Openings for Free Expression in Cuban Society

Cubans of various political leanings gathered at the Felix Varela Cultural Center. Photo: Raquel Perez

Fernando Ravsberg

HAVANA TIMES, April 6 — Last week I first attended a discussion at the Felix Varela Cultural Center, an organization that operates under the auspices of the Cuban Catholic Church. Frankly, never in my two decades of living in Cuba had I seen such a variety of political views, at least not in the same room.

To begin with, the main speaker was the controversial Carlos Saladrigas, a successful Cuban-American businessperson who’s now a multi-millionaire. For years he was politically active among the exile hardliners, but now he wants to collaborate with Raul Castro’s reforms.

The audience included everybody: members of the opposition, dissident bloggers, communist critics, emigrants, Catholic communists, members of the Communist Party, intellectuals from the most diverse spheres, priests, lay people, diplomats and foreign journalists.

He gave the floor to practically anyone who asked to speak, and a controversy almost immediately arose because, when it comes to Cubans, each question was preceded by a long exposition of their views on the national situation.

“All the content of my presentation was nothing compared to the fact that we were able to have this wide range of Cuban society expressing various opinions and viewpoints, and with extraordinary decorum,” said Saladrigas later.

Some opinions clashed with those of the speaker, who proposed that everyone make concessions to achieve reconciliation. One blogger replied, though, that the only one who needed to concede was the government, because the dissents and Miami had already backed down a lot.

The communist critics rejected the participation of the Cuban-American businesspeople in the economy because they would only promote market capitalism and human exploitation. They insisted that what was necessary was the construction of true socialism.

Cuban-American businessperson Carlos Saladrigas highlighted the participation of the broad spectrum of society. Photo: Raquel Perez

Saladrigas said that if he were a 25-year-old, he wouldn’t leave Cuba because the changes being promoted by the government would open many opportunities for young entrepreneurs. He added that some of them are already making a lot of money, even by US standards.

Another young man in the audience responded that he wouldn’t miss any chance to emigrate because no one knows how the changes will last or how deep they will go, noting that only 180 self-employment job categories have been authorized so far.

At times I felt that everyone who was there had come to hear themselves talk more than to listen to what the rest of their fellow nationals were thinking. Undoubtedly, politicians from different positions have very little practice in discussing with their opponents.

However, the longest road begins with the first step, and what was remarkable was that such politically antagonistic sectors of Cuban society were able to meet under one roof and express their disagreements with openness and respect.

Cardinal Ortega and the laity who put out the Cuban Catholic Church’s publications seem to have proposed opening discussions in which the multiple voices in society can be heard. The journal Espacio Laical and the Centro Cultural Felix Varela are part of that effort.

The Catholic Church must appreciate such exclusivity lent by the official ideological apparatus, since typically it drowns out everything in its effort to control public spaces, determine the direction of discussion, prohibit the participation of the “enemy” and prevent the publication about what’s being discussed.

In Cuban society, discussions rarely occur between those holding varying opinions. Photo: Raquel Perez

I come from a very secular country, and personally I would prefer if debate were promoted by a more flexible entity within society, because religions too are trapped in ideological dogmas that limit freedom of opinion.

Recently a Cuban bishop told me that on issues such as homosexuality, the legalization of same-sex marriages, abortion, the use of condoms and divorce, the Catholic Church maintained an uncompromising stand that it wasn’t willing to negotiate.

Notwithstanding, the fact is that for now there’s no other forum as diverse as the Centro Cultural Felix Varela. Let’s “pray” that it continues so that such discussions can become regular occurrences and forums like this might multiply throughout Cuban society.