Debating Issues in Cuba

Fernando Ravsberg

Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 7 — To see disagreements between the panelists on a program like Cuba’s news/commentary program “Mesa Redonda” (the Round Table) is something that rarely occurs.  To also allow members of an audience to raise blunt criticisms against the government would be truly astounding.

Notwithstanding, this is what happened at the Fresa y Chocolate Cultural Center at the end of September.  In the panel discussion held there was a former economic minister of Fidel Castro, a well-known economic analyst from the University of Havana, and a renowned sociologist.

The audience was made up of a hundred of people of all types and colors, and the admission open and free.  The great majority of those in attendance were Cubans, but there were also a few diplomatic officials from the US and a couple of foreign journalists.

The topic was the Cuban economic crisis of the 1990s.  Upon entering we were given forms so that we could express our opinion with respect to this.  The fact that the surveys didn’t ask for people’s names helped everyone to view the inquiry as sincere.

My surprise began when I first detected basic disagreements between the panelists, and I wondered if something was getting out of control.  And if that weren’t enough, the speakers also differed on what the Cuban government is doing today.

While one of the panelists adamantly maintained that any economic opening is a “concession to capitalism,” another responded to him saying that it’s patently untrue that “Statization” is synonymous with “socialism.”

At a key moment in the debate, one of the speakers affirmed that citizens have no more than two alternatives: They have to choose between the “Cuban model” that has prevailed since 1968 or the “neoliberal model” that was established in Russia.

However, this was immediately rebutted by those who believe there are other possible variations between savage capitalism and the Soviet model, and that Cuban society should —collectively— decide which one it will adopt.

I couldn’t come out of my shock, and I still hadn’t witnessed the best part: “The Public’s Opinion.”  When they gave the floor to the audience, I saw coming up to the microphone the greatest part of Cuban society, with their differing shades of political opinion.

Among the youth, one socialist spoke of being fed up with the government deciding everything without consulting people, while another said he was tired of so much experimentation.  Someone demanded that the authorities clearly define where they were trying to take the country.  Critical communists proposed creating true socialism though an old man asked us to support the existing Revolution.

Others didn’t ask to speak, but the emotion was such that it was impossible for them to control themselves; they applauded enthusiastically at some of the panelists’ presentations and maintained a courteous but uncomfortable silence when they differed from what was expressed.

The former minister was the one who received the least applause.  However, it didn’t seem to be a personal matter; rather, it was a rejection of the model he personified and choose to defend, even though he was aware of the scant popularity it would enjoy among the people there.

These forums are not new; the magazine Temas, run by Rafael Hernandez, holds them once a month on different issues.  What has happened is that over the recent period the level of debate seems to have risen.

The day they talked about the Internet, a woman entered the room wearing a strange wig, though the disguise didn’t prevent her from being recognized as an opposition blogger.  Nonetheless, she was called on by her real name and also allowed to express her ideas.

But the debate transcends Temas.  No one can deny that the recent dialogue with the Catholic Church was an unprecedented event.  Never before had the government sat down at the table with a national organization that was not controlled by the Communist Party.

A few days ago a babalao (a priest of an Afro-Cuban religion) passed me a “secret” video that’s circulating around from hand to hand.  In it an economist proposes such changes to the model that my friend thought he was “somebody from Miami.”

In fact he and others on the video are researchers who live in Cuba.  Until recently they were considered “problematic” but now they’re speaking at conferences —ones that are filmed and circulated among people— and they even have radio programs to present their ideas.

Also known are the conversations between Alfredo Guevara and students from various schools.  In his opinion and those of the students vibrate a critical spirit that has been absent in Cuban universities for too long.

Not too long ago a European diplomat complained about Cuban political stagnation, but a US journalist reminded him that the government is now distributing land, reducing the number of State employees, expanding self-employed work, authorizing small private businesses, entering into dialogue with the Catholic Church, commuting the death sentence and releasing political prisoners.

My colleague concluded, “Maybe they aren’t making the changes you’d like to see, but have no doubt that this country is in fact changing.”

Havana Times translation of the Spanish original authorized by BBC Mundo.

4 thoughts on “Debating Issues in Cuba

  • Julio, I forget, where do you live?

    I live in the US. It claims to be a democracy, but I think I can safely say that today, in spite of all our “freedoms” and that we have two parties basically controlling the government and how most of our money gets spent, that most Americans don’t think our great country is either free or democratic when it comes to the important things. That is why there is a growing and developing “occupation” movement among other popular discontents. Most Americans now understand that we have a country where 1% are really in control and have been in most important matters for a long time. “Power to the people!” is a great slogan and well worth achieving, or even working to increase both here and in Cuba. But since the US has been trying to overthrow Cuba’s government and social system for 50 years and still spends millions to make anything good fail in Cuba today, changes would not be improvements if they opened the door to a US invasion or a return to the conditions under the pre-revolutionary regimes. Freedom and people’s power are worth fighting for, but not if the results are fake – as in fascism or civil war – or the 1% getting richer while the rest pay for it. I’d love to see an article and commentary about why Cuban’s – who read and post here – think the US government is so opposed to what has been going on in Cuba since 1959. Might be revealing and helpful to understanding people’s criticisms and aspirations.

  • I’m so glad for this article, Fernando. Because it’s a testament to the fact that – unlike many Miami-liked loathers claim – Cuba is far from ‘hell’, and the Revolution is itself involved in a process of transformation, rather than one of complete stagnation.

  • I have been thinking about this
    ” No one can deny that the recent dialogue with the Catholic Church was an unprecedented event. ”

    my impression about the dialog with the Catholic Church was that it was really unprecedented since for the first time it seems Cubans at least in a politically neutral position as the Catholic church is talked to the government.

    It sure seems the Cuban government was in a hurry to solve the hot potato they had on their hands with the prisoners and the suicide of Zapata and the potential public relations problem they would have face if Farinas would have also die as a result of his ongoing hunger strike at the time.
    Of all the Cubans they could have pick to have this talks about releasing the political prisoners it seems the choose that one that had no political interest.

    The catholic church.

    They were ask to play the mediator role so they were really a tool for the government. On the other hand they could have choose to talk directly to a foreign person like Moratinos or some other foreign dignitary but I believe is relevant the the government of Raul did at least pick Cubans to have this talks. That was a good step on the right direction.

    This is a good precedent for future talks that hopefully will happen between the opposition in Cuba and the government and between the government and the opposition outside of Cuba.

    I do believe we should all seat down and talk and come to solutions that will return Cuba to a democracy and freedom and returning power back to the people.

  • I have read comments from other posters to HavanaTimes about this particular debate and that they could not get in to participate.
    It seems that the topics and themes treated are very important and many more people like to participate it should be possible for the organizers of these debates to find a different place that is either more open or with sufficient capacity assuming that is not intentional the use of such a small place so that some people were left out of the debate.

    Isbel and Yusimi both commented they tried to get in and could not.

    One other idea could be to broadcast these debates on TV without censure.
    That will be a truly revolutionary step! I am sure people will be more interested in this debate than in the Round Table where no debate takes place.
    One learns more from diverging points of view than from listening to just one side and one opinion “the official one”.
    There is an obvious and palpable desire by the people to participate in this open debates and discussions about the future and past of Cuba.

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