by Andrea Rodriguez
Thursday Feb 7, 2008
Taking up Raul Castro’s invitation to speak their minds without fear of reprisal, more Cubans have begun publicly complaining and challenging government policies on everything from limits on Internet access to travel restrictions.This week some leading figures called for change: Culture Minister Abel Prieto said that he supports gay marriage, and famed folk singer Silvio Rodriguez said he believes all Cubans should be free to travel abroad and stay in the hotels reserved for foreign tourists.Open challenges of government authority remain rare in Cuba, where the Communist Party dominates all levels of power. But since replacing his older brother Fidel as acting president, Raul Castro has urged Cuban citizens to help shape their country’s economic future.Tentatively at first, then more audaciously, Cubans have responded.University students, for example, were outspoken in a town-hall style meeting on Jan. 19 with Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba’s legislature. A video of the meeting posted on the Internet shows student leaders challenging him to explain why government policies fail to live up to Cuba’s egalitarian ideals.They asked Alarcon why many basic goods - including toiletries and clothes - are sold in convertible currency meant for tourists and foreigners, making some necessities virtually inaccessible to state employees paid in Cuban pesos worth much less. They complained about laws prohibiting citizens from entering state-run hotels without official permission. They complained about limits on Internet access, and on rules that make getting a travel visa nearly impossible for most Cubans.Alarcon ducked questions about the Internet and called travel a privilege, not a right. When he was their age, before the revolution, he told the students, he wasn’t able to enter Cuba’s luxury nightclubs or exclusive beaches."I never set foot in the Tropicana, nor Varadero," he said. "You know why? "Because my father didn’t have the money to pay for it!"However, other powerful Cuban figures joined the calls for societal change."I think that marriage between lesbians, between homosexuals can be perfectly approved and that in Cuba that wouldn’t cause an earthquake or anything like that," Prieto, a member of the party’s powerful Politburo, told reporters following a screening of a documentary on Rodriguez’s career.
Cuban lawmakers are considering a proposal to allow gay marriages, though its progress in the legislature’s closed-door sessions remains unclear.A 57-year-old writer turned political leader, Prieto is the only top Cuban government official who sports shoulder-length hair. But he is also a member of the island’s supreme governing body, the Council of State. And he said he supports what Raul Castro has termed a "debate" on Cuba’s future.The "immense majority of intellectuals" want to "confront problems, to battle all expressions of bureaucracy in culture and in society and at the same time defend this revolution and socialism," Prieto said.Rodriguez, whose songs have made him a leading voice of the Cuban revolution, described what Cuba is going through now as "a moment of change, of transition ... not the only one I have lived to see within the revolution."The internationally renowned folk singer is a member of parliament who has long defended the Cuban government in the face of criticism over alleged human rights violations. Nonetheless, Rodriguez said Tuesday that authorities should ease restrictions that prevent many Cubans from entering state-run hotels, traveling overseas and even within their own country. "Permission to leave and enter should be completely open," Rodriguez said.For decades, Cuba has restricted travel to keep citizens from flooding large cities in search of jobs. It also limits visas abroad, citing national security concerns. Since Cuba first began accepting foreign tourists en masse in the early 1990s, most Cubans have been barred from hotels, even if they can pay for rooms.Cubans also are complaining about a law requiring citizens to register their full salaries for taxation if they have been paid illegally in dollars or euros for working for foreign firms or embassies.Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a state-trained economist who became an independent journalist and an anti-communist, documented a Jan. 12 public meeting at state-run employment agency Acroex in which employees criticized the new measure."Nobody can disagree with Cuban workers paying taxes on their earnings, something which happens in the whole world," Espinosa Chepe wrote in an article released Tuesday. But he blasted government requirements that Cubans who work for foreigners arrange their jobs through state employment agencies, which collect hefty fees in convertible currency and then pay the employees in less valuable regular pesos.In the article, he said the meeting caused such an uproar that officials suspended plans for similar forums at other state-run firms.