Saturday, November 22, 2014

Extolling Moderation to Get Cubans Talking About Politics

Extolling Moderation to Get Cubans Talking About Politics
Nov. 21 2014

MEXICO CITY — FROM a lectern covered in a lacy, white cloth at a
provincial Cuban church center last month, Roberto Veiga González and
Lenier González Mederos took turns talking before about 60 intellectuals
and activists about the value of political dialogue.

Not, perhaps, the most electrifying topic, but if politics is the art of
the possible, it is a skill that the pair hope Cubans can master after
wearying years of bombast and vitriol.

"A plurality of views can coexist," said Mr. Veiga, a lawyer and former
magazine editor who, with Mr. González, has come to represent an
emerging, less confrontational, approach to Cuban politics.

Looking over his reading glasses at the opening of a two-day seminar on
Cuban sovereignty, he added, "It is possible to think differently but
work together."

If that is a difficult view to peddle in Washington, it is an even
tougher sell in Cuba, where the state has, for decades, stifled debate
and the government and its opponents are bitterly divided.

"We Cubans are the enemies of moderation," said Mr. González, a former
journalist, by telephone from Havana.

Mr. González, 33, and Mr. Veiga, 49, have been criticized as too timid
by some in the opposition. But their dogged efforts to get Cubans
talking have won them a strong following in Cuba's tiny civil society.

They are leading figures in an incipient culture of debate that has
taken root in recent years, largely as President Raúl Castro has allowed
greater access to cellphones and the Internet, and lifted some
restrictions on travel, but also as the United States has lifted
restrictions on Cubans' visiting their relatives.

The pair reflect a breakdown of the binary politics of pro- and
anti-Castro Cubans that dominated for decades, and the development of a
more diverse range of opinions, especially among younger Cubans, as they
look to the era that will follow the Castros' deaths.

As editors, until recently, of a Roman Catholic magazine, the pair have
created a space where dissidents, dyed-in-the-wool communists, artists,
exiles, bloggers and academics can discuss national issues, both in
print and at seminars held in a Catholic cultural center in Old Havana.

Their new project, Cuba Posible — part forum, part online magazine, part
research organization — aims to do the same, and will test the
government's threshold for debate as well as Cubans' appetite for
finding a third way.

Serious and circumspect, Mr. González and Mr. Veiga lack the caustic
eloquence of Yoani Sánchez, whose blog Generation Y has millions of
readers, and the daring of some dissidents. They tread carefully,
advocating political change without rupture and keeping some distance
from the Castros' most outspoken adversaries.

THE two have become a double act, hosting debates together, traveling
together for conferences and studying together in Italy for doctorates
in sociology (Mr. González) and political science (Mr. Veiga).

Both are Roman Catholics. Mr. González was raised in a religious family,
and Mr. Veiga joined the church as an adult. Their faith, they say,
fuels their quest for solutions.

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"We saw that there was a whole range of people who didn't have anywhere
to express themselves," Mr. González said, adding, "We have a Christian
calling to try to mend something that is broken."

Still, their styles are different: Mr. Veiga, a lawyer from the city of
Matanzas, about 60 miles east of Havana, is preoccupied with issues like
constitutional overhaul and chooses his words carefully.

Cuba Posible does not advocate democracy, he said in a telephone
interview, but promotes dialogues that incorporate "discernment of the
question of how to advance toward fuller democracy."

Mr. González, who studied media and communications at the University of
Havana, is more direct than Mr. Veiga and, acquaintances say, less patient.

Cubans and political analysts say the pair are trusted and respected,
even by those whose posture is more confrontational. Katrin Hansing, a
professor of anthropology at Baruch College, who has known both men for
years, said they were thoughtful and courageous.

When they took over Lay Space, the Cuban Catholic magazine, in the
mid-2000s, Mr. Veiga and Mr. González refocused it, to include essays
from academics, economists and political scientists. They wrote
editorials on the timidity of the government's economic overhauls and
the options for a transition to democracy.

Their debates drew a spectrum of voices that Philip Peters, president of
the Cuba Research Center in Virginia, said he had found nowhere else in
Cuba. Some discussions were slow and academic, others surprisingly frank.

The impact of their efforts to broaden debate is hard to determine. Mr.
Veiga said officials had told him they followed what was said. Still, he
said, "we need many more spaces, mechanisms and guarantees so that
citizens' opinions can effectively interact with the public powers."

Mr. Veiga and Mr. González are not the only, nor the first, Cubans
debating national politics. Publications, including New Word, the
magazine of the Archdiocese of Havana, have bluntly urged much faster
economic changes. Temas, a cultural magazine, has for years held monthly
discussions that are open to the public.

Antonio Rodiles, a physicist, has gained recognition for hosting
discussions and jam sessions that are broadcast online under the name
State of SATS — an activity for which he has been arrested more than once.

The middle ground, too, can be fraught. Mr. González set off a fierce
debate among bloggers and intellectuals last year when, at a conference
in Miami, he advocated a loyal opposition — one, he explained, that sees
the government as an adversary but not as an enemy.

MR. Peters said the stance was "very practical," adding: "They want to
see great changes in their country, but they don't want to start by
tearing down the system and starting over again."

Others disagree.

"I cannot sit and debate with a government in a position of weakness,
where I am not their equal," said Walfrido López, a government critic
who has been living in the United States for six months.

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Mr. López said that, although he appreciated Mr. Veiga and Mr.
González's efforts, he thought they were too timid and should have a
more open relationship with dissidents.

"A space is either free and open, or it's not a space," he said by

Mr. Veiga shrugs off such criticism.

"There are people who believe that acknowledging the other is a
capitulation, and you'll find them at either end of the political
spectrum," he said. "That's the price you pay for making some effort for
the common good."

In May, that price was to lose their space in the church. Mr. Veiga and
Mr. González resigned from Lay Space, citing the polemic that they had
caused within "certain sectors of the ecclesiastical community." The two
refused to comment in a telephone interview and in emails on their
reasons for leaving the magazine.

The storm that ensued was a measure of their following: Bloggers and
academics reacted with dismay, quibbled about whether they had jumped or
been pushed, and argued about what their departure meant for civil society.

Whatever the reason, Mr. Veiga and Mr. González now hope to weave a new
strand with Cuba Posible.

The fuss that erupted after he and Mr. Veiga left Lay Space took the two
by surprise, he said, and convinced them that their work was worth
continuing. Not that Mr. González particularly liked the attention.

"It's nice to be stopped on the street and someone salutes you for an
article you've written," Mr. González said. "But, actually, we're both
pretty shy."

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