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CUBA: How Far Will the Changes Go?

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Feb 27 2008 (IPS) - After months of uncertainty and speculation centred on former President Fidel Castro, Cuba’s obsessive spotlight has shifted to the changes needed in the country, and questions about how far the new government of President Raúl Castro will be willing to go.

On the streets of this Caribbean island nation, commentary ranges from the pessimistic “nothing will change,” to the cautious but moderately optimistic “let’s see what happens.” Analysts, representatives of civil society, intellectuals and even government officials, however, stress that major changes in several areas are to be expected.

“There are bound to be changes, otherwise it will be impossible to move forward. The problem is knowing what their reach will be,” a 32-year-old university professor told IPS.

The absolute boundary seems to be “Cuban socialism”, a phrase that is being increasingly used in official, academic and journalistic circles on the island, in an attempt to differentiate the country’s political history from the socialist systems of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.

However, as in the past, many people in Cuba are wondering who defines what Cuban socialism is, and what it is not. The issue is of major importance among intellectuals, who held an email debate in 2007 on cultural policy and its underlying principles.

This overarching principle, in Fidel Castro’s 1961dictum to intellectuals, is: “Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing.”

But what social criticism is revolutionary, and what is counter-revolutionary? Who decides, and by what means, on the basis of which criteria? asked essayist Desiderio Navarro on Jan. 30, 2007 when he introduced a series of conferences about the so-called “grey years” (1971-1976) and their consequences for the island’s cultural life.

In his first speech to the National Assembly (parliament) which had just elected him president, Raúl Castro said “there is no need to be afraid of disagreements in a society such as ours,” and that “the best solutions can come from a profound exchange of divergent opinions.”

Even if the clash of views stems from disinformation, “we do not deny (people’s) right to expression, provided they do it with respect for the law,” he added.

After warning that “we should never forget that the enemy never sleeps,” a clear reference to the United States and other countries or social sectors that wish to see the demise of the Cuban Revolution, he called on Cubans to avoid a pitfall that has been very common in the past decades: silencing criticism in order to avoid “giving ammunition to the enemy.”

“We shall not avoid listening to everyone’s honest opinion, which is very useful and necessary, simply because of the often ridiculous noise made every time a citizen of our country says something that, were it said anywhere else on the planet, the very noise makers would pay no attention,” Castro said.

Without mentioning the word “change,” the newly appointed president stressed that in regard to the country’s domestic difficulties, “the determination of priorities and the pace of their solution will invariably come from the resources available and in-depth, rational, and collaborative analysis, and in those cases where it is necessary, prior direct consultation with citizens belonging to the particular sector of society, and including the whole country if it is a topic of great import.”

Thus, the people’s debates which followed Raúl Castro’s speech as acting president on Jul. 26, 2007, in which he aired numerous problems and concerns in this country of 11.2 million, could become a permanent, or at least a systematic, mechanism to create opportunities for wider participation in decision-making.

This in itself would be a key factor in solving a deeply felt problem that has affected Cuban society for years: the absence of effective means of participation by different social sectors, which has created the sensation that the country is run from the top down, by authorities who are at a distance from the real situation of the people on the ground.

“Nothing strengthens a revolution more than consultation mechanisms and exchanges of views with the people,” Eliades Acosta, head of culture at the ruling Communist Party’s Central Committee, told IPS. He said that the shining moments of the Cuban Revolution were characterised by just such a fluid exchange with the people

According to Acosta, on the basis of the opinions expressed by wide sectors of the population last year, the government will have to immediately confront a set of economic problems, in the area of services for the people and, indeed, even in some areas considered historical conquests of the revolution: education and health.

Another priority, he says, are civic, moral, cultural and political issues. In his view, socialist Cuba “is not a social project merely to ensure the welfare of the people, but also their quality of life, and that depends on having access to broad and diverse information, mind-broadening cultural events, and science and technology.”

“How can society be perfected so that its people live a full life, not just living better, eating better, dressing better, able to enjoy free time better, but also using their time to in enriching ways? People should create that for themselves, not as passive consumers but as active participants,” he said.

Cuban civil society organisations have repeatedly called for greater participation and dialogue. With their close ties to the community and their history of systematic work within the socialist system, these organisations could play a key role as voices contributing to the analysis of major concerns as well as proposals for solutions.

Cuba must “start building an open, democratic and participative kind of socialism. To do this, a sustained multilateral dialogue about the immediate and longer term future is necessary,” Baptist pastor Raimundo García, executive director of the Christian Centre for Reflection and Dialogue in Cárdenas, 150 kilometres from Havana, told IPS.

Above and beyond long overdue changes in the economic sphere, García emphasises the need to abandon “a vocabulary that is often aggressive and violent,” to remedy the “disenchantment” of certain sectors of the population, and to promote “respect for differences.”

“Everything depends on accepting a greater plurality, learning how to listen to those who think differently, encouraging a range of initiatives for solving problems, and avoiding exclusive centralisation of power,” he said.

Within the present context, some dissident political groups have even begun to express the view that the public debates held last year, involving a large proportion of the population, and the acknowledgment of certain problems by government officials, have eroded the raison d’être of such movements.

The changed situation begs the question of the illegality of dissident groups. However, more open dialogue in the country does not remove the stigma of subordination and financial dependence on the U.S. government that attaches to them, which is the main argument used by Cuban authorities to deny them legitimacy as proponents of genuinely home-grown alternatives.

The new government’s position on this issue was apparently made clear on Feb. 24, when President Castro said that while the right to freedom of expression will be guaranteed within the rule of law, “we can neither be extremists nor naive.”

While dissident groups look askance on the team formed by Raúl Castro and first vice-president José Ramón Machado, regarded as a foremost representative of the most orthodox line within the Cuban leadership, others say the social changes that have occurred are irreversible, and that Cuba must “modernise.”

“The best path is gradual change. In Cuba, shock therapy will not work at all, because political change must have a cultural basis, and our culture won’t accept sudden change,” Manuel Cuesta Morúa, spokesman for the moderate dissident group Arco Progresista, told IPS.

“Any change in Cuba has to preserve the civil peace. A gradual process of transformation should begin now, progressively increasing participation by more organisations, and seeking a political, social and cultural pact between divergent sectors. Some people in our country have a lot of accumulated resentment and grievances,” he said.

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