Sunday, April 11, 2010

Signs of frustration sprout, spread

Posted on Sunday, 04.11.10
Signs of frustration sprout, spread
After discussions of reform following the ascension of Raúl Castro
failed to end economic turmoil, Cubans are reacting to their government
like never before.

The Cuban revolution's iconic singer blasts the government. The usually
cautious Catholic Church warns of economic collapse. Raúl Castro
mysteriously disappears from public view for 23 days.

A well-known Havana author calls for ``democratic socialism.'' A growing
number of Cubans are reportedly resigning from the Communist Party. A
major corruption scandal hits Havana.

Food shortages are growing, public transport is almost nonexistent in
many areas, and the prospects for change are nil, according to five
Cubans who arrived last month in Miami.

These are turbulent times in Cuba, where Raúl Castro's rise to the
presidency unleashed -- and so far has dashed -- hopes for far-reaching
reforms to yank the island out of its worst economic crisis in decades.

Cuba's communist system has survived many and worse crises and virtually
all Cuba-watchers believe Castro, who officially replaced his ailing
brother Fidel in 2008, is highly likely to survive this one, too.

Yet signs of the mounting frustration with the current communist system
and demands for change are everywhere.

``Never before has the government been so criticized on the street for
the disastrous economic situation and for the total lack of official
will to promote changes that society is shouting for,'' the longtime
Havana correspondent for Spain's El País newspaper wrote March 7.

``If I had to pick just one word to describe the current situation, it
would be fragile,'' popular blogger Yoani Sanchez wrote in one recent
Tweet. In another, she wrote, ``While nonconformity is still curbed by
fear, it is threatening to spill out onto the streets.''

Perhaps the most powerful sign of the times came when Silvio Rodriguez,
founder and icon of the socially conscious music known as Nueva Trova,
unveiled his latest album in Havana March 26.

It's time to ``review loads of things, loads of concepts, even
institutions,'' he declared, time for more freedom of expression and to
remove the ``r'' of revolution because Cubans are crying out for

Rodriguez later claimed his comments had been ``distorted'' and said he
would participate in a ``Concert for the Motherland'' Saturday organized
by the Cuban government.

Pablo Milanés, another Nueva Trova singer who has criticized the
government in the past, said Cuba needs change because ``that enormous
sun born in 1959 . . is filling up with blotches as it turns older.''

Pedro Campos, a well-known Communist, historian and former diplomat,
went even further, writing recently that Cuba must ``advance toward a
new socialist society that overcomes the memories of a dogmatic and
failed scheme of neo-Stalinist style.''

Castro's supporters insist that such criticism is part of an officially
sanctioned debate among government officials, academics, intellectuals
and others on the changes needed to make the island more productive --
without major disruptions or turning to capitalism.

Yet the official Granma newspaper did not report Rodriguez's harshest
comments, and its cartoon Tuesday showed him saying, ``I sang for the
poor,'' plus the comment, ``That was before he earned a lot of money.''


The Cuban media meanwhile made no mention of any public appearances by
Raúl Castro Jan. 8-31, according to U.S. intelligence reports. The
78-year-old Castro has a history of retreating into isolation when he
fights with older brother Fidel.

A growing number of Cubans are leaving or refusing to join the Communist
Party and the Communist Youth, Spain's La Vanguardia newspaper reported
last week, without citing sources or exact figures.

Havana also has been shaken by a mayor corruption scandal allegedly
involving Max Marambio, a Chilean leftist, and former Civil Aviation
chief Rogelio Acevedo -- both longtime confidants of Fidel Castro.

``If Marambio is not safe, then no one is safe. He was truly
untouchable'' because of his friendship with Fidel, said a Miami
resident who has contacts with top government officials and asked for
anonymity to speak freely on the issue.

The Miamian added that many Cuban officials now seem paralyzed, caught
between those at the leadership level who want to move fast on reforms,
to get the stagnant economy moving again, and those who want to go slow,
to avert a possible loss of political controls.

``Everybody seems to be in a fog, because their hands are tied,'' the
Miamian added. ``There's a sadness on their faces, like things are
beginning to crumble.''

Former CIA analyst Brian Latell, now a senior research assistant with
the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban American
Studies, said he was not surprised by the growing frustrations.


Raúl Castro ``was playing with fire'' when he encouraged Cubans to
debate the island's problems in 2007, Latell said. ``He was stoking a
degree of popular involvement that was alien to the Cuban people.''

Cubans are still waiting for a string of Castro's promised and rumored
changes, among them:increased agricultural production, higher salaries,
a more efficient economy and perhaps even an end to the requirement of
exit permits for travel abroad.

Interviews with five newly-arrived Cuban migrants in Miami indicated
that people on the island have grown increasingly frustrated with the
lack of progress they hoped Raúl Castro would bring about.

``We expected positive change and on the contrary everything was halted
and the only thing he has said is that we have to tighten our belts
more,'' said Roberto Carlos, a 26-year-old carpenter from Sancti
Spiritus. ``Everyone thought Cuba would open up to the world but that
hasn't happened.''


Four of the Cubans interviewed also agreed that people on the island
have grown more willing to voice their frustrations in public.

``Even [communist] party members and ministry officials very daringly
comment,'' said Fernando Rodriguez, a lawyer who left Havana this year.
``And people you don't even know complain so clearly and loudly in
public that you say, `Uff!' ''

``The Cuban people are tired of waiting for change, and in getting tired
of waiting they have also lost the fear they once had of speaking out
against bad things,'' added Lester Peñalver, 26, a Havana graduate of
journalism studies who arrived last week.

Even his parents, members of the Communist Party and their neighborhood
watch group, the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, have grown
frustrated, Peñalver added.

Most of the recent arrivals interviewed agreed that the frustrations are
unlikely to lead to increased support for dissident groups like the
Ladies in White, largely because they are not well-known inside Cuba.

``When I was in Cuba, I never heard of this group,'' said Miriam
Quevedo, a 25-year-old nurse from western Pinar del Rio.

Latell said the kinds of reforms needed to ease those frustrations don't
appear to be close at hand. Cuban officials, he said, ``are a long way
from being able to make those forms of economic transitions. They are
just subsisting now.''

Yet there's growing pressure in Cuba to move more quickly.

For now, Cubans who make it to the United States find renewed hope in
their new country and warn that more people are likely to follow.

``Everyone in Cuba would like to leave,'' said Angel Ojeda, 38, who
arrived in Miami last month.

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