Saturday, February 9, 2008

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.

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