To Gain Access to Citizens / Miriam Celaya

Carlos Saladrigas during his lecture on March 30

On afternoon of March 30 I had the opportunity to attend the conference held by the Cuba-American businessman and politician, Carlos Saladrigas, in the Felix Varela Chair of the former San Carlos and San Ambrosio Seminary in Old Havana, under the auspices of the magazine Lay Space. Beyond the possibilities of the informal networks to circulate the announcement of this meeting, we must recognize the wide variety of attendees who packed he room and its adjoining gallery, requiring that the doors be kept open so that everyone could participate in the conference and later debate.

The atmosphere was quiet and respectful, showing that differences can not only coexist with civility, but are also inseparable from it.Representatives from official sectors — such as academics, university professors, political scientists, etc. — as well as numerous representatives of independent civil society generally labeled as dissidents or opponents, shared the space and the microphone without our attacking or assaulting each other, and without dismissing or offending each other, evidence that a context of respectful debate is only possible in spaces not controlled by the government. In this regard, we must thank Lay Space for including the actors usually excluded from all public forums on the Island, and who, sadly and with few exceptions, are not commonly guests at events sponsored by religious institutions.

With our differences, it was an unprecedented experience for me to attend a plural forum, with dialog rather than confrontation. Thus, the defenders spoke of a “participative and democratic socialism” as recognized opponents, among them the economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe and the journalist Reinaldo Escobar. There were no lack of defenders of the government, such as Professor Alzugaray, who postulated the “legitimacy” of the Cuban government, thought without offering the fundamentals of what he considered legitimate; or the claims of Pedro Campos, who said that wage labor constitutes “today’s slavery.”

Also contributing were other socialists, such as the poet Felix Guerra, calling for “an opportunity” for socialism, as if more than half a century of the destructive experiment of a nation had not been sufficient, and we should be disposed to bet another fifty years to obsolescence and ruin. Felix Sautie demanded the end to criticism, as if all these years of the prohibition of critical opinions has not been a living demonstration of the sickness that can result in a society without critics, or as if someone was sufficiently qualified to establish what, who, where and when questioning is permissible.

There was everything, from condemnations of U.S. government policy, to nostalgia for what was the revolutionary project, and there were also references to the families who emigrated. The sentimental touch can never be missing in a meeting between Cubans, especially when — consistent with the eternal lurching of our cheerful fickleness — having families in the diaspora is no longer sinful or shameful (something that never should have happened) and has become a kind of source of legitimacy (which it also shouldn’t be).

Perhaps that is why it was so refreshing to hear other proposals, such as that made by friend and colleague Reinaldo Escobar to demand the decriminalization of differences of opinion; or the contribution by the young man who put on the table, among other questions, the urgent need for all Cubans to have access to the Internet and to end government’s prohibitions on the free circulation of information and ideas on the Island.

Other young people I don’t know and who, in the heat of the debate, didn’t say their names, also referenced the lack of autonomy for the self-employed who have taken advantage of the “Raul reforms,” as well as the absurdity of putting a limit on the possibilities for prosperity among those who strive to generate their own income. Undoubtedly, intelligent and bold opinions that put a more positive touch on the encounter.

Saladrigas, for his part, took a conciliatory, rational and respectful stance, for which he undoubtedly deserves our thanks. However, it was clearly not possible in such a short time and in such a confined space, to reduce the debate in its totality to controversial topic of Cuba and its diaspora, let alone the spectrum of pressing problems currently facing the Cubans.

It is hoped that these opportunities for wide and open discussions in a framework of civility and good will multiply in this and other spaces, and in the short term the whole of society will have the opportunity to review, approve or disagree, far beyond ideological principles or political interests. And hopefully, soon, we can also overcome the narrow limits of religious chairs to accede to this major altar of a whole free society: the citizen.

Some of the participants in the debate:

Feliz Guerra asked for another opportunity for socialism.

Felix Sautie to banish criticism and resentment.

Pedro Campos: The employee is the modern slave.

Reinaldo Escobar: Differences of opinion must be decriminalized.

Walfrido: The need for Internet access.

Another young person’s opinion: Eliminate the limits on personal prosperity in the private sector.

April 2 2012