Monday, February 25, 2008

Cuba's new openness: People talking publicly about economy, personal expression

Cuba's new openness: People talking publicly about economy, personal
By Doreen Hemlock | Havana Bureau
February 21, 2008

It felt like a different country.

Back in Cuba after eight months away, I found the mood had changed to a
new openness.

People were saying publicly what they'd only whispered privately before.
And many urged far-reaching solutions to daily problems beyond former,
tepid calls for adding chicken to their food rations or boosting bus

Laborers seethed that they earn in Cuban pesos but increasingly buy in a
separate, dollar-based currency. Salaries average $15 to $20 a month. A
pair of shoes or pants now can cost a month's pay. "How is a family to
eat and buy clothes?" many asked me.

Employees of foreign firms — a privileged group who earn bonuses
sometimes worth hundreds of dollars — bristled over plans to tax up to
50 percent of their bonus money.

Young people who grew up under communism dreamed out loud of replacing
Cuba's veteran leaders — dubbed "historicos" — with a new generation.

For the first time in a decade of visiting Cuba, I even heard talk of
violence. Havana residents feared disturbances or street clashes if
solutions to pressing economic and social problems were not forthcoming

Colleagues told me that Raúl Castro, acting president since Fidel
Castro's surgery in July 2006, ushered in the new mood. In a Revolution
Day speech last summer, he called for citizens to air their concerns and
mentioned "structural changes."

"Raúl let the genie out of the bottle," economist and dissident Oscar
Espinosa Chepe told me.

I sensed the dramatic change my first full workday in Havana.

At a news conference, organizers of the annual Book Fair announced this
year's event would honor a gay playwright and author, Antón Arrufat, who
was blacklisted in the 1970s for his social critique. Reporters asked
Arrufat and Cuban officials about the turnaround.

The head of the government's Book Institute, Iroel Sanchez, conceded
"errors" decades back. Some officials had been dogmatic in trying to
defend the Cuban Revolution in its nascent years. But the revolution has
matured and now is more inclusive, he told me.

That night, I attended the premiere of a film on the four months that
singer Silvio Rodriguez spent on a fishing boat after being suspended
from Cuban TV in 1969. In the film, Rodriguez recalls how in the 1960s
and 1970s, officials cracked down on gays and youths with long hair,
branding them as counterrevolutionaries.

"Politics was everything," he said in the documentary. "But fortunately,
we've been opening up."

After the film, Culture Minister Abel Prieto with hair past his
shoulders, said such repression decades ago was "barbarity." The
revolution now seeks "plurality" in debate and indeed, the new
parliament could pass a proposal to legalize gay marriage, he told me.

Such candor floored me.

I was used to Cubans speaking more metaphorically or even using hand
signals, like referring to Fidel Castro by pulling on an imaginary
beard. And government officials usually were quick to defend the
revolution, not admit mistakes.

Emboldened, I asked Rodriguez to explain.

Rodriguez told me Cuba is living "a moment of change," but there had
been other transitions before and not all had ended well. While there
was no going back, he said it's time to address today's woes, for
example, by ending the ban on Cubans staying at hotels when they want
and abolishing requirements for Cubans to obtain permits to travel to
and from the island.

The next day clinched for me the scope of the change. A highly unusual
video made the rounds of a university student leader asking a top
official for answers to such concerns as rising prices for consumer
goods, poor transportation and limits on Internet access.

In a 16-minute presentation, computer sciences student Eliecer Avila
asked at a school assembly why Cubans "have to work two or three shifts
to buy a toothbrush" and why if he had the cash, he couldn't visit
Bolivia where revolutionary Ché Guevara was killed?

"We're sure there's a plan" to resolve our problems, Avila told
parliament chief Ricardo Alarcón. "We want to know what it is."

Alarcón appeared to be caught off guard. He offered a traditional
response, not up to today's more forthright style.

I can't predict Cuba's future or even who might be picked Sunday as the
island's new president, now that Fidel has retired.

But this I know: The mood in Havana has changed.,0,5572099.story

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