Pushing the boundaries of free speech in Cuba

 

Ernesto Londoño, The New York Times

 

In the past, when a Cuban athlete vanished during a sporting event abroad, news about the defection would spread by word of mouth back home. There would be no official acknowledgment or mention in the state-run press.

 

Not so with the recent defection of star baseball players and brothers Yulieski Gourriel and Lourdes Gourriel Jr. — an episode that illustrates how citizens in the most repressive country in the hemisphere are increasingly pushing the boundaries of free speech.

 

The Communist Party’s newspaper, Granma, published a brief article on Feb. 8 criticizing the brothers for “surrendering to the mercenaries” of for-profit professional baseball. Then, something remarkable happened. Regional newspapers, which are also state-run, published pieces that provided a detailed account of the escape and dared to lament the dismal state of the country’s revered baseball league.

 

“Cuban baseball has reached a point where the only things that create a stir are defections, brawls and abrupt resignations,” a writer charged in an opinion article published late last month in the newspaper Vanguardia.

 

It was not an isolated case. Since the United States started normalizing relations with Havana in late 2014, Cubans have begun to debate once-taboo subjects and criticize their government more boldly.

 

American critics of the Obama administration’s rapprochement with Cuba have called the shift in policy a failure by focusing on how rigid the socialist government has remained. They’re missing something important: The new relationship has done much to diminish the culture of fear and obedience the state has long used to control its citizens. For years, those who criticized the government paid a high price and were branded as traitors, but today Cubans from a broader cross-section of society are speaking out with less fear.

 

A youth group led by bloggers recently began a round of town hall meetings at universities around the country to debate the political future of an island that has been ruled by two autocratic brothers since 1959 and the continuing exodus of young people. Harold Cárdenas, one of the leaders of the group, known as Young Cuba, recently lamented the lack of political enthusiasm among his contemporaries. “Has Cuban youth become apolitical?” he wrote in a post. “Or is it that the current alternatives are unappealing?

 

That is a veiled but sharp criticism of Cuba’s graying and increasingly unseen leaders by Mr. Cárdenas, who has close ties to the progressive wing of the government. Taking that sort of euphemistic shot at the state in Cuba is not so unusual, but some Cubans have gone even further.

 

Last October, the state-run newspaper Tribuna published an article that mockingly made allusions to the extravagant trips Antonio Castro, the son of former President Fidel Castro, took to Turkey and the United States. Last year, gay rights advocates demanded in an article published in a blog on Cuba’s state-run blog platform that the current president apologize for the abusive treatment of gay men during the early years of the Cuban revolution.

 

The government’s only response was to censor the blog post, which nonetheless was shared widely.

 

 

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