Friday, December 3, 2010

Cubans stage rallies, test new openness,

Posted on Thursday, 12.02.10
Cubans stage rallies, test new openness

In separate actions, ordinary citizens in Cuba are increasingly
protesting everything from high taxes to poor bus services. Activists
say civil unrest could result.

The streets of Bayamo, Cuba, are blocked by horse-drawn carriages, whose
drivers for two days have protested a fivefold increase in taxes.

Monday, hundreds of students in Santa Clara erupted in violence when the
Barcelona-Real Madrid soccer match they had paid three pesos to watch at
the Camilo Cienfuegos Theater was replaced by a documentary.

And in the past month, bicycle taxi drivers in Las Tunas and truckers in
Granma have refused to work until their various demands are met, say

The protests mark a significant departure for Cuba, where rallies are
rare and repressed. As the country's economic crisis worsens, a new
trend appears to be bubbling: Ordinary citizens are daring to speak out
against the government.

Experts say that could become a critical threat to the Raúl Castro
regime, which fears spontaneous protest far more than organized
activism. While few Cubans are interested in politics, issues over
transportation and food could serve as a lightning rod for a fed-up
populace eager for change, experts say.

``These are regular people, real people,'' Yoandri Montoya, a dissident
youth movement leader in eastern Cuba said Wednesday from his cellphone
while ``hundreds'' of horse-drawn carriages abandoned their passengers.
``People are taking to the streets because they are waking up to the new

He said the protest began 6 a.m. Wednesday because drivers were furious
that their monthly license fee rose from 120 pesos -- $5 -- to 571, or
roughly $24.

The taxes are part of a vast overhaul of the Cuban economy, which
includes plans to lay off some 500,000 workers in the coming months.

But when horse-drawn carriage drivers were forced to double fares to
cover the increased tax, passengers complained, so the drivers stopped
working, Montoya said.

``Everybody is in the street,'' he said. ``This is just the beginning.''

Weeks earlier, truckers who routinely transport people on the back of
their flat-beds also went on strike to protest high gas prices they must
pay with Cuba's dollar-based currency.

Two weeks ago, about 35 bicycle taxi drivers in Puerto Padre stopped
working, because they were not allowed to pick up passengers in areas
where tourists walk, said former dissident Magdelivia Hidalgo.

On Tuesday, dissidents in at least six cities across the country held a
``pots and pans'' protest.

The turn in strategy toward day-to-day issues is considered critical
because the Cuban government in the past months released dozens of
political prisoners, taking the wind out of the sails of one of the
leading dissident groups, the Ladies in White. With their husbands
freed, many of the ``Ladies'' now live in Spain.

Hidalgo, now a reporter for U.S.-funded Radio Martí, founded a women's
group in Cuba that stages protests at cafeterias: the women eat and
refuse to pay in the dollar-based currency known as ``cucs.''

``People are daring to speak out in ways I have never seen before,''
said Hidalgo, who left Cuba in 2000. ``When I called Cuba in the past,
the person who answered the phone would whisper and say, `please hold.'
Now they say, `Oh God, you wouldn't believe how bad things are!' --
knowing full well that if a call is coming in from Radio Martí, someone
from the Cuban government is listening in.''


While the Cuban government routinely stops dissident protests in their
tracks, it has largely caved in to the demands of the civil rights
protests, activists said. After the women's group protests, the
government has signaled that it will eliminate dual currency. Already,
construction and agricultural supplies stores began accepting national
pesos, a major concession.

When a video of students at the Superior Institute of the Arts
protesting lousy food went public last year, the government quietly went
in and improved the menu, said former political prisoner Manuel Vazquez


On Wednesday, the Cuban government kicked off a public debate over its
historic plans to loosen rules over private business. The debates,
similar to public gripe sessions that took place shortly after Castro
took over the presidency in 2008, will be held from December until February.

The state-controlled newspaper Granma said Cubans will be encouraged to
voice their opinions and disagreements on the proposed changes through
party organizations, union meetings and workplace sessions.

``At stake is the future of the Cuban nation,'' Granma said.

But the government has only fueled discontent with layoffs, high taxes
and closing workplace cafeterias, Vazquez Portal said.

``One of these days, you're going to have 50 people from some workplace
show up at a pizzeria at the same time as 50 workers from another place
on a day that there is no pizza,'' Vazquez Portal said. ``That's when
you're going to have a big social explosion.''

The economic crisis of the early 1990s led to a massive protest on
Havana's seaside boulevard, dubbed the ``maleconazo.'' Fidel Castro
responded by letting anyone who wanted out to leave, unleashing the
rafter crisis of 1994.

But Cubans, Vazquez Portal said, know that the economic situation in
South Florida is as bad as Cuba's, so people are resigned to fixing
their problems at home.

``Now what you see is that people would rather take the risk of facing
off against the government over facing off against the sharks and the
sea,'' he said.

Social movements that topple regimes often begin when people suddenly
feel orphaned by a paternalistic government, said Bronislaw Misztal,
chair of the sociology department at Catholic University of America in
Washington, D.C.

For Cuba's scattered protests to gain momentum, a large group such as
teachers, young people or the unemployed need to join in, followed by a
group formerly loyal to the government, he said.

``If it reaches a critical mass, then it may be a process that's very
difficult for the authorities to stop,'' said Misztal, who is from
Poland and has studied Cuba. ``The question is: What will make the
Cubans tick? It may be something that surprises us, and then it will be
like fire in a bush.''

No comments:

Post a Comment