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.

The Cuban diet and the politics of hunger

Del refranero, por Garrincha

Today I didn’t need my morning coffee. I woke up to a pair of articles about the profound socio-economic crisis in Cuba, which became acute in the early nineties with the collapse of the socialist bloc. What those champions of euphemism called “The Special Period.” One of the articles, in Spanish, was published by that usually faithful friend of Cuba’s Granma newspaper, El País, from Madrid; the other, in English, appeared in The Independent, from London.

Both were based on a study published today by the British Medical Journal. About what? Hunger. But not the infamy of starving a population. That’s in poor taste. About hunger as a cure for obesity. The thesis that unites them is simple: while we ate cabbage as appetizer, main course and dessert —the first person plural is intentional: I experienced this first-hand—, we were doing a favor to the nutritionists and cardiologists of the first world, who then would go around shouting to the four winds that the lower the body weight, the lower the cardiovascular mortality. “A textbook example in real life,” declared a Spanish scientist who wasn’t part of the “experiment,” although what he really wanted to say is: “they were dying of hunger, but not of heart disease.”

It turns out that when Cubans were fainting on their bikes, or being overcome by polyneuritis —a severe inflammation of multiple nerves— or simply dying from lack of food, this was part of a long-range plan: to demonstrate to the British Medical Journal, to the international press —and to the world at large— that if you take food and transportation away from a population, the trouser sizes of men and women will be drastically reduced. One can’t but wonder why they don’t also recommend trying bulimia and anorexia.

Although separated by language, both articles have in common a contempt for the Cuban people, and they remind one of the great achievements of tropical totalitarianism: The Castro brothers have not only created a theme park so that those who love far off utopia have an island as a point of reference and place to visit; even before that, they have made Cuba into a giant laboratory where every human being is a guinea pig.

***
[Translation: MJ Porter.
Illustration: Santana].

“Nemesis” Art Protest Honors Cuba’s Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero

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Press release from Cuba Archive

April 7, 2013, New York City.

Last night, artist Geandy Pavón staged his latest “Nemesis” upon the façade of the building of Cuba’s permanent mission to the United Nations at 315 Lexington Avenue, New York city.

In Greek mythology, “nemesis” represents the persecutory memory of divine justice. The innovative art-protest consists of digitally projecting images onto buildings hosting Cuban government offices. Pavón “imposes the face of the victim upon the assassin using light as an analogy of truth, reason, and justice.”

Saturday night’s performance was dedicated to Oswaldo Payá and Harold Cepero. Payá, age 60, was founder of a movement calling for a peaceful change to democracy widely regarded as Cuba´s leading opposition leader (see www.OswaldoPaya.org in Spanish). Cepero, age 32, was an activist of the group. Both died July 22, 2012 after what the Cuban government reported as an accident of the car in which they were traveling with two foreigners. But, the family reports having evidence, now corroborated by the driver from Spain, that a vehicle in their pursuit had caused the crash. Plus, the two Cubans had apparently survived the crash and died later of unverifiable causes. The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal, among others, have reported on the case.

The art-protest was timed to coincide with a visit to New York city of two of Payá’s three children, Rosa María and Oswaldo Jr., who were invited and on site. (See video of Nemesis Payá-Cepero.) Rosa María, age 24, has been on an international tour calling for an independent investigation of the deaths.

Mr. Pavón launched his art-protest in March 2010 at the same building of the Cuban Mission to the U.N. with the image of Cuban prisoner of conscience Orlando Zapata, who died February 2010 while on hunger strike. Since then, he has staged Nemesis in Barcelona, Madrid, Washington, DC, and on several different occasions in New York city. In May 2011, he displayed the image of Chinese artist/dissident Ai Weiwei at China’s consulate in New York.

Geandy Pavón was born in Cuba and graduated from the National School of Fine Arts in Havana. He was part of the independent group “La Campana,” formed in 1988 to produce art critical of the lack of freedom in Cuban society. Exiled since 1996, he lives in New Jersey. His work can be found in private and public collections throughout Mexico, Cuba, and the U.S. (See www.geandypavon.com.)

Cuba Archive called for an international investigation soon after the death of Payá and Cepero and produced a report on their case as well as on “Strange Accidents and Unexplained Deaths.” (See www.CubaArchive.org, Reports and Alerts & Releases.)

*See PDF version and the Spanish translation at www.CubaArchive.org.

Requiem for Hugo Chávez

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The career of Lieutenant Colonel Hugo Chávez didn’t begin there, but reached regrettable notoriety when in 1992 he attempted a coup d’état in his native Venezuela. The attempt failed, and the soldier served a short prison term for it. That would not be the lowest point in his political career, nor would it be his greatest fiasco.

In 1998, he entered the democratic game —because democracy carries within itself its own demise—, and he arrived to power (which he would assume in 1999) through the electoral process. Since then, he allied himself with Fidel Castro (although previously he had called the Cuban leader a dictator). He would have time in the future to ally himself with Ahmadinejad and other gems from that pile of mud.

The marriage of convenience with the Cuban dictator was a round pact (similar to the relationship of mutualism between the shark and the remora): Castro offered him ideological legitimacy while Chávez gave him in return oil in enormous quantities. But that exchange of gold and shiny mirrors didn’t turn Chávez into a dictator. That made him a wasteful and irresponsible president who was squandering the resources of his people. What made him a dictator was that once in power he started limiting the civil and political freedoms of Venezuelans. Like any self-respecting dictator, he dehumanized his enemies. He turned them into non-persons, following in the footsteps of his bearded Cuban mentor who had coined the term worm to tag those who didn’t profess his creed.

Chávez was a great apprentice in the accelerated course for tyrants: he knew how to lie from the start. And he presented himself as the candidate of the Homeland with capital H, that schoolyard aberration. Knowing that when it comes to political maturity some sectors of Latin America haven’t left the most innocent infancy, his populist and messianic style flowered in the waste land. And there were those who thought that if they voted against him, they were voting against the homeland. They were voting against the Salvation of the Homeland. They were voting against the Savior.

If the Caesars named the two longest months and Castro changed (twice!) the geopolitical distribution on the island, Chávez didn’t want to be less than that: he gave a new official name to Venezuela and in a moment of boredom changed the time zone and the design of the national flag.

Since dictators are for life, he created a loophole to be able to run indefinitely for president. In the first referendum, the people of Venezuela said no. Eighteen months later, he asked them to vote on it again. After having fined and closed TV and radio channels that sympathized with the opposition, controlling the majority of the media and reclining on the indoctrination that Cuban doctors and personnel were applying on the neediest areas in the country, in the second time around, the answer from the Venezuelans was yes, giving him the opportunity to be president for life. He didn’t call himself the living Apollo because that title had already been claimed by Gaius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, also known as Caligula.

He exported black gold to Cuba and imported something else from the island: misery. “What do you mean Castro has starved the Cuban people for more than half a century?” he asked, and with a snap of his fingers, he made the popular flour P.A.N. disappear from the food markets.

His most recent insult to the Constitution he swore to respect was when he missed his inauguration as president on January 10th, 2013. His inability to attend this ceremony should have led to his resignation, but he continued ruling through Twitter and clinging to power with the same determination with which he clung to life. In his final days, his closest subordinates held four- and five-hour meetings with him, the same way children play with unicorns and other mythological creatures.

He died who knows when, who knows where, who knows under what circumstances. The Venezuelan government announced his death the same day that the Washington Post published the testimony of Spanish politician Ángel Carromero in which he revealed that Cuban opposition leader Oswaldo Payá did not die as a result of an accident, contradicting what the Castro regime has claimed so far.

In the long populist résumé of Hugo Chávez, there’s a pearl that shines brightly: he was the anchor of the radio show “Aló, Presidente,” in which he sang more than one song and shared more than one idiocy. His Twitter account hasn’t been notified of his death.

Next Sunday, on ABC, I will talk about the Cuban “elections”

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Yesterday, I went to the ABC studios to a live-taping of Tiempo, which will broadcast next Sunday (March 3rd) at 11:30 am on Channel 7. Joe Torres, the host, invited Cuban scholar Ted Henken and yours truly to talk about the Cuban “elections.”

Although the name of the program is in Spanish, the interview was conducted in English. This is the local ABC station. If you miss it, I will post it here as soon as the link is available.

A voter’s confessions

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Yesterday, my friend Enrique Del Risco spelled out his reasons why people should not try to convince him to join the blue mass or the red mass. I wrote him a note telling him that I subscribed them, and I also thanked him since he had saved me from having to write something similar. There is little to add to what Del Risco so eloquently said [in Spanish]. Nevertheless, I told him that I would try to insert some comments in the gaps he leaves between paragraphs of irrefutable arguments. Here are my notes.

Not only do I not want people to try to convince me. I do not want to convince anyone. We are all grown ups.

When the next occupant of the White House is announced, my candidate will not have won or lost. The reason is simple: I don’t have a candidate. I am going to vote for one of the two, obviously, but —watch out— whomever wins my vote is not my candidate.

I do not care about the arguments that made my friends, neighbors, colleagues, relatives and acquaintances vote for the Democrat or the Republican. Voting is their right.

Of the reasons that made me decide for one of the two, I give you the most generic (that, nevertheless, is not trivial): I like the other candidate less.

Today, in the long walk to work, I saw early rising New Yorkers carrying lapel buttons with the faces of Obama (most) or Romney (the minority). I looked and smiled at them, and thought: “another thing that I will never do.”

It does not matter who wins the presidential election. When I turned my back to the ballot box after having voted, I had already won. Participating in the democratic process is, on its own, my victory. (If you think that I am exaggerating, please look at my happy face).

Why does this mundane exercise make me so happy? Because I grew up in land of one party rule. There are no elections in Cuba, and even my dog knows that. But in 1999, I had my own election. And I chose to escape. On that occasion, I voted with my feet.

Do not ask me for whom I voted today. My candidate choice is between me and the ballot box.

***
[Translation: Ernesto Ariel Suárez.]

Press release from Cuba Archive

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​We reproduce below our release of July 2007 on two massacres occurring in the month of July. Sadly, the Cuban regime enjoys continued impunity despite these and many other crimes against humanity. Let’s continue to ask the international community to demand accountability for the historic and ongoing crimes of the Cuban dictatorship and to assist the Cuban people in attaining all their rightful freedoms.

CUBA: JULY ANNIVERSARIES OF TWO MASSACRES — Unpunished, but not forgotten

July 6, 2007, Summit, New Jersey.

Among the most flagrant atrocities committed by the Castro regime in its long history of human rights’ abuses, two incidents stand out —the Canimar River Massacre of 1980 and the Tugboat Massacre of 1994. Both took place in the month of July and poignantly illustrate the Cuban leadership’s profound disregard for human life and their egregious violation of the fundamental right of citizens to leave their country.

On July 6, 1980 three youngsters hijacked an excursion boat that was to navigate inland along the scenic Canimar river flowing into Matanzas Bay. Surprised passengers screamed their approval to go to the United States, but the security guard resisted and shot at the youngsters, who wounded him with firearms clandestinely obtained from their military service. Concerned for his health, they sent him back to shore with a passenger who refused to leave. Alerted authorities commanded a chase. High-speed Cuban Navy patrol boats fired on the escapees and attempted to sink the vessel. Then, a Cuban Air Force plane overflew the boat and opened fire. Finally, most not yet wounded or dead drowned when a special boat used for heavy industrial work was brought in to ram and sink the vessel.

The excursion boat had capacity for one hundred passengers, yet only ten survived. Reportedly, there were at least 56 victims, including four children, ages 3, 9, 11, and 17. The actual number was kept secret and recovered bodies were not handed to the families, communal funerals forbidden. The Cuban government claimed it was an accident, but survivors were threatened with prison into silence and kept under surveillance for years.

Fourteen years later, on July 13, 1994, a group of around seventy family members and friends, including many children, boarded the tugboat “13 de Marzo” in the middle of the night planning to escape to the United States. As they made their way out of Havana’s harbor, three tugboats that had been waiting in the dark started a chase. Relentlessly, they sprayed the boat with high-pressure water jets, ripping children from their parents’ arms and sweeping passengers off to sea. Finally, the attackers rammed the “13 de Marzo” enough to make it sink. Passengers who had taken refuge in the cargo hold were pinned down and desperately pounded on the walls, the children wailing in horror, as they went down. Survivors who then clung to life in high seas, contended with the three pursuing tugboats circling them and creating wave turbulence and eddies for them to drown. The attack stopped suddenly when a merchant ship with a Greek flag approached Havana Harbor and Cuban Navy ships picked up survivors. Brought to shore, the stunned women and children were interrogated and sent home. The men were kept in detention for months and given psychotropic drugs. No bodies of the 37 victims (including 11 children) were returned to their families for burial. Survivors and relatives of the dead were denied information and put under surveillance. Many were dismissed from their jobs and systematically harassed by the authorities.

It later transpired that an infiltrator in the group had helped plan the operation to set an example with its violent suppression. The Cuban government claimed it was an accident and blamed it on the escapees and United States’ immigration policies. An international outcry prompted the government to promise an investigation, but instead it awarded the head of the operation, tugboat pilot Jesús González Machín, received a “Hero of the Cuban Revolution” medal. Requests by international organizations for information and redress have been all disregarded.

These and similar tragedies in Cuba remain largely ignored by world media and public opinion. Yet, the Castro regime has for decades systematically murdered civilians for trying to escape their country. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, may have been killed by government authorities for attempting to escape by sea, for seeking asylum in foreign embassies, or trying to cross into the U.S. Naval Base at Guantánamo. Today the U.S. Naval base in Cuba remains sealed off by barbed wire and mines, with Cuban border guards ready to shoot to kill. Cuba’s Penal Code punishes attempts to leave the national territory without government authorization with up to twenty years in prison or death. Over the course of decades thousands have served prison, under dire conditions, for these so-called crimes. Still today, a number of political prisoners are serving very long sentences for attempting to escape the country.

Cuba Archive calls on world governments, international organizations, and all people of goodwill to hold the Cuban government accountable for its crimes and demand respect for the fundamental rights of Cuba’s citizens to life, safety, and the right to leave their country at will.

See www.CubaArchive.org for details on victims of exit attempts. Website sections “Reports” and “Case Profiles” have detailed reports on both massacres and other cases. The Multimedia section has several short interviews narrating killings in exit attempts. The database has individual case records for all documented victims.