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.

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