abuse through crowdsourcing – can provide a boost to citizens and activists in reclaiming public spaces and demanding better social services. Creating inclusive and participatory maps, for example, facilitates postal service, the allocation of resources, and the implementation of programs such as cultural and after-school activities that help protect vulnerable youth.  Further, the use of collaborative media technologies has the potential – over time – to reduce invisibility and bring society closer to dealing with the tragedy of the violent deaths of thousands of people every year.

November 25, 2014

Mexico: Missing Demographic Opportunity

By Yazmín A. García Trejo

Javier Armas / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Javier Armas / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Mexico appears to be squandering a historic opportunity to take advantage of the “demographic bonus” represented by its surge in working-age citizens.  The Mexican government estimates that about 32 percent of the Mexican population today is between the ages of 12 and 29 years.  During this demographic bonus, a disproportionate percentage of the population enters the workforce—compared to those who are retired or nearing retirement—and drives economic growth.  Workers passing through this demographic window of opportunity are supposed to generate wealth that will help support a soon-to-be-aging population.  These opportunities don’t come around twice: age profiles in developing countries change quickly, and societies need to make the most of those few years during which the economically active population far surpasses that of the economically dependent.  The portrayal of Mexico as a young country in the media and the adoption of labor reforms in 2012 brought an initial optimism about its ability to take advantage of this bonus, but the current state of affairs casts a shadow over the potential of its young population.  According to a new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), Education at a Glance 2014 Report, 22 percent of people between 15 and 29 years old in Mexico are neither employed nor in education or training.  These “ni-ni’s” represent a demographic bust because of a lack of jobs.

The lack of employment also influences young Mexicans’ attitudes toward education.  According to the OECD, even high educational attainment is not a guarantee of employment in Mexico.  A 2012 report by the McKinsey Center for Government found that only half of educated young people in Mexico believe that their post-secondary education has improved their job prospects.  According to a National Survey of High School Dropouts in 2012, moreover, many young men leave high school to contribute to their households’ finances, and young women quit to take on family responsibilities related to marriage and pregnancy.  Once out of school, they have no option but to participate in low productivity niches of the informal economy—severely reducing the benefits that their entry into the labor market could bring to the national economy.

The fate of young people has profound implications for Mexico’s economic future.  Without a comprehensive plan to expand employment opportunities and access to higher education that enables youth to flourish and lead Mexico into a new stage of development, Mexico will find itself a generation from now with the demographic profile of a developed country—with an aging population producing less but needing more care—but with a middle-income level of wealth.  Budgets will be stretched, and social tensions could be great.  Many of the most capable young people will leave the country for better opportunities.  Young Mexicans appreciate what’s at stake and are using the tools at their disposal to make their voices heard. Lately, student movements have attracted international attention using social media, but it’s far from clear whether the Mexican government and political, economic, and social elites are listening and have the vision necessary to avoid a crisis.

November 4, 2014