[freedomtowernight_edited.jpg] 26th Parallel: Freedom of Speech in Cuba

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Freedom of Speech in Cuba

It was by invitation only, but it's a start.
In Cuba, dissent by invitation only.

In the first sign of internal dissent in Cuba since Fidel Castro ceded power six months ago, intellectuals held a forum to discuss government censorship in the 1970s.

By Frances Robles

One by one, Cuban artists and intellectuals in Havana did something unprecedented this week: They stood before the government and criticized a particularly harsh era of censorship -- out loud and in the open.

Perhaps even more surprising than the conference held Tuesday to discuss a dark period of Cuban cultural oppression was what happened outside: a protest by those shut out of the invitation-only event. Also out loud and in the open.

''I don't know how important it can be, but what's true is that I have never seen anything like that in Cuba,'' Cuban writer Ena Lucía Portela told The Miami Herald in an e-mail. ``It was rudimentary, passionate, incoherent, but it was the closest thing to freedom of expression I have seen in this country in my entire life.''

In a move that Cuba experts say signals a significant shift in Cuban domestic policy, the government led by interim President Raúl Castro appears to be cracking open the door to debate. After Castro publicly asserted he was open to discussion, and later convened a committee to study flaws of socialism, experts say there has been a clear changing of the guard in Cuba, one that allows at least controlled discussion.

In the first sign of internal dissent since Fidel Castro ceded power six months ago, intellectuals furious over the television appearances of 1970s-era government officials responsible for a crackdown on intelligentsia convened a conference to discuss it. But while the event was an extraordinary display of criticism, opponents of the Castro brothers point out that the conference was not open to the public, suggesting that the steps the government has taken toward discussion are small and wobbly.


The flare-up was triggered when Cuban TV ran a laudatory profile last month of Luis Pavón Tamayo, the former chairman of the National Culture Council. Pavón's five-year reign was dubbed the ''The Gray Quinquennium'' -- The Five Gray Years -- for its record of arrests and censorship.

A flurry of e-mails condemning the TV appearances swept Cuba's cultural community, leading to a rare statement by the artists' guild published in the state-controlled newspaper, Granma, which denounced the TV shows.

''The act established a turning point that we hope will be irreversible,'' writer Reynaldo González, winner of the 2003 National Literary Prize, said in an e-mail to The Miami Herald. ``And it has created an echo that will be difficult to stifle, even if someone tries to do so.''

A magazine editor convoked a conference led by writer Ambrosio Fornet and attended by Culture Minister Abel Prieto to debate the topic. But tickets were given only to some 450 people.


Reports from Cuba say young writers who were not invited protested outside.

Portela, 34, wasn't invited, and viewed the conference as a white-wash. ''A half-century of lies is not something that can change overnight,'' she said.

Former Cuban political prisoner Manuel Vásquez Portal agreed, saying it was nothing but a political ploy aimed at identifying dissenters.

''Look, Raúl Castro is a soldier. Soldiers don't debate. They order,'' said Vásquez, a former independent journalist. ``If he wants to debate, he'd free prisoners of conscience and invite them to debate.''

Prieto did not return e-mails requesting comment. Fornet sent a copy of his speech, in which he acknowledged that today's young Cubans don't know about the Pavón period -- because nobody ever told them.

''When evoking the Gray Quinquennium, I feel that we're plunging headlong into something that not only deals with the present but also projects us forcefully into the future,'' Fornet said, 'even if only because of what [Spanish philosopher Jorge Ruiz de] Santayana said: `Those who don't know history are condemned to repeat it.' That danger is precisely what we're trying to conjure here.''

Florida International University Professor Uva de Aragón said the fact that the event took place shows Cuba is changing.

'The first time I heard Raúl say `open to discussion,' I knew Fidel was no longer in control,'' she said. ``It should not be that much surprising. They must realize things are coming to an end. I think at this point, intellectuals figure they have nothing to lose.''

Miami Herald translator Renato Pérez contributed to this report.

For those who think that Cuban-Americans will have nothing to talk about after the regime crumbles, this is perhaps a tiny glimpse of the type of debate that all Cubans will take part in as Cuba heads towards freedom.

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