Monday, March 23, 2015

Cuba flirts with free speech

March 22, 2015 4:07 pm
Cuba flirts with free speech
Marc Frank in Havana

Cuba is using the internet to experiment with toning down its political
censorship in a sign that a glimmer of glasnost has arrived on the
Communist-run Caribbean island.
Havana's decision to open up on the once-taboo subjects of the electoral
system and civil society — by allowing Cubans to question policy in two
online forums — is reminiscent of the early days of free speech in what
was the Soviet Union in the 1980s.
For a number of years there has been public discussion over the pros and
cons of market-oriented reforms in Cuba, and ample criticism of the
bureaucracy. But public criticism has stopped short of questioning the
political status quo, aside from a fledgling dissident press, such as
the online newspaper, run by writer Yoani Sánchez.
The new forums, run on state-media websites, brought together officials
and academics to interact online for a few hours with an audience
encouraged to send in questions and views.
The opening has some similarities to glasnost, when Soviet authorities
relaxed limits on the discussion of political and social issues and
allowed the freer dissemination of news. The difference is that Cuba's
move comes in the age of the internet.
The forums follow an announcement this month that the country is
preparing a new electoral law, due to come into force before the next
general election in 2018 when President Raúl Castro will step down, in
effect ending the Castro era in Cuba that began with his brother Fidel
in 1959.
"These openings may be small and experimental, but they signal something
important: criticism becomes legitimate discourse," Bert Hoffmann, a
Cuba expert at the German Institute of Global and Area Studies in
Hamburg, said.
In a remarkably transparent forum on Cuba's electoral system, sponsored
by the Union of Young Communists' daily, a participant called GCR said:
"I would like to know if direct elections for the principal leadership
positions of the country are under consideration . . . as the current
system is [in my view] highly unpopular."
During a forum on civil society, published online this month by the
Cuban Workers Federation's weekly Trabajadores, Joan asked: "How can the
Cuban Workers Federation be a non-governmental organisation when its
secretary-general is a member of the Council of State?"
Another participant, going by the name Tumblr, charged: "The federation
is an appendage of the state it represents . . . carrying out the
policies of the Communist party."
Most of those taking part in both forums defended Cuba's political
system, but what was unique was the expression of differing political
"The debate in these forums signals a willingness on the part of
authorities to allow a range of expression and acknowledge a range of
opinions that were heretofore not recognised as legitimate," William
LeoGrande, a Cuba analyst at American University in Washington and
co-author of Back Channels to Cuba, said.
"However, it would be very premature to say it portends any significant
change in the political system."
The small crack in the dam on political discussion comes as the EU's
foreign affairs chief visits Cuba and as Washington and Havana work to
normalise diplomatic relations and begin to discuss a range of issues,
including human rights and expanded travel and telecoms, such as direct
phone calls.
However, discussions on opening embassies in Washington and Havana have
dragged on for two months, in part because of Cuba's continued status as
a US-designated sponsor of terrorism and its inability to obtain banking
services in the US. A clash with Washington over Venezuela, Cuba's
closest ally, which led Raúl Castro to deliver a fulminating tirade on
March 17 against new US sanctions placed on several Venezuelan
officials, has not helped.
These openings may be small and experimental, but they signal something
important: criticism becomes legitimate discourse
- Bert Hoffmann, German Institute of Global and Area Studies
The Obama administration's hope that the embassies would open before
April's Americas Summit, which both countries' presidents will attend
for the first time in decades, now appears out of reach. Efforts to lift
the trade embargo in Congress also face opposition from the Republican
Cuba's new electoral law, the details of which have not been revealed,
will be discussed in grassroots meetings along with other measures on
the agenda of a Communist party congress set for April 2016, an
opportunity to offer a critique the political system.
"We call for the opening of a multi-party system in Cuba: well regulated
so that no foreign power or financial company can finance or corrupt
electoral campaigns," the Observatorio Critico de Cuba, a social network
of Cuban intellectuals on and off the island, said in a post to the
civil society forum.
The policy shift is also taking place as pressure builds on the Cuban
government to authorise unlimited internet access. While only 5 per cent
of Cubans are estimated to have access to the internet, 30 per cent have
access to the government-controlled intranet, with its thousands of
local pages and blogs and where the forums are occurring.
"Raúl Castro's policies include not only economic reform but also a more
tolerant relation between state and society . . . and digital non-state
media have become tolerated to a considerable extent," Mr Hoffmann said.

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