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Meeting Cuba's youngest politician

By Michael Voss
BBC News, Havana

Liaena Hernandez with her consitutuents in Manuel Tames, Cuba
Ms Hernandez believes communism serves her constituents well

As Cuba prepares to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Fidel Castro's revolution on 1 January, most of those in power are the same people who fought alongside him half a century ago.

Fidel's brother Raul Castro, 77, is now president and he chose 78-year-old Machado Ventura as his number two.

But there is a new generation of communists waiting in the wings.

The majority of deputies elected to the national assembly, or parliament, earlier this year were born after the revolution.

The youngest, Liaena Hernandez, is just 18 years old. A petite young woman with long black hair and an engaging smile, she has been a political activist since her early teens.

We first met during a coffee break at the last national assembly meeting.

"Having young Cubans in parliament shows that the revolution continues. It isn't just something from our history," she told me. Ms Hernandez comes from Guantanamo province at the eastern end of the island.

I was born with the revolution, I've never known capitalism
Liaena Hernandez

Her father is in the army and she has just completed her voluntary military service as a border guard in an all-female unit along the controversial US naval base at Guantanamo Bay.

She was born just as Cuba's main benefactor, the Soviet Union, collapsed.

What followed was called the special period, a time of hunger and hardship. The United States also tightened the trade embargo believing it would hasten the collapse of communism.

This is the Cuba that Ms Hernandez grew up in.

Kissing babies

"I was born with the revolution. I've never known capitalism," she said. "My earliest memories are of socialism, the special period and the US blockade.

People walk through Manuel Tames, Cuba
Farmers in Manuel Tames are waiting for land reforms to pay off

"As a family we couldn't have all the things we would have liked. For years I had to wear the same pair of shoes to school, we just had to keep mending them.

"But at least I had free health care and education. And as a nation, everyone was willing to work together to get by and move forward."

Ms Hernandez invited the BBC to visit her on a constituency visit.

She represents Manuel Tames, a small rural community nestled in the foothills of the Guantanamo's Sierra Cristal mountains.

There is little traffic on its dusty streets apart from horses and the occasional tractor.

At the heart of the town is an ageing sugar mill with its giant smokestack chimney. There is also a recently renovated health centre with nurses and beds to spare.

But solving constituency needs is not the primary role of Cuban deputies.

"Our most important mission is to explain to the people the politics of the state so that they understand what going on," she explained as we arrived.

Liaena Hernandez
History has taught us that the Communist Party is the road that Cuba needs to follow
Liaena Hernandez

Some two dozen constituents had gathered to greet us outside of the municipal offices.

Like all good politicians, Ms Hernandez moved comfortably amongst them, kissing babies, joking and chatting with young and old.

Better roads and housing are amongst their concerns, but food appears the number one priority.

Raul Castro has started to hand over unproductive state owned land to private farmers and co-operatives in a bid to boost production and cut food imports.

Farmers in Tames are waiting expectantly for the scheme to take off.

"Today is a different period from that of the revolution. There were some things which were needed then which are not so good now, because the context has changes," she said.

"We need to keep perfecting our economic system, that's where the country is going."

'Perfeccionamiento'

The government's priority is to try and make the state-run system work more efficiently, rather than opening up to a free market, like the Chinese have done.

You hear the word "perfeccionamiento" - perfecting the system - used a lot by officials.

There are also no signs of any political reforms. Opposition parties are not allowed.

Map
The national assembly only meets twice a year, a few days of committee sessions followed by a single day's sitting. Critics call it a rubber stamp parliament. The next session is scheduled for 27 December.

Candidates are also selected in advance. In the elections in January there were 614 people standing for the same number of seats.

You do not have to be a member of the Communist Party to stand, but it does help.

Ms Hernandez, though, believes that the system has served Cuba well.

"History has taught us that the Communist Party is the road that Cuba needs to follow.

"We don't need to copy other countries' systems. We are satisfied with our own and we are going to keep perfecting it."

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