Cubans test official limits on criticism

Raul Castro eases restraints somewhat

PINAR DEL RIO, CubaPedro Pablo Oliva was the kind of model citizen the Cuban government wanted to show the world.

Mr. Oliva proclaimed his loyalty to Fidel Castro’s revolution and his gratitude for cultural largesse that nurtured his development into an internationally celebrated painter and sculptor. He even did a turn as a delegate in the regional assembly of the western province of Pinar del Rio.

However, when Mr. Oliva criticized harassment of dissidents and suggested there might be room for a party other than the Communists, he was abruptly expelled from the assembly and accused of counterrevolutionary behavior. He found himself with no choice but to shutter his home-based community workshop after the government withdrew its support.

President Raul Castro has called on Cubans to air their opinions openly, as his government tries to revive the struggling economy with economic reforms. However officials have sent mixed signals about where it draws the invisible frontier between loyal criticism and what they consider to be dangerous attacks on the system.

A prominent socialist intellectual who made a sharp attack on corruption at high levels found himself booted out of the Communist Party for months. In another case, officials just seemed to shrug when two state economists criticized the country’s economic reforms as insufficient.

Pedro Pablo Oliva's painting titled "El Gran Abuelo (The Great Grandfather)" depicts Fidel Castro. Though the artist proclaimed his loyalty to the revolution, he was abruptly expelled as a delegate to a regional assembly and accused by his parliamentary colleagues of counterrevolutionary behavior after criticizing the regime's treatment of dissidents. (Associated Press)

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Pedro Pablo Oliva’s painting titled “El Gran Abuelo (The Great Grandfather)” depicts ... more >

While Mr. Oliva was punished for denouncing attacks on dissidents, famous singers Pablo Milanes and Silvio Rodriguez escaped official reprisals after making similar comments.

“It’s a very difficult question to know where the line is because the line depends on the moment,” said Arturo Lopez Levy, a Cuban-born economist who lectures at the University of Denver.

The line has moved a long way since the early moments of the revolution, when a government inspired by Soviet communism sent thousands to grueling farm work camps for religious belief, long hair, “anti-social” opinions or homosexuality.

Mr. Milanes and Roman Catholic Cardinal Jaime Ortega were confined in those camps as young men. Mr. Rodriguez was removed from the airwaves at the same time for saying he liked the Beatles and for hanging out with people the government considered suspicious.

Things have changed enough that Mr. Milanes and Mr. Rodriguez were later given seats in Cuba’s national parliament, and Cardinal Ortega sometimes has meetings with Raul Castro, whose own daughter is the island’s leading voice for gay rights.

The country has even emptied its prisons of internationally recognized “prisoners of conscience,” but political opposition can still mean frequent trips to a police station, allegations of treason, confrontations with government supporters or loss of a state job in a communist state where the government controls most jobs and all the news media.

Mr. Oliva’s troubles began after his now ex-wife, also an artist, was prevented from putting up a series of public installations critical of the government on International Human Rights Day in December.

In what is known on the island as an “act of repudiation,” a crowd of government supporters gathered outside Yamilia Perez Estrella’s home, yelling insults and preventing her from leaving.

The government insisted the demonstrations were spontaneous outpourings of patriotic indignation, though coordination with state security agents took place in plain sight.

In response, Mr. Oliva published a letter on the website of dissident blogger Yoani Sanchez, criticizing physical or psychological “violence” aimed at silencing unpopular opinions. He said his dealings with Ms. Sanchez, whom he met when she visited his workshop, marked him, as did his calls for political diversity on an island where the Communist Party is the only one allowed.

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