Changes May Be Under Way in Cuba

Ever since Raul Castro took over the reins of power in Cuba from his ailing brother, Fidel, there has been talk of a possible opening up of the socialist economy there.

Unlike Fidel, Raul has the reputation of a reformer. Still, for most of the time since Fidel's illness, there had been no serious signs that anything was actually changing.

But things look like they may be moving in a different direction.

For decades, debate in Cuba has been severely restricted. Discussions on the failures of the Cuban socialist system where seen as disloyal, or even anti-revolutionary.

This is a country with no freedom of press and no right to assembly, unless it is a government-sanctioned event.

Discussions Held

But, in the past month, something new has been happening here — kicked off by a July speech given by acting leader Raul Castro in which he admitted that there were many structural problems in the system that should be discussed.

Thousands of meetings have been taking place across the island, organized by the local Communist Party in workplaces and communities, to discuss things that used to be taboo.

One teacher, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution from government officials, said people are happy to open up.

"This was an opportunity to vent," she said. "I think it was good and good for the country. Years ago, people were afraid to talk, but now people aren't afraid and say what they like."

The meetings last for a few hours. One person is appointed to write down all the complaints, which are then supposed to be passed to the next level of government.

"We spoke about everything — transportation, how bad it is," she said. "We talked about the salary we teachers receive. We earn $16 dollars — nothing. We spoke about how expensive food on the island is. We don't have enough to cover the basic needs of our children, often. We spoke about clothing — how we can't afford the uniforms they require of us. We spoke about housing — how people aren't allowed to build."

She said that she was surprised by how invested everyone seemed in the process.

"We don't know if this is to canvas the mood of the population, or if this will actually be acted on," she said.

People Hopeful

There have been other occasions when Cubans have been encouraged to air their grievances, but this seems to be the most comprehensive event of its kind in many years. And, coming as it does with Fidel ill and Raul in control, it is significant.

Before each meeting everyone is given Raul's July speech to study. That has given people a sense that this has been sanctioned at the highest level.

"The Cuban regime is undertaking a massive pulse-taking, or temperature-taking, of the population," said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. They're trying to figure out how to deal with Cubans' enormous, pent-up demand, and how to do it without raising expectations too much that change will come and what it might deliver."

Ricardo Alarcon, head of Cuba's parliament, was cryptic about what is going to happen next on the island.

"You discuss in order to air issues and fine tune ways to operate or to react, what to do," he said. "Discussion is always important as a way to conduct things. Where would lead that discussion, who knows?"

The teacher said there is a real sense of expectation among the people, even though she has her doubts.

"For now, I think people are hopeful that some change will occur for the best," she said. "But I think we'll continue to wait, as always, for something good to happen."

Cubans are used to waiting, she says, because they do not have any other choice.

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