The two young men leaned on their bikes outside a school in the Marianao neighborhood of Havana, sheltering under trees from the scorching afternoon sun, eager to talk about what they don’t like about Cuba.
Raidel wanted a better job, complained that the Cuban peso is worthless and was upset that his pal Levis can afford to buy Adidas sneakers worth $50.
Raidel is 26, earns 320 pesos a month, the average salary in Cuba, and gives part of his meager salary to his divorced mother.
At the exchange rate of 26 pesos to the dollar, Raidel calculated it would take at least 10 months working in his job with an extermination company to save up for the shiny footwear.
Levis, 19, wore his sneakers proudly, status symbols in a communist country awash in Western influences.
The government-run dollar stores are filled with fashionable shoes, clothes and electronic items, all with hefty price tags and beyond the means of most Cubans.
The stores aim to bolster the government's access to foreign currency, but they have created a growing gulf between the haves and the have-nots.
Levis said economic problems have stacked the odds against him and other young Cubans.
He didn’t buy the sneakers with his salary at a government-run produce warehouse — he also earns around 320 pesos, or $12 a month.
Instead, he sells some of that produce on the black market to earn dollars, brazenly breaking the law to feed his appetite for some glamour.
Despite his illicit gains, Levis is far from content. “I would like to change everything,” he said. “I would like to go to another country, get a better life.”
At Parque Central in another part of the capital, Humberto Montayas lamented mounting inequality. “I think that it’s exploitation that I’m being paid in one currency and most of the goods are in dollars,” he said.
The 38-year-old said he quit his job as an engineer because of the low pay. He said black Cubans like himself faced the brunt of the hardships because most of those who went into exile — and could now send dollars to their families — were white.
“We have been making sacrifices for 45 years and we've got nothing,” he said.
Sound of silence
It’s not really difficult to find dissenting voices in Cuba. From disaffected youth to artists and the political opposition, there is anger, of various degrees, at the policies imposed by Fidel Castro.
What you can’t hear is any of that fury in the media.
The government owns all the newspapers, TV, Web sites and radio stations in Cuba, and only trusts party loyalists in top editorial positions.
This stranglehold means there is no way of gauging the scale of opposition to Castro, the longest-serving leader in the world.
People in Havana grumble about their salaries, the pothole-ridden roads, the crumbling public transportation system, the daily power cuts, the lack of basic products on the store shelves, the dual economy caused by the influx of dollars.
But few will point the finger at Castro, and most will at least partly blame the 43-year-old economic embargo imposed by the U.S. government.
"We have everything we need, although we have a lot of problems that come from the U.S. embargo,” said Miguel, a resident of Habana del Este, a working-class neighborhood outside the capital. “But we enjoy our solidarity.”
Yeneli Martinez, lining up for desert at the famous Coppelia ice cream parlor near Havana University, was confident that she was getting all the news about Cuban life from the media.
Asked what she would to change in Cuba, she didn't hesitate, "The U.S. embargo; because then we would not have the problems we have now and a lot of things would be different."
Castro opponents in Florida and inside Cuba say the embargo is a non-issue, that unhappiness is widespread, but muted through terror.
“Cuban society has a sense of fear, mixed with hopelessness and lack of viable options in their minds,” said Camila Ruiz of the Cuban American National Foundation, the largest of the exile groups in the United States.
Listening to the people
Government officials, for their part, admit that life is hard, but say they are listening to the people.
“This social project [the revolution] has the support of the majority of the Cuban people,” said Gustavo Machin, head of the North American desk at the Foreign Ministry.
He said Castro and his ministers hear the complaints of ordinary Cubans through internal channels. He noted how the Cuban leader himself appeared on television recently to answer public anxiety over power cuts.
But Machin has no patience with the handful of opposition groups, those who get attention in the Western media but who are little heard in Cuba.
He defended the jailing of 75 dissidents last year — a move that drew stinging criticism from human rights groups — as a righteous response to provocation from people he sees as U.S. puppets.
“The main hope [of the United States] has been to destroy the revolution,” he said.
Overnight, the wives of some of those same dissidents held an open protest in Revolution Square. Not a word about the rare act of political defiance was reported in Cuba’s official media on Wednesday.
For many of the country’s reporters, that’s the way it should be. They justify the censorship in language that mirrors that of government officials.
Tubal Paez, head of the Cuban Journalists Union, said reporters face “special pressures” because of Washington’s ultimate aim of destroying Castro’s government.
“For the journalist himself, a psychological negative mechanism is produced so that he must be careful in case any information he writes could help the [U.S.] embargo,” Paez said.
Rogelio Polanco, head of Juventud Rebelde, the daily newspaper for Cuba’s young population, said lively debate was part and parcel of the country’s media.
But Polanco said there were limitations; his paper, like the rest in Cuba, supported the revolution and would never print an article advocating changes in the system.
“It would be naïve for use to give a weapon to our enemies, to the ones who want to destroy us.”