Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Cuba’s Press, Streets and Living Rooms, Glimmers of Openness to Criticism

In Cuba's Press, Streets and Living Rooms, Glimmers of Openness to Criticism
Published: December 7, 2013

MEXICO CITY — It is a rare day in Cuba when the Communist Party's
triumphalist newspaper suggests that the government — just maybe —
messed up. Or when the party's chief ideologist renounces government
secrecy. Or a salsa star, performing at an official concert, calls for
the freedom to vote and to smoke marijuana.

But such gestures of openness are becoming more common.

Glasnost it is not, say Cuban intellectuals and analysts. But glimpses
of candor in the official news media and audacious criticism from people
who, publicly at least, support the revolution suggest widening
tolerance of a more frank, if circumscribed, discussion of the country's

"There is more space for debate," said Armando Chaguaceda, a Cuban
political scientist and blogger who lives in Mexico. "People are more

For decades, Cuba's garrulous citizens discussed politics sotto voce and
barely referred to Fidel and Raúl Castro by name, even in their own
living rooms.

But in recent years, especially in Havana, Cubans have begun talking
more openly about the economy, the political leadership and the
restrictions they resent. As they taste new freedoms and, increasingly,
discuss their problems online, they are pushing the boundary between
what can and cannot be said.

"What people can get away with has changed," said Ted Henken, a
professor at the City University of New York.

Much of this comes down to President Raúl Castro's style, said Carlos
Alberto Pérez, a self-described "revolutionary" blogger. Since Mr.
Castro took over from his ailing brother in 2006, he has invited Cubans
to give their opinions on the economy and called on the state-run news
media to be more incisive.

"People in Cuba want to debate, argue, listen and be listened to," said
Mr. Pérez, whose website covers issues ranging from the difficulty of
getting a body cremated to public transport.

Overhauls allowing limited private-sector activity and more freedom to
travel have loosened the state's grip on Cubans' lives and led them to
question more openly a political system that has kept the same people in
power for more than five decades.

In September, the Catholic Bishops' Conference made a bold, if oblique,
bid for a more democratic system, calling in a pastoral letter for an
"updating" of the political model and saying Cuba should be a "plural"

Meanwhile, the Internet — despite being out of reach for most Cubans —
has broken the state's monopoly on information and allowed for a
spectrum of opinion, bloggers and analysts say. Bloggers, including many
who support the Communist system, have written about economic
mismanagement, the timidity of changes, corruption, bureaucracy, the
lack of Internet connectivity and the passivity of the state-run news
media. Blogs and Facebook posts often spur streams of blunt online comment.

"It's revealing that people who are supposedly on the inside are making
the same criticisms as people on the outside," Professor Henken said.

There are still limits. While the government preaches frankness, it
continues to crush opposition, and those who step over the fickle line
between loyal criticism and dissent risk ostracism, loss of employment,
harassment or jail.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an
independent group that tracks treatment of activists, said there were
761 short-term arrests of dissidents in November, one of the highest
figures in the past two years. And in October, five independent
journalists were detained for several days, according to Reporters
Without Borders.

"It's ambiguous," said Mr. Chaguaceda, the political scientist. "It
depends who you are, how you say things, where you say them."

In the middle of a nationally televised concert in September, the jazz
singer Robertico Carcassés surprised the nation by calling for the right
to elect the president, the legalization of marijuana and freedom of
information. Even more shocking was the authorities' reaction: After
barring Mr. Carcassés from performing in state-owned venues, meaning
most of them, they backed down after Silvio Rodríguez, a famous
revolutionary singer, stuck up for his colleague's right to speak out.

The state-run media, which comprises virtually all press, television and
radio in Cuba, has publicly embraced what it calls the "battle against
secretiveness" and made efforts, however tepid, to shake up its
coverage. In September, the state-run television news introduced a
segment, "Cuba Dice," or Cuba Says, in which Cubans on the street are
interviewed about issues including alcoholism, housing problems and the
high price of fruit and vegetables.

In October, Col. Rolando Alfonso Borges, chief of ideology for the
Communist Party, told a summit meeting of the Cuban Journalists' Union
that the party rejected secrecy. Last month, Miguel Díaz Canel Bermúdez,
first vice president of the Council of State, met with journalists in
the provinces to urge them to be more polemical.

In a highly unusual show of flexibility, Granma, the party's official
newspaper, wrote in November that public opinion seemed to be against a
recent ban on private 3-D cinemas. Noting the "rich" online debate, the
article said Cubans supported regulating and reopening the movie
theaters and hinted that the decision might be reversed.

Indeed, blogs have won high-level readers. The reform-minded blog La
Joven Cuba was blocked for several months last year after it published
several critical articles. These days, however, "we bump into officials,
and they tell us, 'Oh, I was just reading your article,' " said Harold
Cárdenas Lema, 28, one of the blog's founders.

The Internet, coupled with greater traffic between the island and the
Cuban diaspora, has smudged the divisions that have defined life in Cuba
since Fidel Castro's 1961 dictum, "Within the revolution, everything;
against the revolution, nothing."

"Cuba is a country where for years there was nothing but extremes," Mr.
Cárdenas Lema said. "But we've managed to achieve a more nuanced reality."

Some dismiss the changes as window-dressing or a tactic to co-opt
internal dissent.

Arturo López Levy, a former intelligence analyst with the Cuban
government who lectures at the University of Denver, says the push for a
more critical official news media is partly an attempt to control a
debate that is already happening in social media and elsewhere.

"Faced with the challenge of a more open environment, the government
would prefer to channel complaints and debates through its own
mechanisms," he said.

Mr. López Levy likened the task of pushing for change from within in
Cuba to the punishment of Sisyphus, rolling a stone up a hill only to
watch it roll to the bottom.

"But sometimes," he acknowledged, "the stone comes to rest in a
different position."

Source: "In Cuba's Press, Streets and Living Rooms, Glimmers of Openness
to Criticism -" -

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