Monday, May 5, 2008

Cuba walks tightrope of reforms

Regime loosens grip but wants to keep hold

Computers went on sale Friday in Cuba, with several dozen people lining up outside a major store to gawk at the machines, the latest change under President Raul Castro.

Computers went on sale Friday in Cuba, with several dozen people lining up outside a major store to gawk at the machines, the latest change under President Raul Castro. (Ramon Espinosa/associated press)

By Carol J. Williams Los Angeles Times / May 5, 2008

HAVANA - In a campaign that bears much similarity to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's 1980s appeal for glasnost, 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?" asks 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 might be too much was apparent in March. The website of young blogger Yoani Sanchez,, was attracting so much foreign and domestic attention with its 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 a half-hour to open.

Rather than shut down the site, government censors installed security filters, Cuban Internet surfers speculate, that prevent the Internet 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," said Waldo Ramirez of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television in a recent interview with the Communist youth newspaper Juventud Rebelde.

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