Students openly criticise the Cuban government

Seeing Cuban students openly criticise the Castrist regime in front of Parliamentary President Ricardo Alarcón is not easy to imagine. But it's true. And the proof, in this video sent to the BBC by an anonymous source, has now become a huge online hit. Is the nearing end of Fidel Castro's reign bringing about improvements in freedom of speech, or is it a publicity stunt to better outside views of the authorities? Our Observer in Cuba, blogger Yoni Sanchez, gives us her opinion.

This video was filmed on Jan. 19 at the University of Information Technology (UCI). It was supposed to be broadcast only on the school's internal TV channel, but someone anonymously sent it to the BBC. In the auditorium, Ricardo Alarcón is questioned by 200 straight-talking students on domestic policy. They interrogate him on various issues: the double currency on the island (a separate peso for the Cubans and the foreigners); travel restrictions; prohibition for Cubans to stay in tourist hotels; internet controls; and the united vote. Basically, all the subjects that usually irritate the authorities. A few more sceptical observers said that the event was part of a government strategy to facilitate the post-Castro transition, because the questions asked covered topics identical to those of the ‘grand national debate' initiated by Raul Castro. The head of state asked the country to air their concerns before Feb. 24, the date that the Parliament will meet to confirm the removal of Castro from his post, and possibly elect a new president.

 

UPDATE (12.0207 / 17.00): One of the students, Eliecer Avila, was uncontactable for just over a day, leading to the belief that he has been arrested. He reappeared this Monday in an interview on Cuban television (see in post), where he denounced the way the foreign media ‘manipulated' his statement.

 

Contributors

"This event shows the extent of the chasm between the old revolutionaries and the young politicians"

Comment from Havana blogger Yoni Sánchez. See her blog.

Everyone's talking about this video that became so popular on the web. I know that some people say the whole thing was set up by the government, but to me it looks like a spontaneous debate. Students, along with the rest of the population, have had enough of all talk and no action. They want change in every area. So they're asking for political evolution, with more freedom of speech, and most importantly, economic development. This event shows the extent of the chasm between the old revolutionaries and the young politicians. The students speak with a direct tone, as though they're talking to friends. One of them is ‘Avila', who's in charge of the university's internet service. He's moderating the discussion.

I‘ve also been trying to get involved in this change. The law is not clear-cut on the internet and there's less control than in other medias. The conditions have helped me to get young Cubans talking. Personally I've never been interrogated by the authorities for what I write on my blog. But I have received lots of insulting and threatening posts.

It seems that the vice is finally a bit looser and people like me are able to speak their minds more easily. You shouldn't think that it's what the government wants. It's us who have pushed the boundaries to get where we are. It seems that the country is really at the end of its tether with broken promises. They don't even bother listening anymore. I don't know what will happen in the election on Feb. 24. The international media can't wait, but in my opinion, the situation won't change. However, I do think that if the people really have had enough, then they will make themselves heard."


Other speeches from the debate:

Alejandro Hernandez:

I saw the pictures of the MPs in the university canteen, along with a short description of each, and I thought ‘who are these people? I don't know them'. I can read their little biographies, but I've got no idea who they really are. How can I vote for people I don't know about?"


Eliécer Avila:

Why do all the domestic industries use the convertible peso when everyone's paid with the national money, which is 25 times less in value? It means that many people have to work two or three days just to be able to buy a toothbrush. I come from the countryside of Las Tunas; one of the least prospective populations of the country."

UPDATE: Statement from Eliecer Avila, 11 February

In this interview, posted on the online Cuban emission ‘The Cuban debate against media terrorism', Eliecer Avila says that he was never arrested but simply uncontactable due to illness. He insists that his comments were not supposed to "destroy the socialist revolution" but to "participate in its construction". He added that "watching this information spread at such a speed, the number of articles on the subject; I realised the enormity of the media war. I felt useless. I wanted to say that it was nothing but lies."

France 24 TV report on the subject

Comments

That´s why there´s restrictions in Cuba

This event is a great example of why Cuba choose (it is in their Constitution, referended by 95% of their people) to restrict free speech.

A single video of someone questioning something about the island is taken over by the corporate media to "prove" that the cubans are against socialism.

What if there were plenty? the news corporations are not known to give factual interpretations or to expose every side with equality. As this event proves, they - and the ideological fighters - wont change to pas their own interpretation as fact to further their own political agenda.

Besides, this video shows the lies about Cuba. How can a country with such a "repression" show one student arguing with a minister in such terms? In "democratic" countries, messages such as those are passed through manifestations - often violent.

Is Cuba less democratic for doing that in peace? I dont think so.

And I think this site would do better to contact another collaborator in Cuba - one that has a different view from Yoni Sánchez. Or should we rely on only one person´s views - and one that is emotionally biased against the Cuban regime, no less?

Finally, I dont see why some people question the "Im with the Revolution" statement. Would someone in the US, for instance, that doesnt claim to be a patriot, or want to change the US system be taken seriously?

Pledging support for the Revolution is the same as pledging support for the flag, etc that all US citizens do from the youngest age. And most countries have similar caveats - my country only had something similar in high school during the military dictatorship. Today, it doesnt have anything like that, unless you count "rooting for the national football team" as such lol.

I completely agree with Carlos

The fact that Cuban university students support the ideals of their ancestors and that they are deeply revolutionary even when some people try to prove otherwise is cristalclear. This whole media show won't work cause it already proved to be wrong and the truth is finally coming to the surface. This whole story has been manipulated from the beginning because there are upcoming elections but I am sure that the Cuban Revolution will get stronger every day. Young people like Eliecer prove that there is a future WITHIN THE REVOLUTION!!!

That's the proof that Cuba

That's the proof that Cuba accepts criticism, isn't it? International media keep portraying Cuba as the island of repression. But we can see here that's not true. These young students managed to express their disapproval peacefully. And some of their demands are legitimate. But as you can see, they show their respect of El Che and Castro and they say clearly that they support the revolution. I guess that's difficult to understand for americans and europeans, but the cuban people still support Castro, which brought social justice to an island which was rules before him by thugs and corrupted politicians.

I completely agree with you

The fact that Cuban university students support the ideals of their ancestors and that they are deeply revolutionary even when some people try to prove otherwise is cristalclear. This whole media show won't work cause the truth is finally coming to the surface. This whole story has been manipulated from the beginning because there are upcoming elections but I am sure that the Cuban Revolution will get stronger every day. Young people like Eliecer prove that there is a future WITHIN THE REVOLUTION!!!

students expression Cuban problems

I saw the video. what i didn't see or hear were students in the background cheering or saying "all right" "well said" "way to go". there was no head nodding of approval by the other students for the statements and questions the student proposed. all the other studens were very quiet and didn't dare show their support. they should have. were they all afraid of being watched and harressed later ?

this was staged by the gov't.

nonsense

Cuba is a free country and maybe there are no state-of-the-art technology but we can speak freely our minds and it is showed in the fact that university students were talking to one of the ministers.... it was a spontaneous talk and there was clapping and cheering but that part was cut in the video manipulated by THE MEDIA!!!.
None has been harassed and the students that spoke in the video that was circulated worldwide are in perfect conditions like it's showed here....

Cuban students

After following Cuban affairs quite closely over the last 5-6 years, I am struck by the fact that this kind of challenge to government authority has gone so far, nothing like this has happened that I know of - especially in the presence of such an important leader as Alarcon. It suggests quite a profound shift, even if the government had staged it, it means they recognize that they now have to allow dissenting views being expressed to the highest level. And that is a
difficult process to stop, once started.
In reply to the previous comments, the fact that students express commitment to the revolution is an obligatory convention that Cubans have always followed, and even in a case where they are challenging the government they would be expected to do this. If they didn't, then government would dismiss them as anti-revolutionaries, in the payroll of US State Dept etc. A challenge from within the revolution is more powerful than a challenge from without.
And as for students saying "way to go", etc, that might happen in France or Mexico but certainly not Cuba, not for some time yet. Obviously the other students are scared, but why would that prove that this was staged by the government? Probably, they haven't yet developed the same courage as the leaders who are speaking.

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