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.