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Cubans adapt to a changing government

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Lindsey Gjording, one of the participants in winter quarter’s study abroad to Cuba, stands at the back of Pancho’s garden near his “war secret” — a flask of Cuban rum that he hides from his wife.

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Some students who studied in Cuba last quarter stop to look at a billboard on a highway that reads, “Everyone who gives refuge to a terrorist is a terrorist.” The man pictured on the right is Luis Posada Carriles, a Venezuelan anti-Castro terrorist. A U.S. court ruled in 2005 that he could not be extradited to Venezuela because he faced the threat of torture there.

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A sign posted outside a Cuban elementary school reads, “Here was located the 33rd squadron of the army of the tyranny, today converted into a school by the revolution.” One of Fidel’s proudest accomplishments during the early years of the revolution was converting all the old army barracks into schools.

My mind raced and my heart beat quickly as Dámaris Arencibia, a fiery woman in her early 30s, and the daughter of my host parents in Cienfuegos, rattled off a list of complaints about the Cuban government in Spanish so fast I had trouble just keeping up.

“Why can’t we have cell phones?” she demanded. “Why can’t we have access to the Internet? What could it possibly hurt?”

I had sparked a debate in the family by bringing up a subject we touched on in our Cuban culture class a few hours before, on a stiflingly hot February afternoon. One of our professors, Dictinio Díaz, told us about a series of unwritten laws in Cuba, popularly known as prohibitions.

As of the end of our winter quarter trip, there were many tourist hotels where Cuban citizens were not allowed to check in, because the hotels require a passport from another country to book a room. The phone companies wouldn’t allow Cuban citizens to activate a cellular plan. Internet access and even the purchase of a computer were prohibited for everyone except those for whom the government deemed it necessary.

Cubans can’t travel to other countries without a formal invitation from someone abroad, which essentially entails an agreement from that foreigner that they’ll take care of the Cuban citizen for a set amount of time, and then facilitate their safe return to the island. Cubans can’t travel alone as tourists, even if they have the money to do so, as some of them certainly do.

It’s difficult to imagine how expensive it is for a Cuban citizen to travel. The passport alone is almost prohibitively expensive, not to mention the necessary government paperwork and the plane ticket. Even so, travel without an invitation (essentially an escort) from a foreigner is prohibited by the state.

Much of that has changed during the past two months.

On Feb. 24, Fidel Castro stepped down after almost 50 years as the country’s president, handing power to his younger brother Raúl, who was voted in unanimously by the 614-member National Assembly. During his acceptance speech, he made his intentions clear.

“In December, I referred to the excess of prohibitions and regulations,” he said. “And in the next few weeks we will start removing the simplest of them.”

Raúl kept his word. On March 13, computers were made available to Cuban citizens. On March 28 cellular phones were legalized, and three days after that the government made all tourist hotels open their doors to Cuban citizens.

These changes are largely symbolic, as the vast majority of Cubans still can’t afford any of these luxuries, but they are certainly indicative of the beginning of real changes for the island nation. The prohibitions are also a large part of the reason other countries, especially the United States, decry the Cuban government for human rights violations — part of the foundation of the U.S. trade embargo from which the country has suffered for more than 45 years.

Last year, the United Nations voted for the 16th straight year to call for an end to the embargo. Of 189 voting members present, 184 voted in favor of the resolution to no avail.

Some prohibitions still remain, though. Cubans are still not allowed to travel abroad without an invitation, which has raised a great deal of contention.

In a town hall discussion between a group of university students and Ricardo Alarcón, the president of the National Assembly (somewhat like the U.S. speaker of the house), one bold student stood and asked what must have been on everyone’s mind. His name is Eliecer Avila. As Dámaris demanded of me that night, he demanded of one of the country’s top officials: “Why can’t Cuban people have the opportunity to stay at hotels or travel to different places around the world?”

Alarcón responded, “If everyone in the world, all 6 billion inhabitants, were able to travel wherever they pleased, there would be a tremendous traffic jam in our planet’s airspace. People who travel are really a minority.”

Imagine the madness that would have ensued if the U.S. government had told Martin Luther King Jr. that equality wasn’t possible because too many people would be waiting in line at the water fountains or the bathrooms. Imagine if the government had told Susan B. Anthony that women shouldn’t be allowed to vote because the polling places would be over capacity.

My host father and Dámaris’ father, Pancho, was shocked to hear that story. He’d heard rumors of it, but didn’t have any way of looking into it, because the media in Cuba is all state-controlled.

“That’s not an answer,” Pancho said of Alarcón’s response, walking away and shaking his head. This is a near-perfect illustration of the utter lack of transparency in the Cuban government that frustrates anyone wanting to know more about the reality of the country’s people and politics, including its own citizens.

The embargo isn’t likely to be lifted anytime soon, not even after President Bush leaves office in January. Cuba won’t suddenly convert to capitalism under its new government, and in fact, not many large changes are in the island’s foreseeable future.

What this government is attempting to show by the unanimous vote for Raúl is that the revolution isn’t mortally linked to a single man, breathing its last breaths along with his 81-year-old lungs.

“[Raúl and Fidel] are of the same political ideals,” Pancho told me. “Ever since their childhood, they have had very similar views, and they have always shared them with each other.”

Raúl’s election was an attempt to show people that a smooth transition to a new government is entirely possible, and that just because Fidel stepped down doesn’t mean Cuba will suddenly bow to demands, adopting the political and economic systems that the U.S. government has been pushing since before the revolution even started.

Electing Raúl was a statement of permanence, of loyalty and commitment to a basic set of ideals that much of the island shares, regardless of the pressure it receives from abroad to change its ways.

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