Here’s a pretty decent front-page feature article in today’s Miami Herald, written by the ubiquitous yet mysterious Miami H. Staff, on the possible signs of cambio in Cuba.
Article follows below the fold.
More Cubans finding the courage to speak out
MORE CUBANS ARE DARING TO EXPRESS THEIR VIEWS ON ONCE-TABOO TOPICS LIKE DEMOCRACY
BY MIAMI HERALD STAFF
HAVANA — Voices that once whispered are rising to a crescendo.
Sylvia, a chemist and self-described socialist, vents that she feels betrayed by a revolution that ”enslaved” her. Felipe, a carpenter, asks in front of his co-workers why Fidel Castro can come up with an idea one day and have it become law the next. Lisette, a nurse, tells a total stranger how the medical system has deteriorated since thousands of Cuban doctors were sent to Venezuela.
Call it the law of unintended consequences: Since Cuba’s interim president, Raúl Castro, called for public meetings to debate the country’s innumerable problems, more and more people are speaking out — and not just about empty store and pharmacy shelves and lousy public transportation but topics long off-limits like democracy and freedom.
”In the street, at jobs and in neighborhoods, there’s some flexibility in terms of repression and expression,” said Ahmed Rodríguez, an opposition journalist who runs the Youth Without Censorship news agency in Havana. “People have lost a little bit of their fear — not all of it.”
While no one is suggesting that the Cuban government has knocked down the door to freedom of expression, experts say that little by little, the entrance has widened. The fact that Cubans, invited by Raúl to speak up in workplace and community meetings, now also feel more comfortable doing so in other settings represents a significant shift and underscores the subtle changes slowly taking place in the nearly 1 ½ years since Fidel Castro fell ill.
Some experts wonder whether the move to allow more open criticism will backfire and, instead of allowing Cubans to let out steam, will make them boil over.
”In a closed political system like Cuba’s, there is always risk in promoting that kind of discussion, which is compounded by the fact they are not delivering on any of this — people’s lives are not getting better,” former top CIA Cuba analyst Brian Latell said. “Maybe we are already beginning to see early signs of rising or spreading restlessness. If this goes on, they are playing with fire.”
Cubans agree that some are becoming more vocal in their complaints.
”People can’t take it anymore. This revolution was supposed to be one thing, and now we realize it is something else,” said a laborer who asked that his name not be published. “People want change. The government held meetings to hear what we had to say, and let me tell you, people went for it.”
Last month, several youth were arrested for protesting Cuba’s municipal elections, calling it a sham. Weeks later, an organization of rural women presented the national legislature with a petition allegedly signed by thousands of women demanding an end to Cuba’s dual currency system. A few days after that, a youth group said it collected 5,000 signatures from students demanding independent universities.
In a rare move, the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma alluded this week to the petition drives in its pages — coverage that dissidents said was both new and surprising.
One of the most unexpected displays of debate came last month, when several intellectuals who spoke out earlier this year against a government official who in the 1970s led a crackdown on artists were invited on a state-run television show called Open Dialogue.
”We accustomed ourselves to not debating,” filmmaker Alfredo Guevara, a longtime Fidel Castro ally, said on the show, Mexico’s La Jornada newspaper reported. ”We answered Fidel with silence” and later ”Raúl had to come” to begin a dialogue.
The television appearance was thought to be the first time the government-controlled media openly discussed the 1970s crackdown on intellectuals. It was also the first time the Cuban press mentioned the massive nationwide grievance meetings held in October at Raúl Castro’s request.
Cuba-based blogger Yoani Sánchez dismissed the importance of the TV appearance, calling the show a one-sided “debate among revolutionaries.”
But the head of the Communist Party’s culture committee recently cast the debate in much broader terms, telling a Cuban magazine that the revolution is considering a profound transformation.
”The party itself is rethinking its relationship with society to seek a more direct, more efficient dialogue and greater participation of the people in decisions,” Elíades Acosta told the website Cubarte. “We aspire to have a society that speaks aloud about its problems, without fear . . . in which mistakes are publicly aired to seek solutions, in which the people can express themselves honestly.”
He called for an end of the “the abuse of institutional practices to limit criticism.”
Opposition journalist Rodríguez noted that government media seem to have responded to Raúl Castro’s call for openness: Cuban television recently broadcast a speech by President Bush, and then aired the King of Spain telling Cuba’s No. 1 ally, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, to shut up.
”There it was, clear as day, on Cubavisión, the king telling Chávez to shut up,” he said. “In the past, we would never have been allowed to see that.”
He cautioned, however, that the Cuban government is still controlling the news and rounding up activists at will. Three youth leaders who presented the university petitions were detained for a week. Washington’s anti-Castro television programming, TV Martí, is continuously jammed, and Cubans are largely kept off the Internet.
So while more and more people are feeling free to speak out, a 50-year legacy of repression against free speech is hard to overcome, Cubans say. Raúl Castro has been described as both a consensus-driven reformer and a tough security enforcer.
”You know in the universities they are now offering a course called `Reflections’?” said Felipe, the carpenter.
Fidel Castro ‘writes little essays, calls them `reflections,’ and now students have to study it,” he said. “The students will read those essays and study them, but they will not really debate them. Maybe people are speaking up more, but they don’t do it where it counts, so in the end, it’s all bull.”
A POLICY SHIFT?
Dissidents in Cuba say the change is not only indicative of a policy shift pushed by Raúl Castro, but also of a fed-up society.
”It’s been more than 40 years of this crap already,” said a Havana cleaning lady, who admits she voted ”no” for all the candidates listed on a recent municipal election ballot. “Now they want us to tell them what’s wrong.
“We’ll tell them a thing or two. We’re going to unleash our tongues.”
The Miami Herald withheld the name of the correspondent who prepared this report and the surnames of the people quoted, because the reporter did not have the journalist visa required by the Cuban government to report from the island.