By Shasta Darlington | CNN
In a rare public expression of discontent, a video obtained by CNN shows Cuban students grilling a top official about low wages and why Cubans are barred from tourist hotels and from traveling abroad.
Ricardo Alarcon, the president of Cuba’s National Assembly, was grilled about government policies.
During a meeting between Ricardo Alarcon—the president of the National Assembly—and students at the University of Computer Science, the young people voiced some of the concerns many Cubans share in private, but don’t often air publicly.
“It seems to us a revolution cannot advance without a plan,” Eliecer Avila said, standing at a microphone. “I’m sure it exists, we just want to know what it is.”
He asked about restrictions to Internet access and why workers are paid in Cuban pesos but have to buy many basic goods in another currency that is 25 times as expensive—the “convertible peso” that foreign tourists are required to use.
“That means a worker has to work two or three days to buy a toothbrush,” he said.
In the video of the recent meeting with students, Alarcon said he didn’t have the expertise to address all of the questions, but he devotes 30 minutes to responding to Avila’s queries. CNN obtained the video from students who asked to remain anonymous. Video Watch the confrontation »
While acting President Raul Castro last year publicly called on Cubans to tell officials what they think is wrong with the country, the forums that followed have been controlled in where they’ve taken place and in what issues are open for discussion.
The university video opens a rare window on public debate in Cuba, as students pressed Alarcon for answers on government policies.
When asked why there are restrictions on Cubans traveling abroad, Alarcon said: “I wish all the Cubans could go out and get to know the world outside.”
“I think it would be the end of the ideological battle in this country. When the people see how things really are, what’s real, how other people live,” he said.
Asked why Cubans aren’t allowed to enter the island’s tourist hotels freely, Alarcon told students about his times in New York, as Cuba’s ambassador to the United Nations.
“How many times did they kick us out of a store?” he asked. “Because by the Latino accent and the color of our hair they realized we weren’t Anglo-Saxons and shouldn’t be in the store?”
Another video obtained by CNN shows a recent meeting held to explain a new tax on Cubans working for foreign companies.
The unpopular proposal drew open jeers and mocking laughter, something officials here aren’t used to. While the questions and complaints on the video are nothing new, it is unusual to hear them voiced so openly.
The unusually aggressive questions come ahead of what could be a decisive meeting of Cuba’s National Assembly on February 24. Recently elected deputies will meet for the first time to select the new Council of State and its president—a position held by Fidel Castro for decades.
But the ailing 81-year-old leader—who handed over day-to-day control of the government 18 months ago—has suggested that he may be ready to throw in the towel, permanently passing the reins of power to Raul, his younger brother, and to a “younger generation” of leaders.