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DEBORAH AMOS, host:

Now to Cuba and questions about another set of brothers and how identical their policies will be.

Since Raul Castro took over the reigns of power from his ailing brother, Fidel, there's been talk of a possible opening up of Cuba's socialist economy. Raul has the reputation of a reformer. But for most of the years since Fidel's illness, there has been no serious signs that anything is changing.

But as NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports, that may be different now.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: For decades, debate in Cuba has been severely restricted. Discussions on the failures of the Cuban socialist system were seen at best as disloyal; at worse as anti-revolutionary. This is a country with no freedom of press and no right to assembly unless it is a government-sanctioned event.

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

Thousands of meetings have now been taking place across the island, organized by the local communist party, in work places and communities, to discuss the very things that used to be taboo.

This woman, a teacher who doesn't want her name used, says that instead of feeling fear, people are happy to open up.

Unidentified Woman (Teacher): (Through translator) This was an opportunity to vent. 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The meetings last for a few hours, and one person is appointed to write down all the complaints which are then supposed to be passed up to the next level of government.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) We spoke about everything: transportation, how bad it is. We talk about the salary we teachers receive; we earn $16 - 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.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: She says that she was surprised by how invested everyone seemed in the process.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) We don't know if this is to canvas the mood of the population or if this will actually be acted on. People don't seem to care anymore about anything, and it makes you wonder where it is all going. People are about to explode.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: 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.

Julia Sweig is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Dr. JULIA SWEIG (Director of Latin American Studies, Council on Foreign Relations): The Cuban regime is undertaking a massive pulse-taking or temperature-taking of the population. They're going through a process of letting Cubans at the workplace level throughout the country air their grievances, talk about the kind of future they aspire to, what kind of changes Cuba needs, too. They're trying to figure out how to deal with these enormous pent up demand and how to do it without racing expectations too much that change will come and what it might deliver.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And it's not clear yet what will come of this, Sweig says.

Dr. SWEIG: I think they know where it isn't headed. I think that they're clear that Jimmy Carter is not going to come in and be monitoring an OAS multiparty election anytime soon, and they know that they're not going to bring the IMF or Jeff Sachs to do math and structural adjustment anytime soon. So they know that they've got that direction they are avoiding, but they also know that they cannot maintain the status quo.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Ricardo Alarcon is the head of Cuba's parliament. In an interview with NPR, he was cryptic about what's going to happen next on the island.

Dr. RICARDO ALARCON (President, Cuban National Assembly): You discuss in order to air issues and to fine tune the ways to operate or to react, what to do. Where would lead that discussion, who knows? When you start social process, you don't need to know exactly where are you going to be as a result of that process.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The teacher says, though, that there's a real sense of expectation among the population even though she has her doubts.

Unidentified Woman: (Through translator) For now, I think people are hopeful that some change will occur for the best. But I think we'll continue to wait as always for something good to happen.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cubans are used to waiting, she says, because, in fact, they don't have any other choice.

Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News.

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