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.

 

"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