HAVANA TIMES, June 4 – The dialogue of the island’s government with the Catholic Church marks a landmark in the Cuban Revolution: For the first time the Communist Party has recognized a national institution as a valid interlocutor in discussing the country’s political problems.
In the past there were other meetings, even ones with religious leaders, but these issues were not part of the agenda. Up to now, only dialogue on political issues and human rights had been entered into with foreign governments and international institutions.
The recent exchange between Cardinal Jaime Ortega and President Raul Castro has several positive characteristics; the first is that it involves dialogue among Cubans that embraces some of the country’s most sensitive problems.
The initial results are evidently positive; who could argue that ailing political prisoners should not be treated in hospitals and that the rest should be transferred to prisons in their provinces, closer to their families?
The health of some of the detainees —political ones or not— is an issue that should occupy the authorities. It’s only a problem of will, given that Cuba has the sufficient capacity to attend to them at a satisfactory level.
Also positive is moving prisoners closer to their relatives, because their isolation wasn’t punishing the inmates, but their mothers, fathers, wives and children; these family members were the ones who had to manage some way to travel hundreds of miles on visiting days.
People are speculating about the possibility of new steps such as the release of political prisoners. However, one mustn’t be overly optimistic. It will require a large dose of flexibility and realism to approach issues as thorny as determining who are the prisoners of conscious.
On the current list of prisoners there are all types of people, from those who did nothing more than write a single article or tried organize a demonstration, to those who’ve committed felonies and violent acts such as murder and dynamite attacks.
International amnesty recognizes 53 prisoners of conscious; however a Spanish diplomat commented to me that —in regular contacts that Spain maintains with Havana on these issues— neither is Madrid demanding the release of all of these inmates.
So it’s better not to get ahead of oneself. For the time being what is important is the precedent. If in dialogue with the leaders of a religion, that’s not even the professed by the majority of people in Cuba, it was possible to touch upon and make advances around such difficult issues, what won’t be possible to achieve if discussion is generated with the participation of all Cubans.
There was a precedent in 2007, when people were asked to express their opinions about those things that didn’t work properly in the country. Some five million Cubans participated and more than one million opinions were recorded.
Citizens talked about the most pressing problems they faced in daily life: low wages, transportation issues, the dual currency, the housing shortage, food prices and the lack of places for enjoyment.
Three years have passed, however, and most of these same issues continue to drag on with no solution in sight. Not all of the blame lies with the government; difficult times fell upon Raul Castro, including a series of hurricanes that razed the country and a world economic crisis that continues to hit it hard.
This could be a good moment to again listen to the citizens, but this time requesting them to propose solutions that could serve to design a nation among everyone, though without foreign interference. This would be a discussion between the rulers and the ruled.
That would allow the Cuban leadership to learn firsthand what is wanted by the ordinary man and woman, something that’s especially important when preparing for a Communist Party Congress, which will decide the future of everyone.
It’s paradoxical that the official newspaper published the news of the meeting with the church leaders while it denies critical communists a space in the press to express their points of view about how to save socialism.
After all, this is only about the government entering a debate that has already been taken up in the streets. This is a discussion that has been raised in statements by revolutionary Cuban artists and in the analyses written by the island’s intellectuals, as well as in what common people criticize at the market.
An authorized translation by Havana Times (from the Spanish original) published by BBC Mundo.