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Glimmers of glasnost begin to warm island Politics

Glimmers of glasnost begin to warm island Politics

The government retains a tight grip, but there are signs it is loosening
a little, writes John Paul Rathbone

Shortly after the US and Cuba announced talks about normalising
relations, a neighbourhood watch com¬mittee – often a bastion of
communist prying – held its regular Committee for the Defence of the
Revolution meeting not far from Havana’s Interior Ministry.
According to witnesses, many of the government stalwarts there were wary
of the new US approach. “You can’t trust the Yankees. Their opening is a
Trojan horse,” was the general tone. Others saw the prospect as an
opportunity for them¬selves, their families and their country. Yet they
muffled their opinions out of habit and, perhaps, of fear. In later
meet¬ings, they slowly voiced their views.
The anecdote is emblematic of the state of Cuban political debate. It is
cau¬tious, often suspicious, and the state keeps a firm grip. But spaces
for political argument are slowly opening up, thanks in part to
President Raul Castro’s encour¬agement of economic criticism.
The process is relevant particularly to foreign investors, who will
encounter wildly contrasting attitudes depending on which bureaucrats
they deal with.
“The Tourism Ministry is businesslike and open-minded. They are mostly
pragmatists drawn from the military who have long dealt with foreign
busi¬nessmen,” notes a European diplomat. “The agriculture ministry, by
contrast, is still Soviet – closed, suspicious and hard to deal with.”
In the press, there are dull organs such as Granma, the official
Communist party newspaper, which even Mr Castro has called an “insult to
the intelligence”. But their main alternative is a fledgling
inde¬pendent media – such as Havana Times, a bilingual website, and, set up by dissident journalist Yoani Sanchez – where
coverage is lively, well reported and often polemical.
Only 5 per cent of Cubans have unfet¬tered internet access, but the news
sites suggest growing tolerance of dissent. This can be seen on
officially sanctioned online forums. In one sponsored by the Union of
Young Communists, an anony¬mous poster asked: “I would like to know if
direct elections for the principal lead¬ership positions of the country
are under consideration . . . the current system is [in my view] highly
Glimmerings of glasnost can be seen in debating groups such as that
hosted by Temas, a state-sponsored cultural magazine, or independent
groups such as “Cuba Posible”, whose website carries a range of opinion
pieces from diehard communists and exiled dissenters.
Such shifts do not portend imminent political change. Dissidents can
travel abroad but extreme views are punished in Cuba. Last year, there
were almost 9,000 short-term arrests of pro-democ-racy activists,
dissidents say. However, there has been a 5 per cent drop in deten¬tions
in the first four months of this year.
“That drop is a potentially positive sign of the effects of the December
17 announcement of the US-Cuba talks,” another European diplomat said.
The US wants to press the issue of human rights but the process is
difficult. Talks about re-establishing embassies almost bogged down over
the US desire to promote human rights from Havana. US political rhetoric
can also colour the domestic economic conversation.
Rafael Hernandez, editor of Temas, notes: “Raul Castro has said the
private sector is not an agent of capitalism, and has spoken of the need
to end old habits of thinking. But for the US, the private sector is an
agent of capitalism. So there is a problem of rhetoric on both sides.”
Many analysts argue that the faster the US embargo ends, the faster
reforms will happen – and vice versa. (Critics hold diametrically
opposed views). Either way, next April’s party congress will be a
barometer of the gov¬ernment mood.
Mr Castro, 83, says he wants to deepen economic reforms, and so boost
the probability of a soft landing for 2018, when he says he will retire.
Retirement need not, however, preclude him from remaining head of the
party, where power ultimately resides, or from appointing someone from
his inner cir¬cle to become the next president.
“Cuba is a long game,” notes one US official of the island’s transition.
“Patience, much patience,” is required, as Mr Castro himself has said.


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June 2015
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