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Debating the daddy state

As the economy slides, Cubans have been asked to rethink socialism.

A boy stands by a local neighborhood revolution defense committee mural in Havana, Aug. 24, 2009. (Desmond Boylan/Reuters)

HAVANA, Cuba — Complaining about the government is a national pastime on this communist-run island, but it’s a tradition typically practiced indoors.

Decades of state media control and harsh punishment for dissent have conditioned Cubans to vent their political frustrations in private, and rarely outside the presence of trusted company.

So when Cubans were asked recently to air their grievances at a local community meeting in Havana, the criticism stuck mostly to earthly affairs: potholes, garbage collection and the high costs of fruits and vegetables at the nearby produce market.

“The vendors there are criminals,” said one woman, to nods of agreement.

It didn’t seem like the kind of deep-searching probe of the nation’s problems that President Raul Castro solicited when he called for a national dialogue on the future of the country’s socialist system in an August speech.

Since then, authorities have set up discussions at universities, government workplaces and under the glow of street lamps. Community organizations called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution — created in part to root out anti-government activity — are now tasked with collecting criticism of the socialist system, along with suggestions for how to reform it.

Declining revenues and mounting debts have stretched the Cuban government to the point that it must trim some of its longstanding entitlement programs, Castro told the National Assembly during the August speech.

"Nobody, no individual nor country, can indefinitely spend more than she or he earns. Two plus two always adds up to four, never five," he said. "Within the conditions of our imperfect socialism, due to our own shortcomings, two plus two often adds up to three.”

That losing formula has the Cuban government increasingly exhorting its citizens to work harder, expect less and come up with solutions to their own problems.

The input is funneled upward to Cuba's leaders and will ostensibly be used to guide the reform process. Similar discussions soliciting criticism and ideas were gathered during a round of open-air discussions called by Castro in 2007. The government collected 1.3 million opinions from residents during that period, Castro said, nearly half of which were criticisms of one problem or another.

While Cuban authorities have made it clear that major political and economic reforms to the country’s one-party system are not on the discussion agenda, participants at the meetings are being encouraged to speak freely and openly about problems in their daily lives.

Many Cubans simmer with frustration brought by chronic transportation and housing shortages, a gargantuan state bureaucracy and salaries that average roughly $20 a month, even though most consumer goods in state-run stores are priced above what they would cost in the United States.

Subsidies for food, utilities and other basics offset those meager earnings, but as the government’s fortunes decline, authorities are increasingly telling Cubans to tackle their own problems. One high-ranking party official recently said Cubans can’t expect for the “daddy state” to fix everything, waiting with open mouths “like baby birds.”