HAVANA Cubans began taking a hard look this week at entrenched customs like food rationing, pilfering on the job, cradle-to-grave subsidies and black market trading in a national debate called by President Raul Castro.
Authorities have circulated a ten-point agenda for thousands of open-ended meetings over the next month at work places, universities and community organizations to rethink Cuban socialism, focused on the economic themes highlighted by Castro in a speech to the National Assembly in August.
The discussion guide, a copy of which was obtained by Reuters, makes clear that questioning the communist-ruled island's one-party political system established after Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution, or calling for a restoration of capitalism, are off limits.
But the guide said: "It is important that the meetings are characterized by absolute freedom of criteria, the sincerity of participants and respect for differing opinions".
The possibility of eliminating one of the world's longest-standing food ration systems, heavily subsidized utilities, transportation and meals at work and universities, among other items, would be debated at the meetings.
Alicia, a communist party militant who will lead the debate in her Havana work place next week but who asked that her last name not be used, said the purpose was "to call on everyone to do what they have to do and stop looking up into the sky and screaming that there are problems."
"Of course there are problems, lots of them, what's needed is that everyone begins taking care of their own," she said.
A similar round of meetings was held in 2007, during which Cubans were asked to air their complaints and what they wanted from the government.
At this round of discussions, the guide says participants were being asked to look in the mirror and apply Castro's speech to their own "radius of action," identify problems in the context of his words and come up with a list of proposals to solve them.
"Nobody, no individual nor country, can indefinitely spend more than she or he earns. Two plus two always adds up to four, never five," Castro said in his August speech. "Within the conditions of our imperfect socialism, due to our own shortcomings, two plus two often adds up to three," he added.
Cubans have mixed feelings about the debate. Some say it is a sincere effort to involve them in changing their lives, while others suspect it is a maneuver to get them to buy into austerity measures that have already been decided on.
"The monthly ration lasts about 15 days and now it won't last 10," Jorge, a construction worker, glumly predicted.
EGALITARIANISM AND CENTRALIZATION
Castro, in his August speech, said a foreign currency shortage had forced drastic cuts in imports and budgets and postponement of payments to foreign creditors and suppliers.
He said egalitarianism had no place under socialism, except in the area of opportunity, and more resources should flow to those who produce and less to those who do not. He has often expressed this refrain since taking over the presidency from his elder brother, Fidel Castro, 18 months ago.
The discussion guide includes excerpts of an earlier Castro speech in which he said reversing the country's dependence on food imports was "not a question of yelling 'fatherland or death, down with imperialism, the blockade is hurting us ...'", but working hard and overcoming poor organization.
Cuban leaders routinely call the 47-year-old U.S. economic embargo against the island a "blockade" and frequently blame it for Cuba's economic woes.
Castro called for decentralization of the state-dominated economy, new forms of property ownership and an end to all government gratuities and subsidies except in health care, education and social security, though these also had to had to cut waste and inessential services.
The president also said in his speech to the National Assembly that Cuba recognized a change in tone from U.S. President Barack Obama's administration and was open to trying to solve the standoff with the United States.
"We are ready to talk about everything, I repeat everything, but in terms of here in Cuba and over there in the United States, and not to negotiate our political and social system," he said.
Obama has eased some slight aspects of the longstanding embargo on Cuba, and initiated talks with the Cuban government on immigration and postal services. But he has called on Cuban leaders to respond by becoming more democratic, freeing detained dissidents and improving human rights.
(Editing by Jim Loney and David Storey)