Friday, April 30, 2010

In Raul Castro's Cuba, A Limit On New Freedoms

In Raul Castro's Cuba, A Limit On New Freedoms
by Nick Miroff
April 30, 2010

Since President Raul Castro took over the country's leadership, there
has been a greater openness to public criticism — within limits — in the
one-party system. But for those who go too far or organize against the
government, the response is swift and sometimes ugly.

Last Sunday, six older women dressed in white walked out of their Havana
church after Mass and attempted to march, carrying pink flowers. They're
part of a larger group that has been doing this every week since 2003,
when their loved ones were jailed in a political crackdown.

In Cuba, it is the closest thing to a public protest against the
government. But this month, things changed.

A plainclothes government agent ordered the women to stop their march,
and when they argued, he walked away. Then a crowd of government
supporters charged in.

The group of women, known as the Ladies in White, shouted "libertad" —
"freedom" — as dozens of pro-Castro counter-demonstrators surrounded
them. The counter-demonstrators shoved the women, ripped up their
flowers and screamed in their faces, calling them mercenaries, traitors
and worms.

Under Raul Castro, Cubans have more opportunities to vent. But the
government has not tolerated open protests against the government.

The crowd pushed the women into a nearby park and circled them to
prevent their escape, chanting "Fidel, Fidel." Plainclothes government
agents with earpieces and aviator sunglasses stood nearby, directing the
crowd and intervening when things got too rough.

A few passing Cubans stopped to watch, but they neither joined in nor

Greater Freedom Of Expression

Cuba has done more under Raul Castro to let its citizens vent
frustrations. Raul took over Cuba's leadership in 2006 because of the
illness of his brother, Fidel Castro, and officially took over as
president in 2008.

Letters to the editor and essays in the state media now openly denounce
corruption or call for market-style reforms. Prominent artists and
scholars are publicly urging changes. Last weekend, a popular hip-hop
group with harshly critical lyrics was granted unusual permission to
perform at an official venue.

But some Cubans say the signs of openness are misleading.

Cosmetic Changes

"There's no space for people who really think differently," said a Cuban
bystander in a city park who said his name is Eduardo. "The changes are
merely cosmetic," he said. "They're for people who already think the same."

There no longer appears to be a place for the Ladies in White, who are
the wives and mothers of jailed government opponents. Last month, they
staged a week of daily marches, drawing international support for their

But for the past three Sundays in a row, the government has blocked
them, sending a stern message with counter-demonstrators, like Aracely
Keeling, who carry out what are called acts of repudiation against the

"I'm here because I'm a Cuban citizen, and these women are trying to
incite the rest of the country," Keeling said. "They're paid by the
United States to form part of a media campaign against the Cuban people."

The Cuban government has released documents that it says show the Ladies
in White have received financial help and support from U.S. officials
and anti-Castro militants in Florida.

Countering The Demonstrators

The Ladies in White get no sympathy from Maria Elena Martinez, who was
red-faced and hoarse from shouting at them.

"These people are criminals; they're the scum of this country," Martinez
said. "They're only here because they know they can get the attention of
the foreign media. They're just using you to create this whole circus."

On that Sunday, the counter-demonstrators chanted "Cuba Si, Yanqui No!"
as the harassment against the Ladies in White went on for seven hours.

The women didn't go to the bathroom, and they did not sit down. They
just stood, staring straight ahead. And while their numbers have been
dwindling each week, they say they are going to try to march again Sunday.

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