Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Alarcon's town meeting [Updated]

Raul Castro said he wanted a debate. He told Cubans and young Cubans in particular that he wanted them to speak out, and they are obliging. National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon is the latest to find out.

Someone passed the BBC’s correspondent in Havana, Fernando Ravsberg, a video of a lively meeting between Alarcon and students of the Universidad de Ciencias Informaticas. Ravsberg’s story, in Spanish only on the BBC website, is here. Note that in the middle of the story there’s a link to a four-minute audio report where you can hear several students’ statements and questions.

It’s well worth a listen.

One student complains that candidates for the National Assembly don’t visit the University: “Who are they? Where did they come from?” Another complains that basic necessities are priced in hard currency and salaries are paid in Cuban pesos, worth “25 times less” than the convertible peso. There’s a call for more communication and interchange between government ministers and the people, so that the public can know how government is addressing problems and the people can be part of the solution.

Not included in the recording is a complaint that Cubans cannot travel freely abroad, but Alarcon’s answer is included, where he says that only a minority of people of any country travel internationally, and that Cubans travel based on merit rather than financial means, as was the case in the past. The story on the website reports that there were also questions about Internet access; Alarcon responded that he is not up to speed on that question.

What does this mean? I’m interested to know what readers think, especially those who know about the kind of debates Cuba has conducted in the past. Mr. Ravsberg deserves congratulations for his reporting, and maybe BBC London will find a way to put the video on its site so we can see it. [Update: video here, a four-minute clip.]

Not having been there, I’m hesitant to draw big conclusions. Events such as this could be a sign of a government that’s out of touch. Or they could mark a government that is confident that it can brook criticism, that benefits from an airing of criticism within the system, and has some responses up its sleeve. Time will tell.


Alex said...

As a veteran of the debates almost two decades ago, before the 4th PCC Congress (I wrote about them once) I'm jaded. I think these debates are staged to provide an escape valve to frustration. They provide the temporary illusion that something will be done. Alarcon (in my time it was Perez Roque, in his previous role as FEU president) is there to parry questions, provide non-responsive answers, threaten them with the unknown -"it was worse before 59" or "how many Bolivians can travel?"- and give the impression the government is listening. Nothing was answered and nothing will happen.

It's not an out of touch government, but rather a government that's very much in touch, knows what's being said on the streets, knows when emotions are about to boil and sometimes decides to play the we-are-listening card.

Anonymous said...

Alex is absolutely right. Been there, done that.

Mambi_Watch said...

Thanks for the heads up Phil. Sometimes the Spanish reports on BBC about Cuba are quite good.

I'll disagree with Alex here, but I highly respect his first-hand experience and conclusions about the situation in Cuba.

I'm optimistic about these signs of political debate in Cuba. It can be forums like these that can spark a significant change in attitudes among the population. I myself cannot imagine that Cubans, in this very significant period of political transition (unlike the belt-tightening of the Special Period), would allow that their grievances go unmet.

I think the oligarchs of Cuba are now in a vulnerable position to make significant economic changes. My opinion has been that Cuba's youth, those who had to bite their tongue amidst the economic collapse more than ten years ago, will not tolerate self-sacrifice for long.

I seriously doubt that these debate forums are aimed at giving a deaf ear. I'm optimistic the Cuban government will do something significant for the economy.

But, only the people of Cuba will decide soon if those changes will be significant enough to bear. And, I think that time is coming.

Ernesto said...

Phil, the video is already available.

Phil Peters said...

Thanks for those comments.

Having seen the video now, a few comments of my own.

The footage leaked to BBC was not surreptitiously recorded by someone in attendance; it is taken from different angles, looks like the University's official recording of the meeting.

Unfortunately, it's just a few minutes rather than the entire event.

It shows students addressing Alarcon in a tough but respectful way.

Nothing in this clip looks like the meeting was out of control. Maybe there's other video out there that gives a different impression. From this excerpt it looks like a town meeting with students acting as students should.

Anonymous said...

Hey MB, just because I lived there doesn't make me an expert. I can be wrong.

In fact, I wish I'm wrong and there are signs of change. But once bitten twice shy.

I simply don't think the regime is in a position to do something significant for the economy without structural changes. If alarcon had some specific answers, or at least acknowledged the problems, I'd buy it more. But he just deflected the questions with the same tired arguments.

Mambi_Watch said...


I understand that your personal experience might make you more apprehensive, but neither did I intend to make a judgment or declare that your thoughts were right or wrong. I merely wanted to distinguish my own thoughts from yours, or any similar comment.

I agree with you that Alarcon's responses were insufficient and obviated from straight forward answers (welcome to the language of the political elite), but my sense of optimism lies not in what Alarcon said, but in the very act of the debate and forum.

When students or anyone in the audience sees that others share their grievances, a sense of solidarity begins. And, when people hear the response of their political leaders, and realize they are being fed platitudes, then a political movement can begin. This is the value of public debates. It allows a political discourse to develop.

It should also be noted that this debate was not exactly open to the entire public (it was a closed door session I believe), but neither should we believe that these grievance stop beyond the walls of the university. They might just reflect something larger.

The catalyst we've all been waiting for can happen at one of these debates. And, even so the debate can continue beyond the university. There will be obstacles by the Cuban government, but I believe that this time repression of a much larger issue (the economy) is too risky.

Just my thoughts.

Anonymous said...

I got you. I said it so it's clear I don't pretend my opinion to be superior in any way just because I was there and participated in a similar process.

I agree with what you say as far as these events creating an atmosphere of solidarity, etc. The problem I see is that it may not lead to that catalyctic event you hope for. These kids are a product of the paternalistic social construct in Cuba. They are waiting for a solution from above. Being strangers to any sort of political process it's hard to ask them to start one of their own making.

It's one of the things I think people from outside Cuba have a hard time realizing: even the simple democratic, political processes we have ingrained are alien to Cubans. "There's a way to fix things" we were always told "from the inside, through the established channels and organizations, with the Party and the Revolution". Not easy to break out of that mold.

I mean, they may be questioning why the candidates to the National Assembly don't meet with them, but they are not questioning HOW or WHO selected those candidates. Is it a start or an insuperable gap?

Fantomas said...

I'm optimistic the Cuban government will do something significant for the economy.

Who cares about the economy?

How about freedom? How can you have a good economic plan, when you centralize , control every aspect of the country. The Cuban government SHOULD STAY aWAY FROM TELECOMMUNICATIONS, FOOD, TRANSPORTATION, let the experts ...Companies around the world that can easyly do a BETTER JOB..providing , competing, growing , offering quality and service something the communist know little about it

Anonymous said...

Fantomas , stop drinking your "freedom" kool-aid.

I mean I want freedom for Cuba too, but you have to get off your right wing talking points pills. You are a ideological hack,.