SANTIAGO DE CUBA — In the photograph, the friends stand stripped to their undershirts in the blistering heat, clutching shovels, their faces cast in sepia. The men, hiding in the folds of the Sierra Maestra mountains of Cuba, were fighters in the throes of revolution. “We were digging our own graves,” recalled Heriberto Olmo Lora, holding the faded picture between his thumb and forefinger. “Three died that day, another a few years later in Angola.”
More than 60 years have passed since the photograph was taken, in the early days of a revolution that would redefine Cuba and, to some degree, the world. Like the picture, with its shiny surface molting and its edges rubbed indistinct, the revolution and its heroes are fading.
Time is Mr. Olmo’s enemy, now that he is 79. He lives a quiet, modest life in an apartment complex on the edge of Santiago de Cuba, the island’s second-largest city. Few of his comrades remain — five perhaps, or six. They disagree on a count when you ask them. The men meet once every three months, Mr. Olmo says, and between sessions it is not uncommon for one of them to have passed away.
In some respects, the men are the last bearers of the revolution in its wellspring, the city where Fidel Castro and his followers began their struggle to overthrow the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Billboards along the roads say, “Santiago is Santiago,” as if nothing more need be said on the virtues and bravery of its people. But there is a tinge of desperation to the signage, a hint that the fight now is against memory’s atrophy.
The revolution is still respected, but to many Cubans it is no longer reason enough to abide shortages of food and supplies, low monthly incomes, infrastructure in disrepair.
“There are people who are die-hard and want to maintain the faith, but I don’t see another generation accepting the sacrifice for the project as a basis for continuing austerity,” said Lisandro Pérez, a professor of Latin American studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.
Santiago de Cuba, with its pastel-colored, colonial-era structures and undulating hills, staked its place in history long before the revolution. The country’s holiest site, the shrine of the Virgin of Charity, stands on the edge of the city, and Cuba’s most venerated Catholic icon, a small wooden statue of the Virgin Mary, is kept there.
But change is in the air now, and the old revolutionaries recognize it. What they do not know is whether it will preserve the ideals they fought for or scatter them to the winds.
For sure, the revolution did not make Cuba, or many of them, wealthy. Despite the economic struggles, though, they harbor no doubts that what they did for their country made it better.
“If I could do it all again, I would do it all the same,” said Ernesto Mato Ruiz, 75, another of the revolutionary fighters in the Santiago area.
Mr. Mato is slightly stooped now, with mottled skin and a quick wit, and he is something of a local celebrity among members of the older generation, admired for his bravery while fighting under the famed revolutionary commander Frank País.
Yet Mr. Mato acknowledges that the future of Cuba will not be up to him or his friends, but to younger Cubans whose connection to the struggle is not firsthand.
“We are talking about changing generations,” he said. “It’s something completely distinct.”
Many younger Cubans feel the weight of the revolution as a challenge to their future rather than as its foundation. The evidence is clear on the streets of Santiago, where young people take their fashion cues, their backward hats and baggy clothes, from the country that was long portrayed as Cuba’s nemesis, the United States.
“What can I say, I don’t really believe in politics, and the revolution is purely political,” Rubén Suarez Romero, 24, said. “My main concern is my family, not party politics.”
Many Cubans his age have little patience for revolutionary rhetoric, and they are frustrated by the dearth of economic opportunity in the country, despite the diplomatic thaw with Washington. They want to see change in their lives, and revolutionary talk sounds to many like a distraction from their struggles.
“The youth want everything now,” Mr. Mato said with a sigh, running his hands along the legs of his pants. “They think that everything will fall from the sky.”
Then, with a smile, he added: “Listen, I’m an old fart, and I’ll die pretty soon. The youth are the ones who will need to carry things forward.”
Revolutionaries like Mr. Olmo do what they can to pass the torch. He tells his grandchildren about his actions in the 1950s and why it was so important to overthrow the Batista regime.
“The revolution, for me, opened up my future,” Mr. Olmo said as he sat in a rocking chair in the home he shares with a daughter, her husband and their children. “Idealistically, the revolution committed errors, but in its essence it was something very pure.”
He spoke of his children, all of them educated, some now living abroad. The revolution gave them opportunities that did not exist in the old Cuba, he said. He acknowledged that “now changes are necessary, our economy needs to open up.” But he also insisted, “The central idea of politics, it should stay the same.”
Hope for preserving the old socialist ideals grows fainter by the day, even on Mr. Olmo’s doorstep. The sun pierced the foliage of a large acacia tree in the courtyard beneath his apartment, where a dozen children played soccer barefoot, their voices and scrapes and bangs filtering up through the open windows.
During a break in the game, the children sat on the concrete lip of the courtyard and teased one another. When a visitor asked them about the war hero living just above, they looked puzzled; one suggested that the man was a friend’s grandfather, then shrugged.
Another question, about what the revolution meant to them, was met with a mix of adolescent shyness and aloofness. Finally one young boy stepped forward and answered.
“The revolution has given me everything,” he said, squinting slightly into the sun.
Pressed further, the boy could not say what “everything” was, or what the slogan meant. He retreated to the concrete lip with his friends and looked away.
“When we talk about the revolution,” he said, “it confuses me sometimes.”