HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuban university students, in a rare public challenge to authorities, openly criticized government restrictions on access to the Internet, hotels and travel abroad.
Their criticism in a video circulated this week comes as more Cubans begin to speak out about the shortcomings of Cuba’s socialist system, a debate encouraged by acting President Raul Castro since taking over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro in 2006.
In the 52-minute video, students at the University of Information Sciences demanded explanations from National Assembly president Ricardo Alarcon on a series of issues.
The January 19 town-hall style meeting was shown over the closed-circuit television system of the 10,000-student university built on the site of a former Soviet electronic listening post on the outskirts of Havana. The video has since been circulated secretly on computer memory cards, although it has not been seen by most Cubans.
“Why can’t the people of Cuba go to hotels or travel to other parts of the world?” asked one student, who identified himself as Eliecer Avila.
Only foreigners are allowed to stay at hotels at beach resorts. To leave the island, Cubans need a permit from the government, which particularly restricts travel by young people.
Avila, who studies at Cuba’s elite school for computer sciences -- a pet project of Fidel Castro’s before he fell ill-- asked why the government had banned the use of Web sites Yahoo! and Google for e-mail and messenger services.
Internet connectivity in Cuba is lower than in Haiti, the hemisphere’s poorest country, and all servers belong to the state. Many Cubans with Internet access provided by the government can use e-mail but not surf the Web, only an intranet of Cuban Web sites.
Alarcon, who is the speaker of Cuba’s legislature, dodged some questions, saying he did not know about monetary and Internet matters.
The students criticized Cuba’s leadership for being out of touch with the people and asked the government to be more forthcoming with proposals on how to solve pressing problems, from poor public transport to low wages.
Raul Castro has raised expectations of economic reforms since taking over from his 81-year-old brother, who has not appeared in public since undergoing stomach surgery for an undisclosed illness more than 18 months ago.
In December, Raul Castro acknowledged before the National Assembly that Cuba had “an excess of prohibitions” that did more harm than good in an economy that is 90 percent owned by the state.
So far he has delivered little, but has invited Cubans to speak their minds without fear of reprisal on how best to solve Cuba’s woes.
Some Cuba watchers believe he let the genie out of the bottle and there is no way to put the lid back on the growing debate about the country’s future.
“It’s like a soup coming to the boil -- a bubble appears here, another there and then it’s all bubbling up,” said a long-time European resident of Havana who asked not be identified.
One week before the students met with Alarcon, Cubans working for foreign companies protested government plans to tax their hard currency earnings at a meeting that ended in disarray.
The first sector of Cuban society to speak up for their interests were intellectuals, writers and artists, who last year won an apology from the government for the reappearance of former television censors from the 1970s.
This week, famed Cuban folk singer Silvio Rodriguez, a high-profile supporter of Castro’s government, said Cubans should be free to travel abroad and stay at hotels reserved for tourists. He said the country was in “transition.”
Reporting by Anthony Boadle, Editing by Michael Christie