From the Los Angeles Times
Cuba walks tightrope of reforms
lifting bans on cellphones and personal computers, Raul Castro is
paving the way for open communications, but the regime is intent on
avoiding the fate of the Soviet Union.
By Carol J. Williams
Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
April 29, 2008
In a campaign that bears much similarity to Soviet leader Mikhail
Gorbachev's 1980s appeal for glasnost, Cuba's President Raul Castro has
been urging the public to investigate social shortcomings, denounce
them and propose improvements.
in concessions to allow Cubans some access to 21st century technology,
Castro's government recently announced the lifting of bans on
cellphones and personal computers.
The top-down decisions
granting citizens the ability to communicate with one another and to
brainstorm solutions have been a hallmark of Castro's leadership since
he took the reins of a nation in crisis 21 months ago from his older
Cuban intellectuals and common folk are embracing
the straight-talk notion, as did Russians 20 years ago. But here, as in
the Soviet Union, the leadership is walking a tightrope, risking the
collapse of a struggling, authoritarian system by granting long-denied
"Raul Castro's government will eventually need to
confront the million-dollar question: Once it releases the genie of
public opinion from the bottle, does it risk permanently reducing its
control over Cuban society?" says Daniel P. Erikson, Caribbean analyst
for the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.
of the Soviet collapse, Cuban officials are loath to allow any kind of
political opening that would be perceived as diminishing the legitimacy
of the Communist Party, Erikson said.
"Some Cuban insiders
already think that the type of economic discussions favored by Raul
Castro have gone too far and that some of the economic reforms debated
have political dimensions," he said.
computers, even at a price many can't afford, "will increase
communication, the flow of information, contact with foreigners and
demand for connection to the Internet," said Phil Peters, a veteran
Cuba watcher with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., on his
blog, the Cuban Triangle.
He noted that similar reforms in the past had been stopped "dead in their tracks" for fear they might undermine state control.
official uncertainty about how much freedom of speech may be too much
was apparent last month. The website of young blogger Yoani Sanchez, desdecuba.com,
was attracting so much foreign and domestic attention with its candid
comments on everyday life that it was blocked, presumably by the
government. Pages of the site recounting absurdities of life on the
island can take more than half an hour to open.
Rather than shut
down the site, government censors installed security filters, Cuban
Internet surfers speculate, that prevent the Web users from gaining
access without frittering away at least $5 worth of precious prepaid
minutes. The average monthly salary in Cuba is less than $20.
anonymous censors of our famished cyberspace have tried to shut me in
my room, turn off the light and not let my friends in," Sanchez wrote
on her website after getting complaints from Cuban readers who couldn't
reach her blog. She speculated that authorities felt her site was "a
phenomenon that was getting out of their hands."
information gatekeepers acknowledge that a broader consensus should be
sought in managing the flow of communications.
"We have to
promote dialogue on TV in which the vertical model is replaced by the
horizontal one, with participation," Waldo Ramirez of the Cuban
Institute of Radio and Television observed in a recent interview with
the Communist youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde.
officials announced recently that a 24-hour channel with unspecified
foreign programming from other Latin American states would be added
soon to state offerings, which many Cubans find boring and pedantic.
access has also been growing steadily, if slowly. In the time since the
younger Castro took over, the number of Internet users has grown at
least threefold, though at 2% of Cuba's 11.2 million people, it still
translates into the Western Hemisphere's lowest penetration rate.
government reforms, such as lifting bans on Cubans staying at tourist
hotels, have been seen as responses to public appeals for eliminating
bureaucracy. At a student forum in January at a Havana computer school,
the National Assembly president was challenged on the exclusion of
Cubans from the country's best resorts and beaches, as well as the
two-tiered economy that puts hard currency in the hands of some while
denying that superior buying power to retirees and state workers.
a closed-door congress of cultural figures this month, the island's
artistic leaders lamented the government's restrictions on Internet
access, the limited TV and radio offerings and excessive bureaucracy in
the realms of literature and the creative arts.
The Congress of
Writers and Artists has hailed the recent liberalization and expressed
hope that the moves are signs of more to come.
Carlos Lage, who crafted modest economic reforms 15 years ago that
allowed Cubans to open small restaurants, offer rooms for rent and
services such as hairdressing, shoe repair and tailoring, has urged a
cautious approach to self-criticism.
"No one can understand or
criticize with the force needed today if they forget our recent past,"
he said, recalling the food, fuel and energy shortages in Cuba after
the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end to billions in annual aid.
self-employment opportunities introduced during those lean years were
repealed four years ago when Fidel Castro deemed that the island had
sufficiently recovered and that state enterprises could fully provide
for Cubans' needs.
Many struggling workers disagree.
a truck driver with a poultry distribution enterprise who didn't want
to give his last name, lives with and supports his widowed mother on
his 125-peso monthly salary. That's about $5, which buys little, even
augmented by the few extra dollars he earns each week operating a
makeshift parking lot in front of their apartment for those frequenting
the clubs and bars of Old Havana. He also does some "business" selling
boxes of chicken that fall off the back of his lumbering 20-year-old
Soviet-built Zil truck.
He doesn't believe that more talk is what's in order.
chatter, chatter! That's all anyone does in this country," he said as
he sat on a bench in Parque Central, listening to a group of men argue
vociferously about baseball. "Everyone knows what the problems are. We
hear a lot of what is going to happen, but we don't see anything
His mother encourages him to leave the country, to join friends who have fled for Mexico or the United States.
and many other Cubans still lower their voices when sharing
counterrevolutionary thoughts, but timid steps toward airing grievances
are gathering momentum. Some of the boldest commentaries on Cuban
society have come not only from bloggers, but also from state-run
newspapers such as Juventud Rebelde and the Communist Party's Daily Granma.
leadership's hints of greater tolerance appear to extend only to the
economy and standard of living. Alternative political parties and
pro-democracy movements remain taboo, and police continue to arrest
independent journalists and dissidents who agitate for multiparty
On Monday, police broke up a peaceful demonstration
in Havana by the Ladies in White group demanding the release of their
jailed husbands, brothers and fathers. Several members were detained.
also have continued to rally the public in support of their causes,
from denunciation of the U.S. economic embargo to moral backing for
China amid the struggle with Tibetan protesters.
"We can complain and even criticize," Jesus said. "But there are still limits and we know instinctively what they are."
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