Raul Castro walks tightrope of reforms

Times Staff Writer

In a campaign that bears much similarity to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1980s appeal for glasnost, Cuba’s President Raul Castro has been urging the public to investigate social shortcomings, denounce them and propose improvements.

And in concessions to allow Cubans some access to 21st century technology, Castro’s government recently announced the lifting of bans on cellphones and personal computers.

The top-down decisions granting citizens the ability to communicate with one another and to brainstorm solutions have been a hallmark of Castro’s leadership since he took the reins of a nation in crisis 21 months ago from his older brother Fidel.


Cuban intellectuals and common folk are embracing the straight-talk notion, as did Russians 20 years ago. But here, as in the Soviet Union, the leadership is walking a tightrope, risking the collapse of a struggling, authoritarian system by granting long-denied freedoms.

“Raul Castro’s government will eventually need to confront the million-dollar question: Once it releases the genie of public opinion from the bottle, does it risk permanently reducing its control over Cuban society?” says Daniel P. Erikson, Caribbean analyst for the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

Mindful of the Soviet collapse, Cuban officials are loath to allow any kind of political opening that would be perceived as diminishing the legitimacy of the Communist Party, Erikson said.

“Some Cuban insiders already think that the type of economic discussions favored by Raul Castro have gone too far and that some of the economic reforms debated have political dimensions,” he said.

Allowing personal computers, even at a price many can’t afford, “will increase communication, the flow of information, contact with foreigners and demand for connection to the Internet,” said Phil Peters, a veteran Cuba watcher with the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va., on his blog, the Cuban Triangle.

He noted that similar reforms in the past had been stopped “dead in their tracks” for fear they might undermine state control.


The official uncertainty about how much freedom of speech may be too much was apparent last month. The website of young blogger Yoani Sanchez,, was attracting so much foreign and domestic attention with its candid comments on everyday life that it was blocked, presumably by the government. Pages of the site recounting absurdities of life on the island can take more than half an hour to open.

Rather than shut down the site, government censors installed security filters, Cuban Internet surfers speculate, that prevent the Web users from gaining access without frittering away at least $5 worth of precious prepaid minutes. The average monthly salary in Cuba is less than $20.

“The anonymous censors of our famished cyberspace have tried to shut me in my room, turn off the light and not let my friends in,” Sanchez wrote on her website after getting complaints from Cuban readers who couldn’t reach her blog. She speculated that authorities felt her site was “a phenomenon that was getting out of their hands.”

The state’s information gatekeepers acknowledge that a broader consensus should be sought in managing the flow of communications.

“We have to promote dialogue on TV in which the vertical model is replaced by the horizontal one, with participation,” Waldo Ramirez of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television observed in a recent interview with the Communist youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde.

Institute officials announced recently that a 24-hour channel with unspecified foreign programming from other Latin American states would be added soon to state offerings, which many Cubans find boring and pedantic.

Internet access has also been growing steadily, if slowly. In the time since the younger Castro took over, the number of Internet users has grown at least threefold, though at 2% of Cuba’s 11.2 million people, it still translates into the Western Hemisphere’s lowest penetration rate.

Recent government reforms, such as lifting bans on Cubans staying at tourist hotels, have been seen as responses to public appeals for eliminating bureaucracy. At a student forum in January at a Havana computer school, the National Assembly president was challenged on the exclusion of Cubans from the country’s best resorts and beaches, as well as the two-tiered economy that puts hard currency in the hands of some while denying that superior buying power to retirees and state workers.

At a closed-door congress of cultural figures this month, the island’s artistic leaders lamented the government’s restrictions on Internet access, the limited TV and radio offerings and excessive bureaucracy in the realms of literature and the creative arts.

The Congress of Writers and Artists has hailed the recent liberalization and expressed hope that the moves are signs of more to come.

Vice President Carlos Lage, who crafted modest economic reforms 15 years ago that allowed Cubans to open small restaurants, offer rooms for rent and services such as hairdressing, shoe repair and tailoring, has urged a cautious approach to self-criticism.

“No one can understand or criticize with the force needed today if they forget our recent past,” he said, recalling the food, fuel and energy shortages in Cuba after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end to billions in annual aid.

Many self-employment opportunities introduced during those lean years were repealed four years ago when Fidel Castro deemed that the island had sufficiently recovered and that state enterprises could fully provide for Cubans’ needs.

Many struggling workers disagree.

Jesus, a truck driver with a poultry distribution enterprise who didn’t want to give his last name, lives with and supports his widowed mother on his 125-peso monthly salary. That’s about $5, which buys little, even augmented by the few extra dollars he earns each week operating a makeshift parking lot in front of their apartment for those frequenting the clubs and bars of Old Havana. He also does some “business” selling boxes of chicken that fall off the back of his lumbering 20-year-old Soviet-built Zil truck.

He doesn’t believe that more talk is what’s in order.

“Chatter, chatter, chatter! That’s all anyone does in this country,” he said as he sat on a bench in Parque Central, listening to a group of men argue vociferously about baseball. “Everyone knows what the problems are. We hear a lot of what is going to happen, but we don’t see anything change.”

His mother encourages him to leave the country, to join friends who have fled for Mexico or the United States.

Jesus and many other Cubans still lower their voices when sharing counterrevolutionary thoughts, but timid steps toward airing grievances are gathering momentum. Some of the boldest commentaries on Cuban society have come not only from bloggers, but also from state-run newspapers such as Juventud Rebelde and the Communist Party’s Daily Granma.

The leadership’s hints of greater tolerance appear to extend only to the economy and standard of living. Alternative political parties and pro-democracy movements remain taboo, and police continue to arrest independent journalists and dissidents who agitate for multiparty elections.

On Monday, police broke up a peaceful demonstration in Havana by the Ladies in White group demanding the release of their jailed husbands, brothers and fathers. Several members were detained.

Authorities also have continued to rally the public in support of their causes, from denunciation of the U.S. economic embargo to moral backing for China amid the struggle with Tibetan protesters.

“We can complain and even criticize,” Jesus said. “But there are still limits and we know instinctively what they are.”