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A dose of free speech, Cuba-style

In a nation where saying the wrong thing can mean jail, people do express themselves in public, sometimes loudly and bitterly.

July 15, 2007|Will Weissert | Associated Press

HAVANA — Miguel is in mid-sentence when his face darkens and his eyes dart to the ground. His mouth is still open, but no words come out.

He has been talking about what it must be like to live in a country where the government doesn't control all radio and television. What he says is hardly incendiary, but when a policeman saunters by, he freezes.

"That's Cuba," he says after the officer moves away. "They are always listening."

Saying the wrong thing too loudly in this country can cost you your job. Insulting Fidel Castro or other leaders in public can mean jail.

Still, freedom of speech in Cuba is more nuanced than it may appear. The government tolerates criticism in a few accepted spaces, and many people do express themselves in public, sometimes even loudly and bitterly -- and more so, some say, since Castro fell ill last year and his brother Raul took over.

One such relatively free space is the enclave of benches and shade trees of Havana's Central Park where Miguel was sounding off. It's called the Esquina Caliente, or Hot Corner, from baseball lingo for third base. Here Cuban men both young and old, black and white, some with gold chains and sneakers, others in threadbare tank tops and dusty sandals -- argue sports all day, every day.

But debate sometimes spills into other areas: women, ration cards, clothes and cars. Illegal TV hookups, water shortages, booze and last night's neighborhood Communist Party meeting.

Cuba has no free press, Internet access is restricted and phones are assumed to be bugged. State security agents follow government critics and foreigners, while nearly every block has its Revolutionary Defense Committee keeping tabs on the neighbors.

So at the Hot Corner, those who deviate from sports tend to do so quietly. Miguel asked that his last name not appear in print for fear of government reprisals.

Dissident Miriam Leiva is well known enough not to mind her surname being published. She says people are encouraged to blow off steam by complaining at Communist Party meetings -- but then officials ignore what they say.

"For people to feel they are free to talk and complain, it relieves stress and allows an outlet for people to relax a bit," said Leiva, an independent journalist whose work is published on websites and in magazines outside Cuba. "But they express themselves because they have to, because they are suffering. Then nothing changes."

A more public forum for complaining is Juventud Rebelde, the Communist Party youth newspaper.

Saily Cordero, 23, wrote saying she was denied the free powdered milk she was entitled to as a woman five months pregnant. Within hours, the neighborhood councilwoman and a host of top communists appeared at her door. They checked her story and determined she was not owed free milk until her sixth month of pregnancy. But Cordero said the fast response left her feeling empowered.

"I just want what's mine," she said. "If I don't get it, I will complain and complain. Whoever gets in trouble, I don't care."

In 1961, Castro defined free speech for Cubans: "Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing."

"There was no other choice. It was, 'You're with us or you're against us,' and you can imagine what happens if you're against us," Leiva said. "That's the way things are still."

Leiva's husband, Oscar Espinosa Chepe, is a state-trained economist who became an anti-communist. He was one of 75 arrested in a roundup of government critics in March 2003.

Though he was released for health reasons, Leiva and other women dress in white and march silently down Havana's busy Fifth Avenue every Sunday after Mass, wearing buttons with photos of relatives still in jail.

Their every move is watched by security officials and sometimes they are openly harassed by government supporters, but the march by the Ladies in White is largely tolerated.

"We are very peaceful, we are defenseless," Leiva said. "We are in their hands. They can do to us anything they want."

Sometimes their ranks swell to dozens, but on a recent Sunday only Leiva and four others marched.

"We're not afraid," said Berta de Los Angeles Soler, 43, whose activist husband, Angel Moya, is serving 20 years in prison. "How can we be afraid they will put us in prison if our husbands and relatives are already there?"

Soler added that "the people see us in the street and they accept us and support us," but not all. As she spoke, a passerby muttered obscenities while avoiding eye contact.

"It's hard," Soler said. "But if you don't work and go get something, you have nothing. Especially in Cuba."

Back at the Hot Corner, many complain -- and some even admit to breaking the law for small freedoms -- even though the place is said to be full of plainclothes government agents.

One Friday, a man named Lorenzo said he watched TV using a hidden antenna that illegally captured signals from Florida. That started an argument about how to best stash antennas during government raids.

The talk then went from what caused a Havana power outage to who would be the U.S. Democratic nominee for president.

Lorenzo, a Hot Corner regular in his 70s who is old enough to remember Cuba and its heavy American presence before Castro's 1959 revolution, said he was keeping up with the race.

"I'm a Republican," he said. "But for me, Bill Clinton was the best president in U.S. history. The economy was strong. They threw Monica Lewinsky at him, and he just kept going. That will help his wife."

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