Latin America & Caribbean

Cubans ponder Communist island's future

Youngesters practicing at la Colmenita in January 2015
Image caption The young musicians at La Colmenita are full of hope for the future

As the highest-ranking US delegation to visit Cuba in decades prepares to meet Cuban officials, BBC Mundo's Will Grant in Havana speaks to young people and former detainees about their thoughts on democracy and the thaw in US-Cuban relations.

The Beehive is an after-school club with a Latin beat.

When the school bell rings in the Vedado district of Havana, instead of going home, a group of children go straight to the brightly coloured building next door.

There, they spend hours practising their instruments and dancing salsa. Some have already toured Mexico, Spain and the United States.

The Beehive, or La Colmenita as the music clubs are known on the Communist-run island, was set up not by the Cuban Communist Party (CCP) but a private individual.

For many, it is an example of a successful social organisation that operates outside state control.

High hopes

During a break in the practice, a few of the teenage musicians explain their hopes for Cuba's future in the light of the historic announcement just over a month ago of a thaw in relations with the US.

Image caption Ana Maria is looking forward to Cuba having closer ties with the US

"The best thing will be to have another friend, a good relationship with another country", says 15-year-old Ana Maria in flawless English of the prospect of a resumption of diplomatic relations more than five decades after they were frozen.

"It's like, why do we keep being enemies, enemies, enemies until the end of our lives? No. Time has passed and things must change."

Some of her friends are particularly excited by the idea of greater internet access in Cuba.

"That could help us with our homework, for example," says the band's drummer, Liliana.

"We could just quickly get on the internet to find things out. Or to get in touch with friends or family who you haven't seen for a long time."

Limited choice

Asked if they live in a democracy, the girls are adamant they do. Ana Maria cites her school as an example.

Image caption The children say they feel like they are being included in the running of their school

"In all schools in Cuba, we have our own organisation and we choose every year one member of it to represent us in the teachers' meetings. For me, that's the biggest example of democracy."

But while Cuba's classrooms might be beacons of democracy, critics say the country's parliament is anything but.

Government officials point out that every deputy in the chamber has been voted for by the people.

But half of the candidates for parliamentary seats were chosen by institutions of the state and in the last election, there was only one candidate standing in each constituency.

Furthermore, critics say, the appointments at the very top of government remain firmly in the hands of the Communist Party.

Deep-seated differences

Rafael Hernandez, editor of political magazine Temas, admits that there is a gap between the different participatory processes in Cuba.

Image caption Rafael Hernandez say Cuba and the US have very different understandings of democracy

"I would say that democracy at the bottom level works better than at the national level", he observes.

"In assemblies at the district level, delegates of the popular power are elected by the people (and) the list of candidates is created by citizens," he explains.

"But as you go up and up, the system is less democratic. That is a problem, but perhaps it is not only a problem in Cuba," he concludes.

He resoundingly refutes the suggestion that there is no democracy in Cuba because it is a one-party state.

Rather, he says, it is simply a different form of democracy to that in the US or Western Europe.

"Since [the days of] Jose Marti, the founder of Cuban independence, our idea of democracy, liberty, freedom, has never been the same as that which the United States has," he says.

"This is not a Marxist or a communist difference. This is part of the nationalist culture in Cuba", he argues.

"People in the United States vote in a highly regulated bipartisan system, as rigid as any one-party system. In many ways more rigid because there's fewer people voting," he adds.

Detainees' view

Ninety miles (150km) away in Florida, any description of Cuba as a democracy will stick in the craw of many in the exile community.

They point to restrictions on dissent and freedoms of expression and assembly.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Many Cubans living in exile in Miami continue to oppose any relaxation of the US-imposed sanctions

Two men who have experienced these restriction at first hand are Wilfredo Parada and Roberto Hernandez Barrios.

They were arrested in Havana for their role in a 2013 protest, but were among 53 Cuban prisoners released earlier this month as part of the agreement with Washington.

As they met in a small home in Havana for the first time since their release, they said they welcomed the move by Washington, but remain unconvinced that it will bring any meaningful political change.

"Obama did the right thing", says Mr Barrios, "but this is the government we have and seeing is believing".

Engagement

Political analyst Rafael Hernandez disagrees with their view, but acknowledges there is a public debate about democratising the Communist Party.

"The views and the interests of the majority of the people in Cuba who are not members of the party should be reflected in the CCP policies," he argues.

"This is what democracy in the Communist Party and the political system should be: to make current institutions work democratically according to the constitution," he adds.

Whether the thaw will help bring greater US-style democracy to the island, as the Obama Administration hopes, is unclear.

But for now, rather than trying to force the political system to change through restrictions and sanctions, the White House has decided to engage with Cuban democracy as is.

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