Category Archives: politics

#AgentOrangeVirusMan: An American Nightmare

web-version-Alexis-Agent-orange

In December 2017, inspired by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton: An American Musical, I recreated Fidel Castro’s history as narrated by the Cuban people he subjugated for over five decades of dictatorship. (You can listen to that song here; trigger warning: it’s in Spanish.)

After the 2016 election, I wrote an opinion piece for NBC News about the moral dilemma that teachers would face in the age of Trump; since then, I have made a point of not normalizing his execrable behavior. Other than tweets (I know, the irony!), I didn’t write anything of greater length about him because I had nothing new to offer that hadn’t been already said by someone else. Until yesterday, when, frustrated by having to advocate for starting the fall semester remotely (isn’t it obvious?), I asked myself, “How does a deadly virus…” and realized that I had to go back to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s song and answer that question and pose others with his familiar beat and his memorable melody.

At home we avoid saying the name of the current president of the United States, as we believe that his ego inflates anytime anyone mentions him. So, to the question, posed by Valerie Block, my wife, of what would I call him, she herself responded on the spot with “Agent Orange Virus Man.” She gets full credit for the title. (Thank you, @vblock12!)

That’s the tea. If you record it, please upload it, use the hashtag #AgentOrangeVirusMan, and tag me on social media.

And remember that Election Day is Tuesday, November 3rd, 2020.

***

Agent Orange Virus Man: An American Nightmare
Music: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lyrics: Alexis Romay

[Covid-19:]
How does a deadly virus, deeply ignored
by a Statesman, strutting in the middle of a golf course
in Florida with his third wife in their manor,
create such disaster and such squalor?

[US Electorate:]
The tax-hiding con got a loan from his father,
got a lot farther by shouting a lot louder,
by threatening a lot faster,
by pretending to be smarter.
By his teens, he’d learned nothing that really mattered.

[US Electorate:]
And every day while people were dying and being carted
away because Covid, he lied and kept his guard up.
Inside, he was longing for something to be a part of.
The whiner was ready to beg, steal, borrow, or barter.

[Puerto Rico:]
When a hurricane came, and devastation reigned,
the man threw paper towels with contempt and with disdain.
Put a finger to his Twitter, connected it to his brain
and he wrote his first refrain: a dog whistle to white pain.

[US Congress:]
Well, the word got around, they said, “This guy is insane, man.
Let’s get him impeached and see if we can save this land.
Remote education for next fall will be the game, and
the world’s gonna know your name. What’s your name, man?”

[Agent Orange Virus Man:]
Agent Orange Virus Man.
My name is Agent Orange Virus Man.
Four million cases as of yesterday.
Let’s not test more today…

[US Electorate:]
Every time he is criticized, he promptly cries, “FAKE NEWS!!!”
He’s demonized Black people, Brown people, Muslims, Jews…
He’s called for white suburban mothers to rise up from their pews.

[Friendly Reminder:]
So on November 3rd remember this before you choose.

[US Electorate:]
Moved into the White House, and his wife was not by his side,
the inauguration crowd left him with nothing but ruined pride,
a voice saying: “Agent, you gotta fend for yourself.”
He started retweeting and tweeting every thought that crossed his brain.

[US Electorate:]
There would’ve been a lot left to do
for someone more astute.
He wouldn’t have tweeted past midnight
just to make this country fight.
Started talking about hydroxychloroquine,
and when I heard that, I almost lost my mind.
Scanning for every woman he can get his hands on.
Planning for postponing an election as he stands on…
Wait. What? That’s not the Law of the Land.
Congress is not going to back up that plan.

[US Electorate:]
Congress is not going to back up that plan.
Congress is not going to back up that plan.
Congress is not going to back up that plan.
Congress…
Is not…
Scratch that plan!

[US Electorate:]
Agent Orange Virus Man (Agent Orange Virus Man),
we are not going to vote for you (not going to vote for you).
You always double down,
you always have to insult everyone. Oh.
Agent Orange Virus Man (Agent Orange Virus Man),
when people don’t vote for you,
they will know what they overcame.
They will know that they saved the game.
The world will never be the same, oh.

[US Electorate:]
The election is within sight now.
See if you can spot it.
And no more children
coming up from the border
will be locked up in cages
‘cause you shouted, “LAW AND ORDER!!”

[US Congress / US Senate:]
We fought with him.

[Roger Stone:]
Me? I lied for him.

[Anti-vaxers:]
Me? I trusted him.

[Alt-Right:]
Me? I love him.

[GOP:]
And me? I’m the party that propped him.

[US Congress / US Senate:]
Four million cases as of yesterday.
Do more tests!

[Влади́мир Пу́тин:]
Как тебя зовут?

[Agent Orange Virus Man:]
Agent Orange Virus Man!

***
Lyrics: Alexis Romay
Based on Hamilton: An American Musical, by Lin-Manuel Miranda
Music: Lin-Manuel Miranda
Orchestration: The Hamilton Instrumentals, by Original Broadway Cast of Hamilton
Illustration: Garrincha

Thin-Slicing a Presidential Trip to Cuba

PanfilObama

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.

***

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.

***

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

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

CastrObama

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.

Cuba 101