By VICTORIA BURNETT New York Times; Published: December 7, 2013; MEXICO CITY.
It is a rare day in Cuba when the Communist Party’s triumphalist newspaper suggests that the government — just maybe — messed up. Or when the party’s chief ideologist renounces government secrecy. Or a salsa star, performing at an official concert, calls for the freedom to vote and to smoke marijuana. But such gestures of openness are becoming more common.
Glasnost it is not, say Cuban intellectuals and analysts. But glimpses of candor in the official news media and audacious criticism from people who, publicly at least, support the revolution suggest widening tolerance of a more frank, if circumscribed, discussion of the country’s problems. “There is more space for debate,” said Armando Chaguaceda, a Cuban political scientist and blogger who lives in Mexico. “People are more outspoken.”
For decades, Cuba’s garrulous citizens discussed politics sotto voce and barely referred to Fidel and Raúl Castro by name, even in their own living rooms. But in recent years, especially in Havana, Cubans have begun talking more openly about the economy, the political leadership and the restrictions they resent. As they taste new freedoms and, increasingly, discuss their problems online, they are pushing the boundary between what can and cannot be said. “What people can get away with has changed,” said Ted Henken, a professor at the City University of New York.
Much of this comes down to President Raúl Castro’s style, said Carlos Alberto Pérez, a self-described “revolutionary” blogger. Since Mr. Castro took over from his ailing brother in 2006, he has invited Cubans to give their opinions on the economy and called on the state-run news media to be more incisive. “People in Cuba want to debate, argue, listen and be listened to,” said Mr. Pérez, whose website covers issues ranging from the difficulty of getting a body cremated to public transport.
Overhauls allowing limited private-sector activity and more freedom to travel have loosened the state’s grip on Cubans’ lives and led them to question more openly a political system that has kept the same people in power for more than five decades.
In September, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference made a bold, if oblique, bid for a more democratic system, calling in a pastoral letter for an “updating” of the political model and saying Cuba should be a “plural” society.
Meanwhile, the Internet — despite being out of reach for most Cubans — has broken the state’s monopoly on information and allowed for a spectrum of opinion, bloggers and analysts say. Bloggers, including many who support the Communist system, have written about economic mismanagement, the timidity of changes, corruption, bureaucracy, the lack of Internet connectivity and the passivity of the state-run news media. Blogs and Facebook posts often spur streams of blunt online comment. “It’s revealing that people who are supposedly on the inside are making the same criticisms as people on the outside,” Professor Henken said.
There are still limits. While the government preaches frankness, it continues to crush opposition, and those who step over the fickle line between loyal criticism and dissent risk ostracism, loss of employment, harassment or jail. The Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation, an independent group that tracks treatment of activists, said there were 761 short-term arrests of dissidents in November, one of the highest figures in the past two years. And in October, five independent journalists were detained for several days, according to Reporters Without Borders. “It’s ambiguous,” said Mr. Chaguaceda, the political scientist. “It depends who you are, how you say things, where you say them.”
In the middle of a nationally televised concert in September, the jazz singer Robertico Carcassés surprised the nation by calling for the right to elect the president, the legalization of marijuana and freedom of information. Even more shocking was the authorities’ reaction: After barring Mr. Carcassés from performing in state-owned venues, meaning most of them, they backed down after Silvio Rodríguez, a famous revolutionary singer, stuck up for his colleague’s right to speak out.
The state-run media, which comprises virtually all press, television and radio in Cuba, has publicly embraced what it calls the “battle against secretiveness” and made efforts, however tepid, to shake up its coverage. In September, the state-run television news introduced a segment, “Cuba Dice,” or Cuba Says, in which Cubans on the street are interviewed about issues including alcoholism, housing problems and the high price of fruit and vegetables.
In October, Col. Rolando Alfonso Borges, chief of ideology for the Communist Party, told a summit meeting of the Cuban Journalists’ Union that the party rejected secrecy. Last month, Miguel Díaz Canel Bermúdez, first vice president of the Council of State, met with journalists in the provinces to urge them to be more polemical. In a highly unusual show of flexibility, Granma, the party’s official newspaper, wrote in November that public opinion seemed to be against a recent ban on private 3-D cinemas. Noting the “rich” online debate, the article said Cubans supported regulating and reopening the movie theaters and hinted that the decision might be reversed.
Indeed, blogs have won high-level readers. The reform-minded blog La Joven Cuba was blocked for several months last year after it published several critical articles. These days, however, “we bump into officials, and they tell us, ‘Oh, I was just reading your article,’ ” said Harold Cárdenas Lema, 28, one of the blog’s founders.
The Internet, coupled with greater traffic between the island and the Cuban diaspora, has smudged the divisions that have defined life in Cuba since Fidel Castro’s 1961 dictum, “Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing.”
“Cuba is a country where for years there was nothing but extremes,” Mr. Cárdenas Lema said. “But we’ve managed to achieve a more nuanced reality.”
Some dismiss the changes as window-dressing or a tactic to co-opt internal dissent. Arturo López Levy, a former intelligence analyst with the Cuban government who lectures at the University of Denver, says the push for a more critical official news media is partly an attempt to control a debate that is already happening in social media and elsewhere. “Faced with the challenge of a more open environment, the government would prefer to channel complaints and debates through its own mechanisms,” he said.
Mr. López Levy likened the task of pushing for change from within in Cuba to the punishment of Sisyphus, rolling a stone up a hill only to watch it roll to the bottom. “But sometimes,” he acknowledged, “the stone comes to rest in a different position.”