In one of the upper rooms of a 17th-century seminary close to the deep blue water of Havana Bay is the office of a rare publication – Espacio Laical (or Lay Space).
As I’m waiting to see its editor, the magazine’s designer gives me some copies to read.
The first has on its cover a photo of Cuba’s two official newspapers – Granma (named after the boat used by Castro and his band of revolutionaries) and Juventud Rebelde (Rebellious Youth). Both lead with an identical – and thus equally riveting – story: ‘Fidel sends Evo Morales a letter on the Day of the Sea.’
This is representative of the mass media diet permitted in Cuba, both press and broadcast.
The subject that Espacio Laical is broaching is a delicate one – press freedom and media diversity in a single-party state.
After a series of discussions called ‘Casa Cuba’ organized by Espacio Laical, which brought together intellectuals, journalists, academics, experts of various kinds, one of the proposals to emerge was anathema to the powers-that-be – a call for multiparty democracy.
Raúl Castro has made it clear that moving away from the single-party system is definitely not part of the updating process. The ruling Communist Party sees itself as the defender of the revolution; only it can protect Cuba’s sovereignty from hostile US subversion.
So how does Espacio Laical get away with floating such ideas?
Editor Roberto Veiga is a friendly, mild-mannered man in his late forties. He explains how the magazine, produced under the auspices of the Catholic Church but editorially independent, started with the purpose of projecting a Christian vision.
‘Then we decided we would better serve society by taking a more inclusive and pluralistic approach.’ This coincided with Raúl Castro coming to power and asking for dialogue and opinions that could inform a revision of the so-called Cuban model.
‘We wanted to create a climate of trust politically, to foster dialogue between people who may not agree with each other, to create bridges, not battlefields.’
Casa Cuba emerged as a laboratory of ideas, inclusive in nature, and, in the Cuban context, pluralistic in its politics. ‘We have anarchists, Marxists, socialists, Christians, republicans, taking part. People with different views, different positions. We have shown that people who think differently, can dialogue and can work together.’ They did not reach a consensus on all things; for example on the issue of multiparty democracy.
‘Personally,’ says Veiga, ‘I am favour of it. But there were some who did not agree. We have enough problems with one party, they argued, why have more?’
And do members of the government listen? I ask.
‘Yes,’ he replies. ‘They listen and they read. Although there are some sections that are not sympathetic…’
In the Vedado area of Havana is Fresa y Chocolate, a cine-café named after the gay-themed Cuban movie. This is a meeting place for film buffs and intellectuals. It is also where the journal Temas holds monthly public debates called Ultimo Jueves (Last Thursday).
People are gathering for a session on trade unions, which in Cuba are linked to the government. There is no law prohibiting strike action, but there is no law permitting it either. So strikes don’t happen.
Rafael Hernández, editor of Temas, is the moderator – and he takes his role seriously. On each chair is a piece of paper setting out house rules. The panellists may speak for five minutes each. Questions or offerings from the floor will last no more than three minutes each (controlled by an alarm clock). The purpose is analytical debate. Not catharsis. Not anecdote. Not, he reiterates at various points, political speech-making.
One young man, wearing combat fatigues, seems to be sailing a bit close to the wind when, during his three minutes, he lets rip: ‘The unions are paternalistic. They do not serve the workers.’
Afterwards he tells me that the connection between unions and government must be broken for unions to be effective.
Later, I catch up with Hernández. ‘I don’t know of anything that we cannot talk about,’ he says.
‘There is freedom of expression. We have had panels on gender, race, media, freedom of expression, diversity of political views. The question of multiparty democracy itself we have not discussed, but we have discussed topics connected with the question of democracy and to what extent one party can be democratic enough to represent a diversity of views.’
Has he ever felt censored, I ask? No, he answers. There is pressure sometimes and resistance, of course. ‘There are people in government who do not like what we are doing or consider it unimportant to have a debate. But there is no option. You either organize a debate and have some free spaces or the debate will happen anyway, anywhere.’
Generally, he says, the Communist Party is supportive. ‘If I want to have someone from a ministry on as panel they will send me someone.’
But it is all within strict parameters. ‘This is not a political trench; this is not a wall of lamentations,’ he emphasizes. In Temas magazine too, contentious views may be expressed but in a certain way.
Occasionally dissidents have attended Last Thursday, he says, but not recently. ‘Perhaps they prefer to talk to foreign journalists who won’t disagree with them,’ he says, fixing me with a beady eye, ‘than to be challenged by their own compatriots. Perhaps they don’t like to be limited to three minutes like everyone else.’
The curious case of Yoani Sánchez
One of those dissidents is the famous blogger Yoani Sánchez, who, disguised in a blond wig, got into a Last Thursday meeting while her friends were barred entry.
The 39-year-old’s vivid, moving and witty blogs on the absurdities and frustrations of daily life in Havana have been translated into 18 languages and won her several international prizes. <Time magazine named her one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Her blog, Generación Y, was inspired, she says ‘by people like me, with names that start with or contain a Y. Born in Cuba in the 1970s and 1980s, marked by schools in the countryside, Russian cartoons, illegal emigration and frustration.’
Sánchez’s voice is fresh and compelling; her take on the political élite (including the Castros) irreverent. Like many of her generation, she has taken to cyberspace rather than bother with print media or tightly managed meetings in approved places.
But blogging is not easy in Cuba, which has some of the most restrictive internet policies in the world. Control is achieved by a combination of blocking sites, limited bandwidth and exorbitantly expensive internet access – an hour’s connection via one of the state-run cyber cafés costs the equivalent of a week’s average salary.
Up until May this year it was illegal for Cubans to access the internet from their own home computers.
The island’s bloggers usually have to email their posts to a site hosted in another country, often using email accounts that have been set up by friends abroad.
Many blogging sites are blocked within the country, and so Cubans wanting to read pieces need to have them emailed by friends living abroad.
One of the reasons for this intense restrictiveness is that the Cuban government knows that the US is intent on using the internet and social media to mobilize discontent, à la Arab Spring, and to effect regime change.
In April this year Washington admitted that a US agency (USAID) had been behind the creation of a phoney Cuban Twitter-like messaging service called ZunZuneo that would offer news, sport and entertainment to thousands of subscribers on the island.1
Once the service reached a certain number of subscribers, it would be bombarded with political anti-Castro messages in the hope of mobilizing people to push for change.
Washington admitted it was behind the creation of a phony Cuban 'twitter'
Sánchez herself is not an entirely straightforward entity. Her claims that, unlike the Miami dissidents, she is just an ordinary Cuban living in Cuba telling it like it is, have been called into question by Wikileaks revelations of her visits to the US Interests Section in Havana.
Then there is the small matter of money. International prizes have bagged her over $320,000, equivalent to 1,488 years of the minimum salary in Cuba, according to French academic and Cuban international affairs expert Salim Lamrani.2
Sánchez is also reported to receive a monthly salary of $10,000, paid by SIP IAPA (a group of Latin American big media corporations) and the Spanish daily El Pais.3 Not bad for someone writing so vividly about the privations of daily life in communist Cuba.
In May this year Sánchez launched a new venture, the first edition of her online newspaper, 14ymedia, with which she aims to ‘break the information monopoly’ on the island.
Another Cuba is possible
In fact there is already an online newspaper doing what Sánchez claims she wants to do. Now in its sixth year, Havanatimes.org describes itself as offering ‘open-minded writing from Cuba’.
The bilingual Spanish-English online daily is edited in Nicaragua and hosted in Germany. Its contributors are Cubans living in Cuba and in countries such as Venezuela or Mexico.
One of Havanatimes.org’s regular contributors, 33-year-old Armando Chaguaceda, explains how and why he got involved:
‘In 1989, after the fall of the [Berlin] Wall, almost no-one was betting on Cuba’s survival. This was the context in which my generation grew up, battered yet filled with dreams. Twenty years have passed and, despite the hounding, we maintain our defence of justice and anti-capitalist sovereignty, as well as our struggle against bureaucratic structures that stifle people’s initiatives.
‘Contributing to HT, I have found a forum for dialogue, a meeting place between old and new friends... a fountainhead of the necessary practice and ideas that are only born from the collective and the autonomous... of those of us who believe that “another, better Cuba is possible”.’
As I took leave of Roberto Veiga, still then editor of Espacio Laical, we chatted about the internet. The restrictions had to be lifted, access had to become universal, he said, if Cuba was to be part of the world.
Not long afterwards news came through that Veiga and his journalistic colleague Lenier Gonzalez had been ‘liberated’ from their posts at the magazine, following a dispute with ‘forces’ within the church who wanted the magazine to shift its focus away from political and economic issues towards science and culture.
Veiga now has another plan. He and Gonzalez are launching a new online debating forum called Cuba Posible.
He recently told Reuters: ‘Evidently in Cuba there will come a time when more than one party exists. Our project wants to facilitate this and contribute to serenity in the process.’
As one space closes – another opens. Serenely, perhaps.
Cuba's political system
President Raúl Castro has said he will step down in 2018. He has named 54-year-old vice-president Miguel Díaz-Canel as successor. The political system has been reformed so that senior politicians are limited to two five-year terms.
Otherwise much remains the same. The Communist Party of Cuba is the only legal party. The government’s Council of Ministers is the highest executive body. The National Assembly of People’s Power (ANPP), comprising 614 members elected by direct ballot, meets just twice a year. Nearly all its deputies (97 per cent) belong to the Communist Party or its youth wing.
Local politics is more democratic and deputies are directly elected. Some commentators, including Veiga and Hernández, would like the democratic practices evident at lower levels to be replicated at higher levels so that senior figures are elected rather than appointed.