Conan And Communism: Are U.S. Ties Nudging Cuba Toward Reform After All?

Mar 11, 2015

Cuban electoral authorities sift through questions and remarks from Cuban citizens during a recent - and unusual - online forum on elections.
Credit Roberto Morejon Guerra / Juventud Rebelde

All the Cuba buzz these days is about Conan O’Brien, who broadcast his TV show last week from Havana -- the first time an American late-night talk show host has done that since 1959.

O’Brien called it part of the historic normalizing of relations taking place now between Cuba and the U.S. But while the spotlight was on the comic, there were more serious developments going on with respect to communism. Most surprising: One of the Cuban government’s official media outlets allowed citizens to take part in an online debate last week about how to democratize elections.

RELATED: Why It's Time For A Reality Check On Normalizing Relations With Cuba

So are these signs that the Castro regime is loosening up? Or is it just another Cuban mirage? I sat down to explore that question with Ricardo Herrero who heads #CubaNow, a Miami group that represents a younger generation of Cuban-Americans and supports engagement with the island.

Excerpts:

I have to confess, I didnt think OBriens Cuba show was all that momentous and frankly, watching Americans do things like pose in front of vintage cars in Havana has already gotten tiresome. So what am I missing why was this a big deal?

It further helps take the normalization of relations beyond politics into mainstream media. It helps concretize what is this normalization process in the eyes of everyday Americans.

The political issue in Cuba continues to be very dire, as well as the human rights situation, and I think these are things that are going to be front and center in our debate over Cuba policy.

But there is space for having American entertainers go there and engage with the Cuban people. It’s also an important part of the process of reconciliation between both countries.

Lets move to the news that is potentially momentous: The official communist youth newspaper, Juventud Rebelde, hosted an online forum on elections, and people were allowed to call for reforms like direct and secret balloting. Where do you think this is headed?

The fact that you have young Cubans asking questions on tightly controlled state media about whether there's going to be direct, secret ballot elections – that's important. – Ricardo Herrero, #CubaNow

The government announced that they are going to issue some sort of general election reform later on in the year. What that’s going to look like, nobody knows.

But what is interesting about this forum is that the [Cuban] state controls media very tightly – and they don’t let out anything unless they want to try to set expectations to some degree.

So the fact that you have young Cubans asking questions about whether there’s going to be direct, secret ballot elections – whether there’s going to be a process to be able to recall Cuban officials at the highest levels – that’s important.

What it ultimately leads to? I will never try to divine what exactly or where the Castro regime is leaning toward…

Nor would we ever ask anyone to dare do that

…particularly in the political arena. But I think it’s interesting that they’re even allowing this conversation to happen in state-sponsored media.

How much of this stems from what looks increasingly like the U.S. State Department’s decision to take Cuba off its list of terrorism sponsors? I say that because Cuban officials are sending vibes that they’ve been told in private that this is going to happen.

Yeah, I don’t want to speculate on where exactly the process is. But it is interesting that in the lead-up to the second round of [normalization] talks [last month], there was almost a stand-off of sorts:

The Cubans were saying, "We’re not going to normalize relations until you get us off the state sponsor of terror list," and the Americans were saying, "The state sponsor of terror should be a separate topic." And after [that round of] talks, the general message was, "We’re working it out."

So, it seems like they made some progress, and I guess we’re going to find out in the days to come exactly what that was.

Conan O’Brien isn’t the only U.S. entertainer who wants to perform in Cuba now. Rapper Dr. Dre recently tweeted that he wants to do a concert there. And while this is all fun and good people-to-people exchange, it doesn’t obscure the fact that Cuba still has a lot to do on the democracy and human rights front.

What are the most important items?

An ongoing problem in Cuba is that they continue to detain dissidents and independent journalists left and right. Just last month in February we saw 492 of them detained. However, that is half the number that we saw last February [2014]. And already for 2015, the number of detentions up until the end of February is the lowest that we’ve seen since 2011.

So it’s too early to tell if this is indicative of a larger trend. But it’s something to monitor closely.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here