Listen to the discussion

By Johannes Werner

When it comes to gauging the current state of the Cuban mind, almost all U.S. and European radars are aimed at the small group of dissidents on the island. They’re missing the big picture: A fundamental reform discussion is underway in Cuba, involving millions of people.

Always within the constraint of furthering the cause of the Revolution, criticism and suggestions abound at official neighborhood and workplace meetings, on the letters to the editor pages of official newspapers, on the Cuban intranet, and — on rare occasions — in foreign media.

In one of those rare occasions, a pillar of the system, pop icon Pablo Milanés, allowed the world a glimpse into the universe of Cuban opinions. This is not the first time the 67-year old singer-songwriter publicly criticizes the Cuban system. The official singer of the revolution, who popularized Nicolas Guillen’s poems and co-created the Nueva Trova and Nueva Canción movements, has walked a fine line, balancing his criticism of the shortcomings of the Cuban system with loving support of youthful, revolutionary idealism.

True to this history, he gave an interview to — of all newspapers — Spain’s El Mundo, the country’s most decidedly anti-communist daily. Here are some excerpts of the q&a, published March 13.

“Q. What kind of strike does Castro deserve if [Guillermo] Fariñas dies of hunger?

A. You have to condemn, from a human standpoint. These things must not be done. Ideas are discussed, and you battle them; you don’t imprison them.

Q. What have the revolutionaries done with the revolution?

A. Stay back in time. And history must move forward, with ideas and new men. They turned into reactionaries of their own ideas. That’s why I have said that another revolution is necessary, because we have small stains. The enormous sun that rose in ’59 has been filling up with spots as it turned old.

Q. In what century will Cuba have elections?

A. I am not a fortune-teller. I don’t have the soul of a prophet, but I would like it to be sooner rather than later. More than elections, that there is change in Cuba, because I don’t believe in elections either. That’s a — quote unquote — democratic game and a farce.

Q. What kind of freedom is Miami?

A. It’s a freedom Cubans are seeking in all honesty. Sometimes, a lot don’t find it, because there’s nothing like being in one’s own nation, protesting, begging, demanding.

Q. What song would you give to these countries that invoke human rights for Cuba with one hand, while the other maintains the death penalty in their own land?

A. And torture, and disappearings … It’s a song that is about to be made. But the respect for the sovereignty of the countries won’t let me make it. The same way I want them to respect the sovereignty of my people. We Cubans have the right to claim our rights. In the end, it will be us who resolve our situation.”

So much for Milanés’ opinions. The point here is not to show how even members of the Cuban elite are impatient about the glacial speed of change on the island. It’s how there’s a bandwidth of criticism from within the system, with some critics testing the limits more than others.

Foreigners, and particularly foreign governments, should closely follow, respect and foster the internal dialogue that is already going on. That dialogue may not sound exciting because it doesn’t purport cataclysmic change, as many outsiders would like to see. On the contrary — there is a vocal faction of Cubans that actually argue in favor of more socialism and egalitarianism rather than less. But it is an honest and home-made dialogue that has a chance of improving Cuba’s economy, step by step, built on consensus and without outside intervention.

Johannes Werner is editor of Cuba Standard

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