Thin-Slicing a Presidential Trip to Cuba

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Sunday morning, when I saw on Facebook that President Obama had spoken to Cuban “celebrity” Pánfilo, I figured it had to be a joke. Then I learned that the video had been uploaded and was being shared by the United States Embassy in Cuba. I clicked, and there was the leader of the free world and his Cuban interlocutor exchanging pleasantries with a familiarity that made me uncomfortable. At some point, “Pánfilo” offered Obama his house so that he could stay with his family, and even told him on which side of the bed “Michelle” should sleep. Ah, that famous Cuban hospitality! For a noticeable part of the conversation, “Pánfilo” addressed Mr. Obama in Spanish using the informal you. It may be a slip, but it was not accidental that his casual tone kicked in when he told Obama what he may and may not bring to Cuba in order to avoid a delay at the airport. It is no secret that the imperative sounds more commanding when it addresses “tú” instead of “usted.”

In those three and a half minutes of the sketch, the modus operandi of both governments became obvious. Obama wanted to show from the get-go his intention to speak to and with the Cuban people. He wanted Cubans to know that he gets it, and he sprinkled his conversation with a couple of localisms that were really never meant to be uttered by a head of state, no matter how cool he may be. On its end, the Cuban government made sure to place on the other side of the telephone someone who knows the exact limits of what is politically permissible. “Pánfilo,” aka Luis Silva, has a TV show in government-controlled television. He knows the script. While Obama, himself, is speaking from the actual Oval Office, his Cuban counterpart is an actor, in a (poorly) staged studio; his character, in ridiculous makeup, pretends to be someone several decades older (and semi-decrepit), signaling that the only way one can make mild social criticism in the island is with the protective cloak of advanced age, and confirming, once again, that Cuba is indeed a country for old men. It is not superficial that the buffoon doesn’t speak as or for himself. It is a sad reality that this humorless “Pánfilo” is Cuba’s most popular comedian. But that’s fodder for another essay.

As I watched the skit, I wondered out loud who is advising Mr. Obama on Cuba. If he really wanted to speak with the people, there was another Pánfilo he needed to hear from: the Afro-Cuban man who, in 2009, was imprisoned by the Castro regime for appearing drunk in a YouTube clip screaming what most Cubans are afraid to say while sober, that “what Cubans need is food” —not even freedom, just food! Still, his one minute and 21 seconds of fame earned him a two-year sentence in jail.

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On Monday, during his joint press conference with Castro the Younger, President Obama, again, made his intentions clear: “I told President Castro that we are moving forward and not looking backwards.” Inspiring as it may sound, not looking backwards after 57 years of dictatorship is irresponsible and naive. We must not move to the future by sweeping the past under the rug. Cuba needs a Truth, Memory and Justice commission that documents, and acknowledges deaths and disappearances resulting from political violence.

President Obama has said he wouldn’t set foot on the island until human rights conditions improved. But political repression has increased since December 2014, when it was announced that there would be a thawing of relations. In the first two weeks of March 2016 alone, there were 526 political arrests on the island. Failing to mention the Ladies in White while in Cuba, or the systematic repression they face every Sunday when they go on their peaceful morning walks to draw attention to the regime’s violations of human rights is not only a blunder, but a morally objectionable omission. After decades of totalitarianism, Cubans need active solidarity, not platitudes. We have no use for subtlety at this point. We need concrete words and deeds.

President Obama, who is clearly concerned with making history, must understand that history is also made of images. Alas, 21st century history is also made of memes. And he has provided one for the ages: at the end of the historic press conference, Mr. Obama, ever the diplomat, approached Castro, shook his right hand, and attempted to put his left arm over the shoulder that generally has the stars of the uniformed general. Castro, in a textbook definition of “manhandling,” removed it like an Aikido master and raised it up, and Obama’s hand was left hanging awkwardly. This moment, which may seem trivial, captures the real power dynamic underneath all these exchanges. In the approach/avoid tango, Castro is leading.

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We must un-Americanize the Cuba problem. It is unreasonable to ask President Obama to bring democracy to Cuba. It is not his job. As a Cuban native, it was my job, and I fled the island. It is the job of the entire Cuban population, and some Cuban citizens flee, some remain silent, some demand their rights, and some join the Castro mob in its daily repression of human rights by harassing and beating social justice activists. I do not expect Obama to bring about democracy in Cuba. I am, however, dismayed that he took his entire family on a vacation trip to an island in which repression is commonplace —as if it were a theme park. The sad part is that it is a theme park! Where else can you find a shrine to the Cold War that hasn’t ended? Where else can you see such beautiful ruins? Where else can you fetishize poverty and feel like a liberal? Have you not seen the photos from the New York Times special on Obama’s visit to Havana? The city may be crumbling, but look at the light!

Our problem is, of course, this article. As I write it, Cuban peaceful demonstrators have been forcibly arrested throughout the country, limiting their movement, association and visibility before, during and, most likely, after Obama’s cameo appearance in my homeland. The problem is that every piece written about Obama’s tour of old Havana or his eating the monthly meat ration of a Cuban at an independently owned restaurant is a distraction from Cuba’s real problem, which is not its relationship with the US, but its fundamental lack of freedoms from a dynastic tyranny.

The ever-growing legions of Cuban experts, and most importantly, time, will tell if President Obama’s trip to Cuba was ill-advised or a brilliant move. Until I’m proven wrong, I can only think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous dictum: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.”

*
Alexis Romay
Washington, DC

PS: This text was originally published on NBC News. You can read it in Spanish here

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.