Fidel's successor gives Cubans the freedom to watch foreign television

Leonard Doyle
Friday 04 April 2008 00:00

After decades of being browbeaten by Communist state-run television, a new 24-hour channel with foreign content is being offered to Cuba's television viewers, many of whom were so bored they had turned off their sets years ago.

It's the latest incremental change by the country's new president, Raul Castro, younger brother of the ailing Fidel. And like the new freedoms, which allow ordinary Cubans to buy mobile phones and stay in hotels – if they can afford the hard currency rates – the changes are designed to breathe life into Cuba's collapsing political and economic system, as well as to raise revenue for the Castro regime.

Since taking over as Cuba's first new leader in almost 50 years, Raul Castro, a doctrinaire Communist, has been removing what he describes as "excessive prohibitions" in the country. But for many Cubans, especially dissidents brave enough to speak out against the government, the younger Castro is not moving fast enough to bring about real change.

"They are probably doing it because Cuban television is so bad that people have illegal satellites or rent pirated DVDs. They will do anything to avoid watching state-run television," said the dissident writer Miriam Leiva from Havana yesterday. "They are giving us the circus, without giving us bread,"

Indeed, there are key areas that remain untouched – like the huge demand for internet access. There are only a few tightly regulated and expensive internet cafes in Havana, and last month the regime abruptly shut down access to the country's most-read blogger, Yoani Sanchez. Her "Generacion Y" blog received 1.2 million hits in February before it was barred.

And what most Cubans are still waiting for is the elimination of the tarjeta blanca, the requirement to receive an exit permit to emigrate or to travel abroad, which is denied to virtually everyone.

There are indications that such a change is being contemplated, and in Havana there is open discussion about the hope of a Democratic president taking the White House, followed by an easing of the much-maligned United States embargo which has been in place since 1960.

Since Monday any Cuban with enough money has been able to stay in the luxury hotels previously reserved for foreigners. "Tourism apartheid" has been a long-standing grievance against the Cuban government, and none will regret the ban's passing.

Cubans can also rent cars in their own names, ending yet another restriction that made ordinary Cubans feel like second-class citizens in their own country.

For the first time also, Cubans will be allowed to receive shipments of car parts. The 50-year-old American cars and more recent Ladas that gasp and sputter through Havana were so starved of spare parts that an entire backstreet industry grew up to keep them patched together and running.

Private farmers have also been encouraged to start planting tobacco, coffee and other crops on state land that is unused. The farm reforms could put much needed food on the table in Cuba, a country still using rations to keep people fed, while bringing in hard currency for the regime from exports.

Some 51 per cent of farmland land in the country is underused and some will be transferred to individual farmers and associations of small, private producers.

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