“Glimmers of change in Cuba as fear and secrecy fade”

By John Paul Rathbone in Havana; January 21 2014; Financial Times

Original Article here: Glimmers of change in Cuba as fear and secrecy fade

Apartment building meetings are no longer what they used to be in Havana. A few years ago, they were thinly attended affairs. Residents stayed away as nobody listened to their concerns and nothing ever changed: the broken lift, the lack of water. Cubans, remarkably, seemed to have lost their desire to criticise.

But today? Cuba can sometimes seem a country in permanent debate. “In my apartment building, the meetings are packed, the conversation voluble, and there is lots of angry finger-jabbing at other people’s chests,” one Havana resident told me. Today, Cubans seem to have regained the ability to speak out, or at least are losing their fear of doing so.

It is a sign of the times. Much has been made of Cuba’s “transition” since Raúl Castro took over the presidency from Fidel, his elder brother, in 2008. That Raúl, a former general, is president is a big transition in itself, especially of style. Meetings now start on time. Fidel’s “Battle of Ideas” and much of its vacuous propaganda have been abandoned. Political decisions are no longer taken on apparent whim.

Instead, steps have been taken by Mr Castro to roll back the state from the economy. Certain restrictions have been lifted, such as allowing travel abroad. There has been a change in tone in US relations. Indeed, when Havana academics travel to the US, they are no longer asked: what will happen when Fidel dies? Now the more common question is: how do I buy a house in Havana? There is also talk of constitutional reform, albeit within a one party system.

Yet perhaps the most striking and progressive difference after visiting the island annually for a decade is psychological: Cubans’ state of fear is lifting.

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Joyn Paul RathboneJohn Paul Rathbone; also author of . “The Sugar King of Havana: The Rise and Fall of Julio Lobo, Cuba’s Last Tycoon”

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