Monday, November 2, 2009

Heat and Light

Can we talk? Can we listen? Can we hear one another?

In the header above, I explain that I intended this blog to serve as a platform where "one Yuma (me) could share his toughts on all things Cuban, a subject that often generates more heat than light."

Recent heated events in Miami and Havana have made my words seem somewhat prophetic. But, then again, it's not rocket science to accurately predict that Cubans of different opinioins and political persuasions will come to (verbal) blows. The tendency toward personal attacks, disqualification of anyone who thinks differently, and EL GRITO!!! - in short "verbal violence" - is a trait deeply rooted in Cuba's political culture (tanto en La Habana como en La Pequena Habana).

Unfortunately, the political culture in La Yuma (the U.S.) does not seem much better if one is to judge by the superheated (though not very enlightening) scenes at some of the health care town halls this past August with all those crazy Yumas shouting past each other! Cubans, of course, have no monopoly on emotionalism or "catharsis," just as we Yumas have no lock on respectful, critical debate and analysis.

As I described in my previous two posts, on Thursday, October 22, Rafael Hernandez, a Cuban political scientist and the director of the leading Cuban magazine of intelectual and cultural debate, Temas, gave the lecture, "Debate or Catharsis? Critical Thinking in the Public Sphere in Cuba Today" at Miami's Florida International Univeristy. A week later and 90 miles further south in Havana, Temas together with the Cuban Film Institute (ICAIC) convened one of its on-going, monthly "Ultimo Jueves" gatherings, this time on the subject of "The Internet in Cuba: Its Influence in the Cultural Sphere."

While I was not present at either gathering, news of the words exchanged at each event spread quickly around the (Cuban) world, via our now ever-present e-mail, blogs, Twitter, web sites, YouTube videos, and newspapers. Some of these choice words included "critical debate," "dialogue," "catharsis," "monologue," and everyone's favorite, "ciber-chancleteo" (which could be translated as "gutter talk" or even "verbal violence").

As I have come to understand, in his presentation at FIU, Hernández sought to make a careful distinction between critical debate, analysis, and dialogue on the one hand, and emotionalism, catharsis, and monologue on the other. While he was clear in expressing his support for Cubans' right to engage in the latter (on the internet or not), he clearly favored the former as the better path to fruitful communication. "I am not saying that there is not real critical debate on the Internet," Juan Tamayo of the Miami Herald quoted him as saying, "but there's too much cyber-chancleteo."

I couldn't agree more. One glance at the readers' comments sections of Cubaencuentro or El Nuevo Herald demonstrates this conclusively. I also tip my hat at Hernandez's entrance (as an "official" Cuban) into the lion's den of Miami politics as an example of his willingness to engage in such serious, reasoned, and respectful debate himself.

However, I must take issue two larger points. First, I'm sure that Hernandez would agree that before crtitical debate, analysis, and dialogue can take place, participants on various sides need access to the "public plaza" where the debate is to take place (whether it is within a building in Havana, in a foreign country, or in cyberspace). In order for him to speak at FIU, he had to gain access (a visa) to the United States. Thankfully, unlike its predecessor, the new U.S. administration believes in such access (even for those who think differently) and has begun granting visas to Cuban academics, artists, and intellectuals (including Hernandez himself who took advantage of his visa and Yoani Sanchez who was prevented by the Cuban Government from doing so).

Likewise, while neither the denial of Sanchez's exit permit nor the lack of open access to the Temas debate can be laid at Hernandez's feet, when you hold an open forum on the internet and deny access to Cuban citizens who show up (especially those who think differently) it is disingenuous to imply that they are the ones more interested in monologue than dialogue.

In fact, while they are sure to have many disagreements, Sanchez (standing squarely outside the system) and Hernandez (working from within it) seem to at least agree on the need for a more respectful, thoughtful debate in Cuba and among Cubans, with less "personal reprobation, verbal aggression, [and] monologue" - what Hernandez referred to as "ciber-chancleteo." And while Hernandez indicated that Generacion Y does not meet his vision of critical debate, he might be surprised at what he found there - that is if it were not censored by the government and thus prevented - by definition - from participating in a critical dialogue.

For those who do not write them, blogs may seem to be monologues. But, there is nothing like a steady stream of comments, some praises and others insults, to help you develop your debating skills. In May 2008, just after her blog began being blocked by the government, Sanchez realized that "ciber-chancleteo" was itself threatening her enterprise and posted her own set of "New Rules" under the title, "Un poco de orden... aunque sin censura" (Bill Maher would be proud). These rules, still in effect today, include the prohibition of threats of or incitation to violence, obscene words (sorry Gorki!), and ALL CAPITAL LETTERS as that in the world of blogs is considered shouting. (The graphic above is "borrowed" from that post).

A few months later, in July 2008, I interviewed Sanchez in her home and asked her about these norms and her policy against "verbal violence." This was her response:

In the case of “verbal violence,” this is one of our fundamental premises in the work we do at DesdeCuba. We refuse fall into the habit of using incendiary language, defamation, or harangues, because that only exacerbates the cycle of intolerance that is an obstacle to reasoned debate. Cuba is a very diverse country. You walk out into the street and you not only find a diversity of races but also of opinions. The official press spends all its time trying to make us believe that this is a very monolithic country, that we all think the same, and it does so with a dose of revolutionary violence and ideological aggressiveness that is paralyzing. We have to find a way to put a stop to this never-ending cycle, to this spiral of aggression that is very characteristic of Cuban journalism.

For example, one of my unwritten rules in Generación Y is how I address Cuban political figures. You won’t find my writing a phrase like “the bloody tyrant Fidel Castro,” but neither have I written “our dear Commander in Chief.” These are the two extremes we want to avoid. He is Mr. Fidel Castro and the way to counter what he thinks, his theory and hypothesis of reality, is with arguments. Therefore, we say “no” to verbal violence and we say “yes” to a more humane journalism; a journalism based more on each person’s lived experiences and daily reality, and above all on mutual respect. Because even to those with whom we disagree, we show respect and honor their right to have differing opinions.


  1. It is true that Yoani deserves credit for trying to maintain a respectful tone on her blog. But it is worth noting this is done through rules that are to the detriment of what we usually define as freedom of expression. (Nevermind that contradiction) But I have to say that what strikes one the most, is that her site has nothing to do with a dialogue. It is pure monologue.

    And at a time when the Cuban Government is holding a second round of community discussion meetings around the country (thousands of them in workplaces, neighborhoods, etc. intended to "debate fearlessly" and "identify problems and solutions") I don't think it is fair to hold up one meeting held by a magazine in a small cafe (I've been there) as an example that the Government does not want dialogue. Especially not when none of us really know the circumstances behind Yoani's friends not being allowed in. How many seats were available for the public vs invited guests? Did they simply show up too late? Did they show up in a group in an antagonistic way, etc? In any regard, Yoani was there - and was caled on by name by the moderator. So her presence was not the secret she wants us all to believe it was - with her wig and all. Her "message" certainly got into the debate... and is being debated online in Cuba quite ferociously right now (do a search for "Yoani"), with most not too impressed by her and her tactics.

    But it seems clear to me, that this was not about any message or dialogue. This was another well planned event designed for maximum PR effect. This is evidenced by the first people she contacted upon leaving - Radio/TV Marti - where she appeared live on air right after her performance (of course, Marti is a station created and funded by the US Government as part of our official regime change policy that still stands). And where was she spotted in the following days after this show? In a line outside the Polish embassy. What was the reason for visiting an Embassy of a country is one of a very few in the world that view Cuba as an enemy - and works closely with the US? Why did she not Tweet about that?

    So far, Yoani has made herself an unfathomable living for her work against the Cuban Revolution - they almost always do. She has worked with organs of the US Government to further our anti-Cuba policy. Now she is working with foreign Governments.

    If none of this seems to matter to an American audience, perhaps folks should posit what would happen if our best known blogger dared appear on Iranian State TV or Radio? Or the same blogger was spotted entering the Venezuelan embassy, or receiving paychecks from Libyan human rights groups. How would that person be looked at in the US?

  2. Professor Henken:

    A few words of congratulations on your new blog. I follow Phil Peters, as well as a dozen other blogs on Cuba, emanating from the U.S., the diaspora, as well as a few rarities from the island.

    Like you, I'm frustrated by the tendency of some cultures to resort to anger, vitriol and even violence, when faced with differing points of view. I'm Cuban born, but I'm "Yuma" by nurture and conviction. I grew up in Miami, eventually left for law school ( your neighborhood) and later returned to South Florida in the mid eighties. In my own experience, including a short time living in West Berlin, I learned that there are few things more corrosive than freedom. Liberty is so corrosive, in fact, that tyrannies have to build walls to isolate and insulate themselves from its' onslaught. Cuba is an example, but it has had help...from South Florida.

    In Miami, I was outspoken, often expressing the belief that the embargo, while not precluding Cuba from buying anything from another country, merely served the Cuban government's agenda by providing an excuse for their failures and by insulating them from democracy's challenge. I was blacklisted, isolated and tagged as "infiltrado," merely for expressing a different point of view. I learned then, that I was not like these people and appreciated for once, just how truly American I'd become.

    I find it supremely ironic how many in South Florida are always screaming freedom, but like the Puritans of old, adhere to that principle only as long as the words being spoken conform to their rigid agenda. Quite understandable then, why we have Castro still in power; we love strong men of breeding (whether real or imagined) to come to our rescue and to define what is right. The Elian Gonzalez fiasco was a last straw for me, since I saw first hand how much like Castro many in Miami were willing to stoop. They defied American law, as well as the sanctity of the family, advocating the separation of a child from his loving father for political expediency. I packed up my two American sons and moved to the West coast of Florida.

    At this point, my greatest concern is that the exiles, rather than serving as catalyst for the spread of democratic ideals in Cuba, will instead contribute to the spread of rightwing pseudo fascist thinking. Cuba could be relegated to oscillating between dictatorships of right and left. A possibility that is neither in the best interests of the Cuban people, nor of the United States.

    Ultimately, I penned a political satire which not only exposes this intolerance, but which also addresses the failure of democracies like ours to demand a modicum of respect for other points of view and yes, call it what it is: our failure to expect that those we shelter abide by our democratic ideals. If we allow fascists to insulate themselves under the guise of cultural relativism, either on an island or in one of our immigrant enclaves, what chance for democracy to endure here, let alone propagate elsewhere?

    A couple of literary agents read my yarn. I felt that, in the best tradition of men like Jonathan Swift and George Orwell, it would resonate (though I'm not in their league). However, they advised that it was too intellectual and more alarmingly, might be perceived in Miami as anti-Cuban. Imagine that: a Cuban writing an anti-Cuban satire. I told them this seemed self-censorship as scandalous as that exhibited in Europe over Mohammed cartoons. They merely shrugged in agreement.

    When you have a chance, check out my website. If you have an interest, please let me know and I'll send you a free copy. I'm working for democracy in Cuba and Miami, one book and one soul at a time. Congrats again and sorry for the long-winded speech.
    Tony Gonzalez