Monday, December 29, 2014

Cubans find their voices of discontent

Voices: Cubans find their voices of discontent
Alan Gomez, USA TODAY 8:18 p.m. EST December 28, 2014

HAVANA — On one of my first trips to Cuba, I was sitting in a friend's
living room when he got to talking about politics.

As he complained about the state-run economy and how its restrictions
made it so hard for him and his family to survive — let alone get ahead
— his voice grew louder. His mother stormed into the room, smacked him
on the back of the head and started closing the windows.

"Do you want everybody to hear you?" she screamed.

On my current trip to Cuba, I ended up in the same living room, and the
discussion once again turned to politics and the economy. As my friend's
anger intensified and his voice grew louder, his mother walked in,
stared at him a moment, sat down and joined the conversation.

The difference between those encounters, six years apart, helps show how
much things have changed in communist Cuba. After Raúl Castro took over
control of the government for his ailing brother, Fidel, in 2008, he
invited the nation to engage in an honest, open conversation about the
country's flailing economy and the best ways to fix it.

That has had a tangible effect: People are more willing to voice their
concerns without fear of getting arrested or harassed. In a country
where there's a person on each block whose sole job is to keep an eye on
the neighbors — members of the Committee for the Defense of the
Revolution, known as CDRs — that is a monumental change.

But I'm withholding the names of my friend for a reason. The fear of
speaking too loudly, too honestly is still ingrained in every Cuban, and
there's no question that political persecution continues on the island.

The historic deal struck between the United States and Cuba on Dec. 17
to re-establish diplomatic relations included no requirements that Cuba
improve its human rights record. That's something critics of President
Obama, most notably Cuban-American members of Congress, have used to
bash the deal.

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National
Reconciliation, a group on the island that monitors government
repression, 2014 has been one of the worst years in recent memory.
Through November, the commission estimates, the government has
incarcerated 8,410 political prisoners, compared with 6,424 in all of 2013.

After 53 years in which absolutely nothing has changed in regard to
Cuba's human rights record, it's encouraging to see even the smallest
steps in the right direction. Castro agreed to free 53 political
prisoners as part of the deal with the United States, and Obama used his
announcement to call on the Cuban government to make further, deeper

It's impossible to predict whether Castro will follow through and
improve Cuba's human rights record. Castro and his brother, Fidel, have
given no reason to trust them over the decades, so I understand the
skepticism. But call me an optimist, because I see something changing.

Take a recent interview as an example. Any American reporter who's tried
to work in Cuba knows the scenario very well.

You approach a Cuban, explain who you are and try to interview the
person. Some people stop talking and walk away. Some decline by
shrugging their shoulders, giving a little smile and saying, "You know
how things are here."

Some will talk but say only general platitudes about the glories of the
revolution and the evils of American imperialists. Some will pleasantly
say no, then run and tell the CDR. Very few will actually give their
names and speak openly about their reservations with the system.

That's why this trip has been such a shock for me. Most people still
decline, but more and more are talking. The fear is always present, but
they're fighting it back more often.

Take an interview I did this weekend with Lazaro Mendez-Valdez. A
cobbler in central Havana, he spoke openly about the hardships he's
faced in Cuba's economy. As his co-workers and waiting clients listened,
he calmly explained how exhausting it was to work in the state-run
economy, as government bureaucrats constantly breathe down his neck.

He discussed how things have improved now that he's allowed to work as a
private businessman, how he's his own boss and can make his own
decisions. He stressed that there are still serious difficulties finding
the materials he needs. He said his pay, though better now that he works
on his own, still makes it hard to get by each month.

After our chat, we said our goodbyes, and I started walking out the
door. As I did, he called out one more time.

"Por poco me olvido. Viva Fidel y Raúl!"

Translation: "I almost forgot. Long live Fidel and Raúl!"

Gomez is a Miami-based reporter for USA TODAY.

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