Thursday, February 7, 2008

Students challenge Cuban regime in rare video

In Case You Missed It

Students challenge Cuban regime in rare video
The Miami Herald
Feb. 07, 2008 >> Watch Video
On the web See the video (In Spanish)

In a rare glimpse of public discontent in Cuba, a new video circulating on the Internet shows university students making barbed remarks to a top government official and questioning why they were barred from foreign travel and local hotels, among other hardships.

One student, Alejandro Hernández, spoke of the ''possible merits'' of the candidates in a recent election for deputies, whose bios were posted on a cafeteria board but who never bothered to make the rounds at the university in the southeastern province of Santiago de Cuba. The unopposed candidates, all members of the Communist Party, easily won their seats in the Jan. 20 election, with interim Cuban leader Raúl Castro obtaining 99.4 percent of the vote, closely followed by his ailing brother Fidel Castro who temporarily ceded power in 2006.

''Who are they? I don't know who they are,'' Hernández says in the video during a gathering apparently led by Ricardo Alarcón, the head of Cuba's National Assembly. The video was obtained by the Spanish-language service of the BBC and portions were posted on its website on Tuesday.


By Wednesday, the video was the talk among some Cuba watchers.
''I've never seen anything like that before,'' said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert with the Lexington Institute, an Arlington, Va., think-tank.

"Not having been there, I'm hesitant to draw big conclusions,'' Peters wrote on his ''Cuban Triangle'' blog on Wednesday, before noting the event at a Brookings Institute seminar on Cuba. ``Events such as this could be a sign of a government that's out of touch. Or they could mark a government that is confident that it can brook criticism, that benefits from an airing of criticism within the system and has some responses up its sleeve.''

The candid remarks from the students also come as legislators are expected to pick the Cuba's new leadership on Feb. 24.

At other public forums, citizens have reportedly made blunt criticisms of their everyday hardships, and the state-controlled media has even published articles criticizing some problems with the communist system.

But even as Cubans have been invited by Raúl Castro to debate their government's shortcomings in gatherings being held across the island, the video -- provided anonymously to the BBC -- serves as evidence of discontent that international press is not usually privy to.

The video, which is sharp and appears to be professionally edited, shows Alarcón getting an earful from student representatives of the University of Computer Science. Hernández, dark-haired and goateed, also says it would be ''very opportune'' for ''other Ochoas to emerge'' -- an apparent reference to Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa, a popular army leader who was executed in 1989, presumably for questioning the Castro brothers.

Hernández's remarks, according to the BBC report, received wide applause from the audience. Student Eliécer Avila, reading from a notebook, said he came from a poor area of Puerto Padre in Las Tunas, a province in eastern Cuba. He questioned why the country's goods and services were sold in hard currency-pegged ''convertible pesos,'' but workers were paid in ordinary pesos that had ``25 times less purchasing power.''

''A worker,'' he said, ``has to labor for two or three days to buy a toothbrush.''

In an apparent act of protest, Hernández was wearing a T-shirt displaying the Internet's ''@'' symbol. According to the BBC report, students at the gathering also wanted to know why they could not access sites like Yahoo!.


Avila also complained his countrymen did not have a ''viable'' option to go to certain hotels or travel outside the country. The island's luxury hotels are reserved for tourists and Cubans have to obtain a permit to travel overseas. ''I don't want to die without going to the place where the Che fell, there in Bolivia,'' he said, referring to Che Guevara, the guerrilla who became an icon of the Cuban revolution.

Alarcón is shown giving a rambling, defensive response, noting his young audience did not know what Cuba was like before the revolution. The convertible peso matter was being revised, he said, and he professed ignorance of Internet access issues.

The BBC story quotes Alarcón as saying more Cubans go to classy hotels now than before 1959. ''Let's see how many Bolivians can travel,'' he said.

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