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Cuba talk focuses on future

Lindsay Sena | Friday, November 16, 2007

Experts discussed Cuba’s political system and their thoughts on the country’s future, given the failing health of President Fidel Castro Thursday.

The lecture, titled “Cuba from Inside,” featured Hewlett Visiting Fellow and freelance journalist Cecilia Vaisman and former Havana bureau chief for the Chicago Tribune Gary Marx.

“We don’t believe he’s coming back to power,” Vaisman said. The two said Cuba has several options for its government in the future.

The nation could adopt a “China/Vietnam style/model” of governing, which would improve living standards for Cubans while still maintaining a single-party system, Vaisman said. Or, she said, Cubans could stage a violent uprising for democracy, which is “extremely unlikely.”

“Civil society is not strong enough to challenge the government,” she said.

Although there have been several positive changes since the 1990s, such as the legalization of the U.S. dollar and the opening of some Cuban sectors to tourism and investment, there is still a growing inequality between the rich and the poor, Marx said.

“There is a gap between those with dollars and those without,” he said, using the quinciñera as an example of wealthy Cuban excess.

“Cubans are spending thousands and thousands of dollars on these parties,” he said.

Additional downsides to the economic reforms include an increase in crime, prostitution and a growing black market.

Aside from affecting the economy, the Cuban government also has control over religion, the arts and the media.

Cuba’s constitution changed from atheist to secular in the 1990s, which enabled Catholics to practice their faith freely. However, the government still places strict limitations on the Catholic Church, which is Cuba’s largest independent institution, Marx said.

The Church does not have access to the media, cannot build churches, schools or seminaries, and cannot recruit priests from abroad, he said.

In terms of the media, Marx said that due to a strong internal opposition, there has been a “crackdown” on independent journalists and dissidents.

“The opposition movement is thoroughly infiltrated,” he said, emphasizing that it is impossible to tell who is a real dissident and who is a spy, which has lead to “suspicion and mistrust” among Cubans.

“Opposition is a nonfactor in Cuba today,” Marx said, as dissidents are almost instantly imprisoned and, upon release, are obliged to leave the country.

Vaisman and Marx said Cubans are, on the whole, fearful of change.

“Propaganda in Cuba is just as effective as propaganda in America. … the education system emphasizes conformity,” Marx said.

Although there is a minor possibility for change in Cuba, the current situation doesn’t “look like [it] will change at all,” Vaisman said.

The lecture took place in the Hesburgh Center for International Studies, and was a part of International Education Week, a joint initiative of the U.S. Departments of State and Education.