Rare independent group aims to open debate in Cuba

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The former editors of one of Cuba's few non-government controlled media outlets have quietly restarted efforts to spur debate about the nation's future, launching a series of public forums and plans for a new journal addressing the island's most urgent problems.

The project, known as "Cuba Posible," joins a handful of others in the small space between the uncritical state-run media and fiercely partisan dissident websites that have little reach inside Cuba.

Lawyer Roberto Veiga and journalist Lenier Gonzalez gained renown among Cuban intellectuals by transforming the Catholic church magazine Espacio Laical into a rare and influential forum for sociopolitical debate before the two men left last year amid an apparent church backlash over the publication's aggressive coverage of current affairs.

The two men and their small circle of close collaborators say they are confident the project can provide a space for dialogue between government supporters and critics without running afoul of the island's communist leaders.

"We hope that we'll be heard and paid attention to in the world of politics," said sociologist and project backer Aurelio Alonso. "We hope that what's said won't remain in a void, but will affect institutions and political players."

Funded by Norway's University of Oslo, Cuba Posible is based out of the Christian Center for Reflexion and Dialogue, an ecumenical church group focused on community projects that occasionally publishes newsletters and magazines from Cardenas, a sleepy mid-sized city about 95 miles east of Havana. Basing the new group there means it can use the center's existing government permits rather than seek permission for a new independent publication.

"There have always been people inside the government who don't like what we do and people who care about what we do," Veiga told The Associated Press this week. "There are a variety of opinions but there's no policy aimed at disrupting or battling us."

The first public forum attracted dozens of academics and intellectuals and gave a hint of the group's approach. Its central theme, "Cuba: Sovereignty and the Future," was uncontroversial enough to avoid the risk of official ire. Participants avoided direct criticism of President Raul Castro or the island's single-party system in place since the 1959 revolution. But some speakers, particularly those who rose from the audience to question speakers on panels, were unsparing in their evaluations of Cuba's poor performance in a variety of sectors ranging from expanding the economy to updating educational curricula.

Gonzalez said the project's founders were fierce defenders of Cuban sovereignty and wanted to improve the current system rather than see it overturned in a return to its pre-revolutionary past.

"We don't think that's a possibility for Cuba and we don't want that," he said. "We're working to pose important questions, to maintain the ideal that a better country is possible, and it's possible to achieve that among Cubans who think differently but have common values."

Prominent Cuban exile businessman Carlos Saladriegas, who participated in forums organized by Espacio Laical, said he believed that Cuba Posible could gain more influence than the two men's former publication.

"For the moment their task is putting on the table ideas that require critical debate. Cuba has a lot of things to rethink," Saladriegas said. "If they succeed in this process I think they're going to greatly contribute to this dialogue between Cubans."

Gonzalez, 33, and Veiga, 49, say they plan to publish their first journal by year's end.

Speaking after the forum, Veiga cited the country's slow progress toward the abolition of a special currency for tourists as an example of the type of problem that Cuba Posible is designed to address. The double currency allows Cuba to theoretically split the country between a realm of highly subsidized prices in Cuban pesos and a tourist economy where prices more closely resemble those of U.S. or European cities. But the system has contributed to the riseof a new class of privileged Cubans with access to convertible pesos. And it has led to economic distortions like a special exchange rate for state enterprises that effectively subsidizes them with cheap convertible pesos.

Cuba can't get rid of the convertible peso and related subsidies without increasing productivity, can't increase productivity without foreign investment and can't attract sufficient foreign investment without reforming its monetary system, Veiga observed.

"We're trapped in a vicious cycle that we have to get out of," he said.

Of his and Gonzalez's efforts to spur dialogue in a nation not accustomed to it, he added: "We've strived from the beginning to have something that appeared impossible, and today is more possible, which is that people who think differently can share the same space and even work together."