Grumbling is not the same as dissent
Apr 15th 2010 | HAVANA | From The Economist print edition
Brave but few
WHEN one of Cuba’s leading musicians, Silvio Rodríguez, took to the stage at a hastily organised “Concert for the Motherland” in Havana on April 10th the audience of a few thousand expected him to sing. Instead, he read a text he penned last month in which he defended the Cuban government against foreign criticism over the recent death of a hunger-striking prisoner, Orlando Zapata. He then left without performing a single note.
Mr Rodríguez, for decades a big star throughout Latin America, and a few other well-known artists enjoy privileges denied to ordinary Cubans, such as freedom to travel abroad and to earn. In return, they must toe the revolutionary line. But last month when launching a new album, Mr Rodríguez was unusually critical, calling for “conceptual revisions” in the way that the country is run. He said that he favoured granting an amnesty to 100 prisoners of conscience in the island’s jails. In one of his new songs he suggests that the Cuban revolution should “move on from the R” (ie, to “evolution”).
Perhaps he believed that this would be officially welcomed. When he took over as president in 2006 from his brother, Fidel, Raúl Castro urged Cubans to debate their future “fearlessly”. But Cuba’s communist leadership now finds itself in a familiar position: rallying its people in the face of outside criticism of its suppression of freedoms. And Mr Rodríguez’s comments were seized upon by those whom Cuba’s government considers enemies.
The catalyst for Mr Rodríguez’s criticism and recanting was the death in February of Mr Zapata, whom the government branded a “common criminal” but whom human-rights groups abroad say was one of around 200 political prisoners in Cuba. Another dissident, Guillermo Fariñas, who is not in prison, promptly began his own hunger strike and is seriously ill. Others in the island’s small dissident movement threaten to follow.
The Ladies in White, a group formed by the relatives of political prisoners jailed in a crackdown in 2003, staged a week of protest marches in Havana. The government allowed the marches, by about three dozen of them, but organised bigger crowds of counter-demonstrators shouting insults. Several of the ladies were briefly detained. They claim they are receiving more public support.
The government has rounded on the European Union, which expressed its dismay at Mr Zapata’s death. State television has broadcast a series of alarmist documentaries portraying Europe as a region governed by fascists and blighted by mass unemployment. European diplomats have been photographed and identified on the programmes as “provocateurs”.
The death of Mr Zapata and its aftermath has seemingly put paid to any chance of a rapprochement between the United States and Cuba, of which there were high hopes after Barack Obama took office. Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state, said she had come to the conclusion that the Castros deliberately undermine any possible improvement in relations, so as not to “lose the excuse” that the American economic embargo against the island offers for their failings.
But it is the home front that is Raúl Castro’s main worry. He insists that he understands the problems Cubans face in their daily lives. But changes are happening very slowly. His latest move is to allow small barbershops to operate as private businesses, with employees paying tax rather than receiving a state salary. Meanwhile, the head of the aviation authority, a former revolutionary hero, was abruptly sacked last month amid rumours that several planes belonging to Cubana, the national airline, were unofficially lent in operations that brought tens of millions of dollars to a handful of officials.
The dissidents live in hope that Cubans’ discontent with their lot will boil over into active opposition. That may be if a hot summer brings more power cuts. But out of fear of the consequences, or residual loyalty, almost all Cubans still seem unwilling to go beyond grumbling or deluging the ombudsman with complaints. “Millions of us are very unhappy about many things here”, says Hannah, a medical student. “But we are not dissidents.”