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Cubans Warily Test Their New Freedom To Criticize

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Cubans Warily Test Their New Freedom To Criticize

Latin America

Cubans Warily Test Their New Freedom To Criticize

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Cuba's state-run economy has been in crisis mode for years, but it's facing some especially sobering arithmetic now. Trade is falling. Debt is stacking up and President Raul Castro has warned Cubans that the island's socialist system must change. He's asking them for something they're not used to giving in public: criticism.

Nick Miroff has that story from Havana.

NICK MIROFF: In the dark driveway of this Havana apartment building, neighbors are gathering around a single light bulb and a Cuban flag. They've come for a meeting of the local Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

MIROFF: It's a neighborhood organization, founded in part to root out anti-government subversion, but now it's tasked with collecting criticism of Cuba's socialist system and ideas for how to reform it. Similar discussions are being held across the island, as communist authorities urge Cubans to work harder, expect less and speak freely about the country's nagging problems.

Mr. AURELIO ALONSO (Deputy Editor, Casa de las Americas): Well, I think there's a major economic changes of reforms that has to rephrase in the Cuban economy.

MIROFF: Aurelio Alonso is the deputy editor of Cuba's Casa de las Americas journal. Like many Cubans who say they support the government but want it to change, he believes the state should allow for more small businesses and cooperatives. But Alonso says simply asking Cubans to work harder for no new benefits is an empty formula.

Mr. ALONSO: Because now, all that we are doing is we have our leaders on the screen of the TV saying you have to produce more. Because in the history of society, I don't remember any situation where economic accumulation has advanced because some charismatic leader says you have to produce more.

MIROFF: Major changes to Cuba's one-party system are not on the discussion agenda. That was also the case in 2007, the last time Cuban leaders asked for public input. Since then, the government has made limited reforms, but Cuba's economy remains overwhelmingly state-controlled. Its inefficiencies are compounded by U.S. trade sanctions. Cubans are left to cope with chronic shortages, meager salaries and a smothering state bureaucracy.

(Soundbite of dog barking)

MIROFF: In a cramped Havana apartment building, former diplomat Miriam Leiva remains wary of the government's new openness to criticism. Her husband, dissident economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, spent two years in prison for his opposition activities.

Ms. MIRIAM LEIVA (Former Diplomat): For decades, people didn't express themselves because they knew that the security police or the informers were listening and were going to tell on them. But little by little, since the situation is so harsh, since they have so many personal problems, they started to open up, to talk, and this has been a way of, you know, liberating themselves and that this is a step to ask for more and to demand further rights.

MIROFF: Leiva still worries the criticism could be used against people in the future. But she said open discussions are a step toward a more open society.

Ms. LEIVA: I think that the government, especially Raul Castro, wants to know what people feel and think and what they hope for. He also knows that people need to express themselves to feel a little better. It's not that I think that he wants to change everything, but at least he knows that even to preserve his power, he has to makes changes.

MIROFF: The proposal that has caused the biggest stir would eliminate the ration system that provides every Cuban, regardless of income, with about two weeks worth of food, most of it is imported at great cost to the government. One of Raul Castro's top officials recently likened some Cubans to baby birds waiting to be fed by their daddy state, a remark that upset many who say it's the government's fault for creating a culture of paternalism.

Mr. ARIEL DACAL (Social Worker): (Foreign Language Spoken)

MIROFF: Social worker Ariel Dacal said he lives in a neighborhood where poor families couldn't survive without the government food basket. As a committed socialist, he worries that if the economy is liberalized but little else changes, Cuba will follow a Chinese or Vietnamese model that eventually leads to capitalism. And that would squander the sense of solidarity and social commitment the Cuban revolution has built over decades.

Mr. DACAL: (Foreign Language Spoken)

MIROFF: The Cuban revolution needs its own revolution, he said. One that would bring more democratic participation to politics, the economy and every facet of daily life. He said it's the only way for the revolution to save itself.

For NPR News, I'm Nick Miroff in Havana.

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