Poetic Justice

This is the fifth of a six-part series of essays written on behalf of the Montclair Public Library Foundation. Read previous essays in the ‘Love Your Library’ series online at northjersey.com/montclair.

Poetic Justice

Alexis Romay

When you are actively
looking for poetic justice, you may find it in the oddest places. I was invited by the Montclair Public Library to submit an essay on the value of libraries during Banned Books Week, a project sponsored by the American Library Association that highlights censored books and the importance of free and open access to information. I’m originally from Cuba, that gorgeous island in the Caribbean in which, under the stewardship of the Castro brothers, banning books has lasted 56 years. And it is still going strong!

Libraries were of little to no use in my native land. Most of the authors and books I wanted to read were not in their catalogs. Or they were, but could get you in trouble for merely asking to borrow them. High on the verboten list: Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Cuba’s James Joyce. Cabrera Infante – in exile since 1965 until his death in 2005 – used to pride himself on the knowledge that in a country where its citizens had nothing to eat, readers were willing to trade up to three cans of condensed milk for one of his books. The magical combination of having those three precious cans and knowing a person with one of his books never materialized for me, which means that among the long list of things for which I do not forgive the Castros, I add this: not having read Cabrera Infante’s work in Cuba, a country he so loved and recreated so thoroughly. When I managed to escape, as an adult, in 1999, one of the first things I did with my newfound freedom was to seek out his books.

Writing about the importance of public libraries is, of course, writing about the importance of language, and the freedom to express ideas in society without fearing repercussions. Words have a definitive weight in my homeland. Graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Machado just spent almost 10 months in prison without trial following accusations of “aggravated contempt.” Amnesty International considered him a prisoner of conscience. The reason for his arrest: painting the words “Fidel” and “Raul” on the backs of two pigs. He was going to release the animals as a performance in an art show in Havana. He was arrested before the performance took place.

In an overnight raid in 2003, the Cuban regime arrested a group of 75 independent librarians, journalists, and human rights activists. They were accused of crimes against national sovereignty. The charges against the librarians had to do with their willingness to make available to the public books that had been banned by the Castro machinery. Sentences for the independent librarians, the only conduit to banned books in the island, ranged from 6 to 28 years. At the time, the American Library Association showed no solidarity with their Cuban colleagues, opting to side with official, government-approved libraries. The institutional position of the Cuban libraries supported the governmental narrative that private citizens opening their houses to lend banned books were CIA spies.

Although it was a controversial decision amongst its membership, the ALA has not publicly changed its stance on the issue. If freedom of speech is a fundamental right in the United States, why should it no be so in Cuba? I take this opportunity to invite ALA to revisit its position on the independent Cuban librarians. In doing so, the American Library Association will continue to defend the importance of free and open access to information, and deliver some belated poetic justice.

Alexis Romay, the author of two novels and a book of sonnets, teaches at Newark Academy.

Tax-deductible donations to the Montclair Public Library Foundation’s annual fund drive, now underway, may be made to the Foundation at montclairplf.org or by mail to 50 South Fullerton Avenue, Montclair, N.J., 07042.

[This essay was published originally in the December 10th edition of the Montclair Times.]

Voices: Invisible in Cuba, In U.S., Not Cuban Enough

Alexis_Romay_Aldea The first time I was included in an anthology of poetry was in the summer of 1997. I was living in Cuba at the time, and the book had been released in Spain. Until that moment, I had only appeared in obscure literary magazines, read only by the immediate family of the editors and two or three groupies. This book would later prove crucial in my eventual plans to escape the island, but I couldn’t have imagined how at the time. I was just thrilled to see my name and poem within the covers of a beautifully bound paperback edition.

When the book reached me in Cuba, it was delivered with a note listing the eight Cuban poets that had been included in that wonderfully international kaleidoscope of verse. I had counted nine in the table of contents, but didn’t make much of the lack of mathematical skills of the cultural apparatchik who had written the letter with the numeric typo.

Two of the anthologized poets had jobs in cultural institutions in their towns. That explains why, by January 1998, we had arranged a sort of tour that took us all the way to the easternmost part of the island to read and give talks at a festival of poetry and song. We were paraded around town like the second coming. The otherwise tranquil city of Guantanamo lit up with cultural activities for about a week. And since most of us were coming from Havana, the capital, walking around the streets of one of the most underserved populations in the island gave us a certain rock star status. Our poems were set to music within days. We were taken to a local TV station to read poetry —I repeat, read poetry— on camera. I remember standing awkwardly next to a troubadour who had set my poem to song, while I mumbled the lyrics that somehow, with music gained and lost meanings. There is a video of this TV show. I dearly hope it never reaches Youtube.

[Click to continue reading in NBCNEWS.com]

On Cuba, Hope and Change

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President Obama, a man who actively promotes the audacity of hope and based his presidential campaigns on the idea of change, has combined both concepts in his long gaze at Cuba: he hopes Castro will change. However, that option isn’t remotely possible in Cuba. Back in 2003, Castro Bros. added to the Cuban Constitution that the socialist character of the Cuban revolution is irrevocable.

Lest you think the Cold War is over, and it’s time to move on, Raul Castro is there to remind you not to forget. Both Castro and Obama had agreed to announce the news of a new dawn for Cuba-USA relations, simultaneously, at noon on December 17th, a day that has particular significance in Cuban lore, as it celebrates San Lázaro, the patron saint of the needy, the one who brings hope to the people.

Obama conducted his press conference standing up in a properly lit room. He’s a young man, during his second presidential term, talking naturally. Castro, a player from the Eisenhower era, was sitting down in an obscure mahogany time capsule. He read from several sheets of paper (paper!), with the affected tone reserved for a grandiloquent speech, the only tone with which he has always addressed the Cuban people.

Obama, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, was wearing civilian clothes. Castro showed up in his military uniform with all the medals he has bestowed on himself over the years (he’s been the head of the Cuban Army since he and his older brother took power in 1959). That choice of attire was carefully considered.

Raul Castro appeared between two black-and-white framed photos. In one, he poses with a comrade in arms who died fighting the previous dictator —not Fidel, the one before him. The other photo shows Raul with his late wife, the most powerful woman in Cuba in the last half-century. As much as the president of the United States wants to move forward, Raul Castro is a man living in the past.

But if the retro look wasn’t enough, then Castro opened his mouth. These were his first words: “Since I was elected President…” That’s exactly the moment the educated audience should have known this is a complete farce: Raul Castro has never been elected.

The agreement to open an American embassy in Havana was preceded by a quid pro quo mambo in which an American spy serving time in Cuba was traded for three Cuban spies. (According to the trophy-of-war selfie Raul Castro took with them upon their arrival, his spies were well fed in their American prisons). The USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who lost most of his teeth and over 100 pounds in his Cuban prison, was released on “humanitarian grounds” after five years of wrongful imprisonment for handing out laptops and cellphones to the Cuban Jewish community.

Additionally, Obama announced he wants to revisit Cuba’s standing in the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Yet, the same day of this exchange, the long tentacle of North Korean repression reentered America’s collective consciousness by dictating to Sony Pictures (and its global audience), that if Sony releases “The Interview,” there will be terrorist retaliations.

Nothing has changed in Cuba since July 2013, when the Chong Chong Gang, a North Korean ship, was caught in Panamanian waters carrying 240 tons of weapons concealed under sacks of sugar. The ship and the weapons were coming from Cuba, from the same regime that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the early sixties, the same regime this new development is trying to appease.

In his inaugural speech on January 20, 2009, Obama hinted at the Castro dynasty: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” But Castro’s fist is as tight as it has ever been.

On the morning of December 20th, 2014, the news of a Cuban Coast Guard sinking a vessel, carrying women and children, that was fleeing the island started to reach English media outlets. So far, one passenger has been reported missing. Expect more snubs to the US government (and the Cuban people) where this came from.

There’s a parable that illustrates the doomed relationship between Obama and Castro. A man sees a scorpion drowning in a puddle. He weighs the outcome of his actions, but decides that his nature is to nurture, so he picks up the scorpion. The scorpion’s nature is to sting. The man reacts to this venom by opening the hand, which drops the scorpion back in the water. With his limbs beginning to swell and about to hallucinate, the man sees a scorpion in a puddle. And he feels an urge to save the creature.

***

Alexis Romay
New Jersey

This text was published originally on Translating Cuba.

Petition to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

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Dear Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Honorable Members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Honorable Members of the European Commission:

On April 9th, 2013, Cuban peaceful opposition activist Luis Enrique Lozada Izarga, member of UNPACU (Cuban Patriotic Union) was arbitrarily arrested after a mob organized by the regime attacked his home and his family in what is commonly known as an “act of repudiation.” Lozada offers a class on peaceful activism and non-violent resistance in his home each Tuesday. The class is open to fellow dissidents as well as neighbors. The arresting officers who barged into his home savagely attacked him. The beatings were so severe that two weeks later, his parents could still see the marks on his body when they were allowed to visit him in prison. There are no known charges against Lozada Izarga, but he was transferred from a police station to one of Cuba’s many hellish prisons without a trial. Luis Enrique declared himself on hunger strike to protest this gross violation of his human rights upon his arrest, and on April 27th, he told his parents that he would refuse to drink water as well until the Cuban government releases him.

Following his example, and to show solidarity against his unjust and arbitrary arrest, more than 50 other UNPACU activists have declared themselves on hunger and thirst strike. After more than two weeks, their health has begun to seriously deteriorate. We worry that some of them may die. Particularly worrisome is the condition of Enrique Lozada, the 17 year old son of Luis Enrique whose very fragile health could take a turn for the worst and past a point of no return at any moment. In a recent video published by UNPACU, the young Enrique said he was willing to take his protest to the final consequences- death- if his father is not released. On April 30th, the adolescent was rushed to the hospital with further health complications alongside a Lady in White and an elderly activist.

While we do not encourage hunger strikes among Cuba’s human rights and opposition activists, we support them on their effort to force the regime to act in a legal and civilized manner according to all international accords and conventions. We admire their courage and determination.

That is why we are reaching out to you and many others around the world with an urgent plea: we urge you to join us demanding that the Cuban regime releases Luis Enrique Lozada Izarga so that this hunger strike can end without the loss of human life. The lives of many may depend on this effort.

We thank you in advance for your attention to this matter, and for your action on its regard.

[To sign the letter, click here.]

Cuba 101

Cuba: To travel or not to travel… is that the question?

This morning, alongside Ted Henken and Kim Osorio, I was at WNYW’s “Good Day, NY,” hosted by Rosanna Scotto and Greg Kelly. We talked about Cuba. The excuse: the recent trip that Jay-Z and Beyonce took on their wedding aniversary.

Here’s the clip.

Yoani Sánchez in New York: Visit and Notes

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A *week after the visit of Yoani Sánchez to New York —which I have been privileged to witness and, to a lesser extent, share— I rush to write down some impressions that I do not want to trust solely to my good memory. First, I want to name this altered state of (Cuban) consciousness caused by her cycle of conferences. But the playwright and actress Carmen Peláez beat me to it last Friday, coining a term in English (which I translated and started spreading on the web): Cubasm. Yes, it was a collective Cubasm.

Several friends and relatives have asked me to relate my experience. It turns out that Sanchez’s talks and presentations in the Big Apple has been written about with sufficient skill and considerable frequency. So before suggesting some texts, I open a parenthesis to note that I am going to give these lines a more personal touch. Forgive me. I close the parentheses, and recommend the notes that Enrique del Risco has posted on his blog (in Spanish, here, here, here, here, here and here), as well as the excellent essay by **Gerardo Muñoz summarizing the tone of the intellectual debate and the nature of the issues from an academic perspective which, in spite of it, reads very well. The in spite of it of the previous sentence is intentional. I have my reservations with the academic approach to the issue of Cuba because between the epistemology and the sodium chloride, the department chairs sometimes forget that we’re talking about the concrete lives of human beings, not laboratory rats.

In his essay Muñoz had the kindness —which I thank him for— to mention as one of the most memorable moments of the panel held Saturday morning my intervention from the audience. My question was already floating in the air from the previous day, in a close variant and in the words of Del Risco. If my friend had inquired about the responsibility of the American academic world in the construction of the myth of Fidel, I wondered what had to happen for this complicit academic world to wake up from its enchantment and see the Cuban reality for what it is, not for what is told —the image that follows is Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo’s— in the fiction of the State.

My question, like all those posed, was preceded by a brief introduction. I took the opportunity to thank Coco Fusco and Ted Henken, organizers of the panels, and New York University and The New School for bringing to New York a debate about the present and future of the island which, for the moment, cannot take place in totalitarian Cuba, because the panelists would be arrested. From the audience, a female comrade —who a couple of hours later would participate in the act of repudiation against Yoani Sánchez— screamed at me, “That’s ridiculous!” I said to her, “I know, but this is my minute to be ridiculous, so please be quiet.” There was general laughter, applause, and I had the opportunity to give a nod to my fellows and a smile to the old witch.

An hour later, I took my seat next to Yoani Sánchez to serve as her interpreter. Already on Friday, Sánchez had captivated me with the flow of her oratory: she carried off a 24-minute presentation without props, without consulting notes, without losing the thematic thread, without stumbling; I had the sensation of being in the presence of a musician who, instrument in hand, executes an almost half hour solo without repeating a riff or missing a note. And don’t let this sound like fanaticism; the only thing I’m a fan of is a soccer team.

Jose Martí, that mountain climber, said that climbing mountains brings men together. I would add that being the target of acts of repudiation does that as well. If before the Castro-loving mob burst into the conference —with their usual folkloric tantrum— my affection, admiration and respect for Yoani Sánchez was great, at that moment it solidified. I was struck by her equanimity when they started to shout against her. Clearly, she has seen and experienced worse things on the island. Thus, when the Castro-lovers showed the ugly face of Castrism —poor thing, the only one it has— I told our illustrious visitor that since she was being insulted by a minority, I was going to take the liberty of giving her a hug, which was also the embrace of the majority of the audience who were chanting her name. Talking about this and that, we spent the rest of the act of repudiation, the way people look out on the rain, with the advantage that from the stage we were safe from the torrent of the Castro-lovers’ violence, this export used by the revolutionary dynasty which, twenty times, refused to grant the blogger the right to leave her own country.

Sunday was also a day of panels, but I did not go in the morning session, thus saving me the show put on by the lovers of foreign dictatorships who returned to foam at the mouth. In the afternoon, an American to whom the word idiot would be a promotion, broke the Q&A protocol to ask for an explanation of where the funds come from to maintain the platform that hosts the blog and to translate Generation Y, along with other blogs, into several languages. Sanchez said she preferred that this question be answered by the person in charge of that project. MJ Porter, a transportation engineer, who has redefined volunteer work, took the microphone, turned to the audience and said what many of us know: the translations are done or coordinated by her, with a network of collaborators who are never paid a single cent and who do it for the love of the art. (I know that for a fact. I am a part of this network, as is my friend Ernesto Ariel Suárez, who traveled from Kansas City to act as interpreter for Sánchez on the panel.) When Porter concluded, she was met with the applause of the respectable and a hug from this happy man, who was sitting beside her.

On Sunday night there was a party at a friend’s house. I took advantage of the opportunity to give Yoani a CD by Boris Larramendi, a book by Paquito D’Rivera, and another of my own. At the end of the evening, I said goodbye to the guest of honor as if we were not going to see each other again during her tour. But on Monday, on arriving at work, I requested a vacation day to attend the panel on Thursday that would include her, along with Del Risco, Pardo Lazo and Ernesto Hernández Busto, with Geandy Pavón behind the lens, taking photos and filming at will.

I arrived at that presentation just in time to offer my services as an interpreter for a small group of English speakers. I simultaneously interpreted the presentations of the four bloggers, and their responses to the audience. Later I found out that two of my listeners came from a non-governmental and non-profit organization that promotes human rights. (Incidentally, this panel was coordinated by the Cuban Cultural Center and Walfrido Dorta. My admission to the premises, without prior reservation, I owe to Dorta and my dear Axana Alvarez. To both, from these confines of New Jersey, thank you! ). At the conclusion of the panel, I again said goodbye to the Ortega y Gasset prize winner as if we wouldn’t see each other again.

A friend whose identity I will not reveal so as to not compromise her had told me about the possibility of attending Yoani Sánchez’s press conference at the United Nations. I had already answered that of course I would go, but I wouldn’t believe it until I was standing inside the building’s lobby. Once inside, I learned that the Castro delegation to the UN was boycotting Sánchez’s press conference. But I was relieved to hear that it would take place even if it had to be inside the elevator. By an act of poetic justice, the UN press association stuck up for their colleague, and invited her to an improvised conference room to share her impressions with them. Among the journalists present, I highlight and salute Stefano Vaccara, editor of America Oggi, who offered her a warm welcome, moderated the talk and dedicated a column to her in his newspaper.

When we arrived at the small space in which the exchange was going to place, I remembered that Prensa Latina —that mouthpiece of the Castros, and an expert on bait and switch— has representatives at the UN. I surveyed the room, and told journalist Karen Caballero: “I already know who the apparatchik is.” “How do you know?” she replied. “Infamy has a look,” I said, although I could have also said, “You can see it on his face.” The guy would dispel any doubts minutes later by asking the guest about Posada Carriles. With her usual grace and ease that should not be taken for granted, Sánchez replied that she is against all types of violence: from those who bomb a hotel to those who assault Army barracks under the cover of night. The Castro’s representative returned to his natural state: in the shadows, and a friend tells me that his hands shook throughout the rest of the conference. This could be a myth or the truth. In either case, it sounds promising.

At the conclusion of the event, which was captured by The New York Times’ and TeleMartí’s cameras, as well as my phone, Yoani Sánchez had to depart hurriedly to her next engagement, her next journey. With all the rushing, I was left with the desire of giving her yet another hug, so I am sending it to her through this blogosphere that facilitated her trip and shortens any distance.

***
Translated by MJ Porter and Ernesto Ariel Suárez.

Foto: Frank Zimmerman.

* Originally posted in Spanish on March 22nd, 2013.

** This link to Gerardo Muñoz leads to his Twitter account, where you can read his “live” comments in English —see Tweets for 16-17 March. His essay, in Spanish, can be read here.