HAVANA TIMES — My colleague Angel Thomas told me that during the early years of the Cuban Revolution, political debates were constant and many leaders — including Fidel Castro — used to go to the University of Havana to talk with students.
Unfortunately I wasn’t around during that time. The Cuba I found when I first arrived here in the ‘90s was — to the contrary — a place of one single line of thought. It was a land of unanimous 99.99 percent vote counts and round tables in which everyone repeated the exact same thing.
Gradually I got to know ordinary people and I realized that nothing in Cuba is like it seems, much less the stereotypical image that the pro-government media were trying to sell. I was glad, because it would have been difficult to live in such uniformity.
Discussions would unfold in intimate settings between family members and friends. Journalists, academics, economists, researchers and even politicians would express their views, but only when they were assured these wouldn’t be made public.
On those rare occasions when someone questioned something openly, they would invariably begin by saying: “Following the ideas expressed by our Comandante on this issue I think…” and only then would they give their opinion.
In 2007 Raul Castro “cracked the mold” by calling on people to participate in a national debate concerning the present and the future of the country. Five million Cubans responded with more than a million criticisms – fatally wounding the country’s “unanimity.”
And that wasn’t the only debate. After more than a decade without having convened a meeting, the Communist Party held its congress and an assembly to discuss the fate of the country and the course of reforms, as well as to elect the highest party authorities.
Those events came to my mind when reading the words delivered by the prominent Cuban intellectual Aurelio Alonso at a recent conference. It is an excellent analysis for young people about the challenges of today’s Cuba, one which is also written with serenity, balance and moderation.
Aurelio told them that “the collapse of Soviet socialism” wasn’t only an economic issue “but was due mainly to the failure to generate a participatory democratic culture; without this, political institutions become scaffolding without content.”
I immediately thought of Alfredo Guevara (the founder of the Cuban cinematographic institute) when he went from university to university proclaiming the news that everything hadn’t been done correctly, and that not even had everything been done, as he then asked young people to continue to build the nation.
I also thought of the socialist Julio Cesar Guanche and democratic [Catholic] Roberto Veiga, who initiated a public debate on democracy that ended up as a meeting of intellectuals, full of contradictions between themselves, whose only point in common was the dream for a better Cuba.
Out of this was born a document in which the Marxist warned about the “monstrous monopoly over ideology, politics and the economy in the hands of the state” and the priest said “you can’t allow flirtation when it comes to national sovereignty.”
I learned that there are now meetings of intellectuals and economists with debates that throw off sparks because what’s good for the economy isn’t always good for the culture – as we other citizens of the world know very well.
“How are you going to self-finance the national ballet school or ballet itself, for example?” pondered writer Graziella Pogolotti in an interview, adding: “The solution can’t be to raise the prices of the performances and cut out most Cubans.”
The old clichés have been permanently broken, as the youth of the Critical Observatory defied the government by marching on May Day with banners railing against the bureaucratic class and then proceeding to Karl Marx Park to honor the German who invented socialism.
Researcher Esteban Morales published an article that called for transparency in several cases of corruption, for which the Communist Party promptly expelled him. Nevertheless the academic ended up winning the tug of war; he was reinstated into the party and continues to write critically.
If these debates have little mass repercussion it’s because the national press is still “deaf, dumb and blind” to this creative process. Editorial control is stupendous, while a number of websites that had made any receptive impact ended up “pulling their own plugs.”
Notwithstanding, things have changed and they no longer have total control. People like writer Leonardo Padura make use of their national and international recognition and visibility to highlight what are, in their views, the problems affecting their compatriots.
Cuba has been left without models yet it seems to be awakening from the many mind-numbing certainties of the past. The silence has been broken and every day we hear more voices expressing and sharing their own opinions.
Me? I’d like to think this exercise will serve to strengthen the nation.
(*) An authorized Havana Times translation of the original article posted by BBC Mundo.