Saturday, February 23, 2008

Fidel's exit means continuity. For change, look to Obama

No one can quite replace Castro, but Cuba's course is clear for now. Its future will depend on who takes the White House

Ignacio Ramonet The Guardian, Wednesday February 20 2008

[This article appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday February 20 2008 on p28 of the Comment & debate section. It was last updated at 00:42 on February 20 2008. ]

The long and extraordinary political career of Fidel Castro is over - at least as far as the presidency is concerned. But his enormous influence will live on. His regular columns for Granma, the state newspaper - which he has continued to write throughout his illness - will continue. Only the strapline will be altered: instead of the reflections of the commandante en jefe, now it will be plain old camarade Fidel. For Cubans and international observers alike, they will still bear close reading.

There can be no replacement for Fidel. Not simply because of his qualities as a leader, but because the historical circumstances will never be the same. Castro has lived through everything from the Cuban revolution to the fall of the USSR, and decades of confrontation with the US. The fact that he departs while alive will help to ensure a peaceful transition. The Cuban people now accept that the country can still be run the same way by a different team. For a year and a half they have been getting used to the idea, while Castro remained theoretically president but his brother, Raul, held the reins. It was Fidel the mentor, as ever.

The most surprising thing that I found out about the man, in the hours we spent together compiling his memoirs, was how modest, human, discreet and respectful he was. He has a tremendous moral and ethical sense. He is a man of rigorous principles and sober existence. He is also, I discovered, passionate about the environment. He is neither the man the western media depict, nor the superman the Cuban media sometimes present. He is a normal man, albeit one who is incredibly hard working. He is also an exemplary strategist, one who has led a life of enduring resistance.

He contains a curious mixture of idealism and pragmatism: he dreams of a perfect society but knows that material conditions are very difficult to transform. He leaves office confident that Cuba's political system is stable. His current preoccupation isn't so much socialism in his own country as the quality of life around the world, where too many children are illiterate, starving and suffering from diseases that could be cured. And so he thinks his country must have good relations with all nations, whatever the regime or political orientation.

So now he is handing over to a team he has tested and trusts. This will not lead to spectacular changes. Most Cubans themselves - even those who criticise aspects of the regime - do not envisage or desire change: they don't want to lose the advantages it has brought them, the free education right through university, the free universal healthcare, or the very fact of a safe, peaceful existence in a country where life is calm.

While Castro turns full-time columnist, the main task for his political heirs will be how to confront the one perpetual challenge of Cuban life: relations with the US. We must wait to see if changes occur. Raul Castro has twice publicly announced he is prepared to sit down for talks with Washington on the problems between the two countries.

But it is in the US itself that a more appreciable political shift may come, with the Democratic frontrunner Barack Obama having signalled his willingness to engage with America's perceived enemies or adversaries, be it Iran, Venezuela or Cuba. An immediate and radical change may be unlikely, but there is reason to hope that November's election may at least alter the atmosphere after the Bush years - a presidency Castro regards as the most damaging to the whole planet of the 10 he has experienced.

The departure of Bush is likely to lead the US to a reappraisal of foreign policy: learning the disastrous lessons of Iraq and the Middle East, and returning the focus to Latin America. The US will find a changed situation: for the first time, Cuba has genuine friends in government in Latin America, most prominently Venezuela, but also in Brazil, Argentina, Nicaragua and Bolivia, a host of governments who are not particularly pro-American. It is in the US's interests to redefine its relations with all of them: non-colonial, non-exploitative and based on respect. Cuba, meanwhile, has developed closer relations with partner countries, as part of the EU-like ALBA economic and political organisation, and in agreements with the Mercosur trade area. In the bigger international picture, Cuba is no longer such a unique case.

It is on this international plane, developing ever stronger ties with Latin America, where the most visible changes in Cuban politics are likely to come. Its socialism will undoubtedly alter - but not in the manner of a China or Vietnam. Cuba will continue to go its own way. The new regime will initiate changes at the economic level, but there will be no Cuban perestroika - no opening up of politics, no multiparty elections. Its authorities are convinced that socialism is the right choice, but that it must be forever improved. And their preoccupation now, more than ever with the retirement of Castro, will be unity.

But everything in Cuba is related to the US: that is the one overarching aspect of political life which outsiders need to understand. The retirement of Castro, long anticipated, means continuity. But in the evolution of this small nation's history, the election of Obama could be seismic.

· Ignacio Ramonet is the co-author with Fidel Castro of Fidel Castro: My Life, and editor of Le Monde Diplomatique

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Raul Castro raises hopes of economic change in Cuba

Tue Feb 19, 2008 1:22pm EST

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - Raul Castro, Cuba's likely new leader after his ailing brother Fidel Castro bowed out on Tuesday, is a pragmatist more concerned with putting food on Cuban tables than spreading revolution abroad.

The outwardly dour Raul Castro, 76, lacks his elder brother's charisma and has lived in his shadow for decades.

But he is seen as a ray of hope by some Cubans fed up with political rhetoric and the daily grind of getting ahead in a battered state-run economy.

As acting president since his brother was sidelined by illness almost 19 months ago, Raul Castro has encouraged Cubans to openly debate the shortcomings of Cuba's communist system.

If confirmed as president on Sunday as expected, he will face a Herculean task of solving Cubans' economic hardships.

While he has so far made few changes, Raul Castro has raised expectations that Cubans will soon be allowed to freely buy and sell their homes, travel abroad and stay at hotels and beaches where only foreigners can step foot.

In December, the camera-shy army general said Cuba had "excessive prohibitions", a sentiment shared by most Cubans who need government permits for almost everything they do, from buying a car to working as a clown or a shoe-shine.

Raul has acknowledged that wages paid by Cuba's socialist state are too low. He has called for "structural changes" in agriculture to increase food output and reduce Cuba's reliance on imports, and said Cuba was open to new foreign investment.

Yet Raul Castro is not expected to follow China's example and free up a market economy, at least not while his brother is alive. And he has promised more socialism.

"The challenges we have ahead are enormous, but may no one doubt our people's firm conviction that only through socialism can we overcome the difficulties and preserve the social gains of half a century of revolution," he said late last year.

Raul Castro extended an olive branch to Cuba's arch-enemy, the U.S. government, saying in July that Havana was open to talks to end more than four decades of hostility, but only when President George W. Bush has left the White House.

The younger Castro was flung into the role of running one of the world's last communist states when his brother was forced to step aside on July 31, 2006, after emergency intestinal surgery.

Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since then and the 81-year-old revolutionary announced his retirement on Tuesday.


As defense minister since the brothers led a 1959 revolution, Raul Castro built the armed forces into a formidable fighting force that defeated South African troops in Angola.

Once considered an implacable Stalinist and the Kremlin's most reliable friend in Cuba, Raul is said to have become more pragmatic after the collapse of the Soviet Union pushed Cuba to the brink of economic chaos.

"Beans are more important than cannons," Raul said during the crisis that left the air force parking its MiG jet fighters with the help of horses for lack of fuel.

He cut the armed forces to one fifth of its peak of 300,000 troops, and backed reforms that allowed limited private initiative to flourish in the 1990s.

An admirer of China's economic prowess, Raul is believed to favor loosening up state controls of the Cuban economy while maintaining one-party communist rule.

Forced to become self-sufficient after the loss of billions of dollars in Soviet aid, the Cuban military under Raul's savvy management was the first to introduce capitalist business practices in Cuba and has a big stake in the economy today.

It has emerged as Cuba's most efficient institution and owns lucrative enterprises in agriculture, industry and tourism, including hotels at beach resorts, an airline, a bus fleet, car rentals and a retail shop chain.

Cuba experts say he is a good talent spotter who surrounds himself with capable officials and is good at delegating.

Born on June 3, 1931, Raul Castro was raised -- like Fidel Castro -- on their father's large farm in eastern Cuba.

Since their guerrilla war in the Sierra Maestra mountains and the triumph of their revolution on Jan 1, 1959, Raul Castro has always been his brother's most trusted right-hand man.

His late wife Vilma Espin, who fought as a guerrilla, founded the Cuban Federation of Women and served as Cuba's unofficial First Lady.

His daughter Mariela Castro is a sexologist who has defended the rights of transsexuals and is pushing legislation to allow gay marriage in Cuba.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Tom Miller Describes Mixed Picture of Reform

As Fidel Fades From the Scene

By Tom Miller
Washington Post
Sunday, February 17, 2008; B02


We were sitting on a wrought-iron bench downtown, Manolo and I, chatting about the December weather, nodding to pedestrians strolling by. I was in Cuba to do some research on José Martí, the national hero who had laid the foundation for the island's war of independence against Spain more than a century ago.

Our conversation was politely interrupted by an officer from the Specialized Police, a force assigned to heavily tourist areas. He asked for identification, not uncommon when a light-skinned foreigner is chatting with a dark-skinned Cuban, then walked away after writing down our data. He returned a couple of minutes later. "Follow me," he said, motioning us to his squad car.

This, I thought, was a miserable way to begin my trip -- but an excellent way to take Cuba's temperature. Ever since Fidel Castro took seriously ill more than 18 months ago and named his younger brother Raúl, then head of the armed forces, temporary president, the word "transition" has been on everyone's lips. They know where their country has been, but no one is sure where it's headed.

The policeman turned us over to a higher-ranking officer who asked whether I had any papers with me besides a few loose sheets stuffed into a small notebook. I had none. Suddenly, several officers put Manolo up against the car, patted him down, handcuffed him and stuffed him in the back seat. I wasn't frisked or cuffed, but officers maneuvered me in on the other side, and off we drove to the police station.

It was a "Dragnet"-era cop shop, with a high desk and officers milling about. I was bumped higher and higher in officialdom, each time asked whether I had any other papers with me. Finally I was ushered into a room where a uniformed immigration officer from the Interior Ministry looked up from his computer screen. He was husky, almost chubby, and his conversation was friendly, or at least not hostile. He, too, asked about papers. "Why is everyone asking about papers?" I asked. He replied with a shrug.

Then a heavy-set plainclothesman from State Security came in. His hair resembled a small dark yarmulke, slightly askew. He thrust a piece of paper in my face. "Have you ever seen this?" he asked sternly. It was the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948. "I've heard of it," -- I chose my words carefully -- "but this is the first time I've actually seen a copy."

"Are you sure?" He paused. "We are not opposed to this document, I want you to understand." I thought of the "Seinfeld" line, "Not that there's anything wrong with that."

"Someone fitting your description has been handing these out," my interrogator said, and repeated his Seinfeldian disclaimer.

"Well, it wasn't me," I said. Fifteen minutes later, I was released. I never learned what happened to Manolo.

My two hours in Cuban custody seemed to fit a new pattern. The human rights activist Elizondo Sánchez thinks that under Raúl Castro, there are fewer arrests and jailings and more brief detentions. "Our day-to-day observation leads us to think that the style of political repression has changed," Sánchez told the foreign media last month.

Raúl Castro, who turns 77 in June, has surprised a lot of people. I'd last been in Cuba a year earlier, and I'd seen a dismal population going about the daily business of getting provisions for the following day. That's still what most people do, but this time there was more money in circulation, more low-end street commerce, somewhat less sense of perpetual anguish.

Cubans spoke, if not well, then at least respectfully, of their acting president. In the privacy of his living room, a writer commented on the younger Castro's lifelong military career. "He knows how to delegate," he said. "Things are running more smoothly." Another acquaintance, a retired bureaucrat, speaking openly in a restaurant, said she thought that Raúl was more understanding of everyday hardships: "He lives in a real neighborhood and understands the street."

Fidel fatigue underlies some of this new attitude. A change -- any change -- is welcome, as long as circumstances get no worse. My informal survey took me to La Víbora, a once-tidy Havana neighborhood that rarely sees a foreigner. A longtime acquaintance there had been a well-regarded scientist some time ago, but the contradictions between words and actions had compelled her to leave government work and find solace in the Catholic Church, through which she makes humanitarian visits to prisons. She described a devastating rainfall that had pounded the eastern end of the island weeks earlier. People had lost their homes, buildings collapsed, roads were destroyed, railroad lines uprooted.

"If Fidel had been in charge, he'd have started a speech that would still be going, and he'd blame the imperialists for the storm," she said. "Raúl devoted three sentences to it in a speech and blamed climate change. He told us that the ruin came to $499 million, and he ordered repair crews to work on the damage."

She also credits the new provisional president with a measure of expanded inmate rehabilitation programs. "I tell you," she said, "I've known two leaders in my life, Fidel and Raúl. I'm not a fan of Raúl's, but I believe what I see."

I got another indication of Havana's mood when I joined a dozen artists, filmmakers and writers around a table of good cheer at a private residence, pouring glass after glass of Havana Club rum. One fellow laughed about the time years ago when culture authorities had tried to discourage him from painting a certain way because it was considered counterrevolutionary. Everyone lifted their copitas at the distant memory, and someone else talked about the difficulty the late gay poet Virgilio Piñera had experienced getting published. The table nodded, and someone piped up, "Clothes. Remember we were told we couldn't wear narrow straight pants?" "Yes, and we couldn't wear our hair in Afros! They said it was ideologically diverting." More laughter. I started to hum Dean Martin's "Memories Are Made of This."

"I used to listen to the Beatles on a cassette player in the bushes down by the Almendares," one fellow said. On and on these intellectuals one-upped each other, chortling at memories of authoritarian rule under Fidel. They spoke of the era of cultural autocracy in the past tense, as if it had happened under a previous regime. I asked whether they could have had this conversation 20 years ago. "Are you kidding?" a woman replied. "It would have been suspect just to have a dozen people meeting like this." The liberating air of Fidel's absence gave them enough freedom to indulge in repression nostalgia.

The music of the moment is reggaeton. Under Fidel it was salsa. Reggaeton -- a blend of reggae, Latin beats and hip-hop -- fills theaters with madly cheering fans. At Havana's Teatro América, I saw thousands of Cubans applauding wildly, singing along with the two-man Gente de Zona, whose songs they knew from radio play. The young performers, whose suspenders and gold chains drooped at their sides, poured beer on their bare chests to reflect the spotlight better. Raúl and Fidel were far away.

Out in the provinces, though, life goes on much as it did in the past, regardless of which Castro heads the government. In Camaguey, long supportive of Fidel, the streets are filled with as many bicycles as cars. The bread man pulls his cart through residential neighborhoods, selling loaves of soft white bread with a crumbly crust for five pesos (about a quarter), while another street merchant buys empty rum bottles for a peso to sell at a modest profit at a recycling center. A local businessman named Luis, watching the passing scene with me, reflected on the hardships that, despite Raúl, remain glaringly apparent.

"What we need," he finally said, "is a Cuban Gorbachev."

Few of his compatriots would put it that way, but it was a note of budding hope for his country's future.

Tom Miller, the author of "Trading With the Enemy: A Yankee Travels Through Castro's Cuba," has been visiting Cuba regularly since 1987.


My comment to

This article is a realistic portrayal of what is underway in Cuba.

However, it would be a mistake to interpret it as a sign of impending collapse, justifying maintenance of the travel and trade embargo.

Rather it should be seen as a reason for the US to take a different stance toward Raul Castro to encourage tendencies toward reform.

Miller's detention may well have to do with an initiative on the part of western human rights activists to pass out the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. That has been a tactic in other countries.

In and of itself, such an action should certainly not attract any police attention or sanction.

However, when the neighborhood hegemon which has tried to control your country for over a century is publicly committed to regime change, is squeezing every last third country possibility out of an embargo, and calls for instability and military disloyalty, such acts of human rights education are not viewed as disinterested idealism.

For more information on the debate over reform in Cuba, go to

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Lage's Son on Need for Reform

09/11/078 EFE (Madrid )

"Socialism Must deliever the goods"
Says Son Of Cuban Vice President.

By Mar Marin.

Havana, Sep 11 (EFE).- Socialism cannot be "divorced" from
well-being, the son of Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage says,
acknowledging the need for changes that translate the "virtues of the
revolution" into food on the table.

"The people in Cuba have to see that socialism is also material, you
can't deny human beings their material needs," Carlos Lage Codorniu,
president of the University Student Federation, said in an interview
with Efe.

"There's a need for people to feel that the virtues of the revolution
are present in the food on the table," added the 26-year-old
economist, whose father is a key adviser to acting President Raul

Socialist theory, Lage Codorniu said, "never refused to attend to
material needs."

He said that the island's government must undertake the necessary
changes for Cuban society to overcome its contradictions and become a
more fair and just society without abandoning the principles of the
1959 revolution led by Fidel Castro, now 81 and ailing.

No infallible formulas exist on how to do that because "the book on
the Cuban model is not written and nobody has the perfect formula,"
which, he said, means that a lot of importance must be given to
discussion and analysis.

"The logic of the revolution is that it doesn't obey dogmas" and it
would be "an error to stick to formulas of the past. We have to make
changes and apply new formulas," he said.

Nonetheless, "changes are never going to be principles, they would be
changes of form" rather than of substance, "because there is no plan
to change the essence of the revolution," Lage Codorniu said.

He said that an "economic offensive" is needed, meaning that wages
ought to be "high enough to satisfy the basic necessities," and that
in parallel there ought to be an "ideological offensive" that
integrates young people into the revolutionary process who grew up
during the very lean years that followed the collapse of the Soviet
Union and the end of massive subsidies from Moscow.

For Lage Codorniu, a July 26 speech by Raul Castro in which he
enumerated the country's problems and signaled the need for
structural changes showed that the revolution "has to transform
itself to keep up with reality."

"There's no reason to repent for what one has done outside of the
errors committed," he said, but "time has passed" and we have to go
beyond "the doctrine of resistance and begin the next stage."

The challenge, he said, is "to work so that the present generation of
young people can guarantee the continuity of socialism in Cuba," and
to achieve that it is fundamental that we solve the problem of
emigration which, according to Lage, is a phenomenon "more dangerous
than the counterrevolutionaries."

To resolve this and other problems of Cuban youth, the congress of
the University Student Federation agreed last December to launch a
cultural offensive, to widen access to entertainment and to bring
back studies of revolutionary doctrine.

To do that, Lage said, the federation's cadres will analyze the July
26 speech and prepare their process of internal elections with a view
to finding directors "with leadership, ability and wide approval."

Raul Castro, 76, has been Cuba's "provisional" president since July
31, 2006, when Fidel announced he was temporarily delegating power to
his brother and other trusted advisers while he recuperated from a
grave illness. EFE

Monday, February 11, 2008

Sun Sentinel Urges US Response to Reform Debate,0,2986418.story

South Florida
Public criticism of Cuban government warrants notice by Washington
South Florida Sun-Sentinel Editorial Board

February 11, 2008

ISSUE: Cubans speak out in town hall setting.

It wasn't the Boston Tea Party, or even a Tiananmen Square-like rebellion.

However, public criticism of the stagnant status quo in Cuba, in an official town hall-style meeting and other pronouncements, is noteworthy nonetheless. And it ought to prompt a much-needed review of Washington's own stagnant Cuba policy.

The Jan. 19 gathering with Ricardo Alarcon, president of Cuba's national assembly, was marked by fairly sharp questioning by university students. The students were particularly insistent on having the right to travel and access to Cuba's hotels, which are mostly reserved for tourists.

Last week, others spoke up. Folk singer Sylvio Rodriguez, who has been an ardent supporter of the Castro government, chimed in favoring universal access to the resorts.

No, these aren't major concessions, like real elections or media free of government control, which are the bedrock institutions in a true democracy. They are small steps.

Nonetheless, they are steps that indicate that Cubans are making good on an opening presented to them by Raul Castro to speak up and engage in a debate. How far the country's communist leaders are willing to let this debate go is a major question mark.

But if Cubans are willing to speak now, risk potential reprisal later, then the global community needs to take note and act accordingly. Especially the United States, which has sat on its hands for way too long.

Washington can do its part by, first, acknowledging publicly that the process germinating in Cuba is important and desired. Then it can signal its intention to review its own hard line diplomatic stance if the era of openness in Cuba progresses.

No, it's wouldn't be a huge move, certainly no bigger than the small concessions being doled out in Havana, but right now they'd create more hope for change than has been seen in many years.

BOTTOM LINE: Small concessions, sure, but they are concessions just the same.

Copyright © 2008, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

My comment on line:

The immediate step that the Bush Administration--or Congress--should take is to restore the Clinton/pre-2004 Bush policy on family and non-tourist travel.

Also a small concession compared to what should happen when a new administration takes office, the end of all travel restrictions.

See also

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Cuban Intellectuals Support Openness

Cuban intellectuals hoping new openness will last

EFE News Service


(c) Copyright 2008. EFE News Service. All rights reserved.

By Jose Luis Paniagua.

Havana, Feb 7 (EFE).- An unprecedented debate last year among Cuban
intellectuals about decades-old cultural repression touched off a snowball
effect that has even been felt within the inner circles of the island's
communist government.

The debate on the "five grey years" (1971-76), as the witch hunt against
artists and intellectuals for homosexuality or their supposed lack of
commitment to the revolution has been labeled, today reverberates in a
critical examination of Cuban society that extends beyond the cultural

Culture Minister Abel Prieto said Tuesday that there is not even "the most
remote possibility" that the errors of the past will be repeated in Cuba.

He made the remarks after the presentation of a documentary in which famed
Cuban singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez recalled a boat trip at the end of
the 1960s after having problems with cultural authorities on the island.

The past 12 months in Cuba have seen developments such as the screening of
Anton Arrufat's play "Los siete contra Tebas" (Seven Against Thebes), a work
that had been censored for four decades.

Special tribute also will be paid to that author, the winner of Cuba's
National Literature Prize in 2000, at the Havana Book Fair, which gets
underway on Feb. 13.

Cesar Lopez, who was honored at the previous fair, spoke out at that event
in favor of Cuban authors whose writing has been censored by the government
in Havana, such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Reynaldo Arenas and Antonio
Benitez Rojo.

For the first time, Cuban television has shown movies such as Tomas
Gutierrez Alea's "Fresa y Chocolate" (Strawberry and Chocolate) and the
documentary about baseball, "Fuera de Liga," in which players who have left
Cuba for the United States, like Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, explain their
reasons for defecting.

Additionally, in preparatory meetings for April's Congress of the Union of
Cuban Writers and Artists, people have expressed demands for such rights as
free access to the Internet, the unrestricted ability to buy and sell houses
and vehicles and the freedom to freely travel to and from the island.

The need for government "permission to leave and enter, that should be
completely abolished. That's something that was done with other ends (in
mind), for other reasons, and has survived for too many years in Cuba, and I
don't think there is any reason for it," Rodriguez, who will give up his
seat in parliament on Feb. 24, said earlier this week.

Beyond the purely intellectual realm, even provisional leader Raul Castro
has acknowledged that Cuba needs "structural" reforms and has promoted
debates in which people have expressed their opinions about the country's

Fidel's younger brother referred to these gatherings on Dec. 28 in
parliament, during a session in which he agreed with those who say there is
an "excess of prohibitions" on the island.

At the same time, Raul, who took the reins when Fidel was stricken with a
serious illness in July 2006, has made it clear that for the time being,
Cuba will remain a one-party state.

According to Rodriguez, the contemporary reality in Cuba is one "of change,"
"like a transition process."

For his part, writer Leonardo Padura, who uses the metaphor of a "snowball,"
told Efe that the "debate among the intellectuals was a little ball that has
gradually grown (with) different needs and complaints having slowly been
added to it."

"A change in perception about many phenomena in Cuban society has begun and
it wasn't by chance that the intellectuals were the ones who began to move
this wheel, which had completely stopped," he said.

"There are demands that at this stage are absolutely fundamental," he added,
such as the right of Cubans to enter tourist hotels, leave the country, have
access to cell phones and freely sell houses and automobile, as well as
demands for changes in the forms of landholding and production.

Arrufat told Efe that when the debate took place last year some did not want
to participate because "they thought it was an isolated matter, and in this
country isolated matters tend to flare up and affect many other matters."

In his opinion, Cuba is going through "a moment in which the people in
general and we artists are willing to participate and participate means
butting in."

"If we get burned later," he said, "that's something only time will tell,
but at least the fear is gone." EFE

Students Question Alarcon

Cuban youths take on communist govt on social restrictions: video

HAVANA (AFP) — A video of university students boldly challenging the communist government on why Cubans cannot travel freely, or stay in Cuban hotels, has stirred society as Cuba braces for possible reforms and leadership change.

Interim president Raul Castro said January 20 the National Assembly would elect Cuba's next president February 24, amid speculation ailing Fidel Castro might not be its choice for the first time in almost five decades. Raul Castro also has suggested lawmakers will soon be handling potential reforms.

In a video made public over the Internet this week and circulated in Havana, students grilled National Assembly speaker chief Ricardo Alarcon, a top regime official, on sensitive social issues many critics deem human rights abuses.

"Why don't the Cuban people have the real possibility to stay at hotels or travel to different places around the world?" Eliecer Avila, a self-avowed government supporter at the University of Computer Science, demanded of Cuba's top lawmaker.

Alarcon tried to justify Cuba's policies controlling its nationals' travel, saying: "if everybody in the world, all six billion inhabitants, were able to travel wherever they pleased, there would be a tremendous traffic jam in our planet's airspace.

"People who travel are really a minority," he said.

And in implied criticism of Cuba's economic policy, Avila asked why staples such as food, cleaning products and clothing must be purchased with convertible pesos, when workers everywhere are paid in normal currency, which is worth 1/25th.

Alarcon, who reminded his audience of what the government maintains are the gains made in 50 years of Cuban Revolution, did not address the earning power/currency question, and sidestepped another question about the limits the government has on Internet access.

Another student, Alejandro Hernandez, asked why he should have turned out to vote for uncontested candidates in January 20 voting. "Where did the (government's idea of a) 'united vote' come from; I am supposed to go out and vote for every one of them when I don't know who they are?" he demanded.

Avila bluntly demanded to know what the country's socialist economic plan was.

"I am sure there is one, but we want to know what it is," he asked, saying his farmer father and grandfather "have grown old trudging behind a pack of oxen, and they still don't know."

Some Havana residents who saw the video were convinced it was staged by the government to float some balloons on possible reforms.

"This has to have been set up (by the government) because I cannot believe they would dare to talk like that otherwise," a waiter at a cafeteria in the El Cerro neighborhood said privately.

In any case, "everything those kids are saying is right on the mark," a 32-year-old housewife in the Miramar district added, on condition she not be named.

The question-and-answer session with Alarcon follows interim president Raul Castro's suggestion last year that people should speak without fear about the problems the country is facing.

Raul Castro, 76, took over from his brother Fidel Castro, 81, on a "temporary" basis while his elder brother recovers from intestinal surgery he underwent in July 2006. Fidel Castro has not been seen in public since.

Potential Cuban travel freedom now could be a security concern for the United States, oddly of Washington's own making. The United States grants immediate residency and work permits to any Cuban who sets foot on US soil.


The CNN story containing video excerpts of the questioning of Ricardo Alarcon by students can be seen here.

Reuters report of the debate adds additional information on the questions raised and explains that the town meeting was broadcast on the closed circuit TV system within the University of Computer Sciences.

A four minute segment of two students asking questions and Alarcon responding can be seen here.

The full meeting can be seen here.