Thursday, June 23, 2011

"This will be your last time" - A reflection on my final conversation in Cuba (update)

"This will be your last time": 
A reflection on my final conversation in Cuba

(Para leer la versión original de esta reflexión en español, vea aquí: "Esta sera tu ultima vez". Está en la nueva página de mi blog "El~Yuma" en español:

My name is Ted Henken. I am an Associate Professor of Sociology at the City University of New York, where I chair the Department of Black and Hispanic Studies. My main expertise is in Cuban Studies, a subject to which I have dedicated the bulk of my scholarly activity over the past 15 years. This focus is evident in the various things I have published about Cuba during that time. I have also had the pleasure of traveling to the island many times where I have many close friends and colleagues.

As part of an ongoing research project I just made a trip to Cuba.  I spent 12 days there (April 15-27) and carried out more than 40 interviews with a very diverse group of bloggers and micro-entrepreneurs.

I returned from the island a week ago now (actually, it has now been almost 2 months) and have had time enough to calmly reflect on my trip and all the good, bad, beautiful and ugly things that I experienced. In truth, it was an extremely fruitful trip both in personal and professional terms.

I was able to meet up with many old friends and colleagues like the historian Julio Cesar González Pagés - an inspiring teacher and path breaking scholar in the field of gender studies on the island - and get to know a growing and dynamic group of young bloggers of all political tendencies who welcomed me with much good will, honesty, and trust. I was also able to witness first-hand the irrepressible entrepreneurial spirit of everyday Cubans upon seeing the explosion of the 1,001 micro-enterprises all across the capital city.

If I have taken some time to publish my reflections on the trip it is because I want to choose my words with moderation and intelligence so that the truth of what I experienced comes out and to avoid those words being used or manipulated for purposes I do not intend.  Most of all I want to avoid inadvertently exposing anyone in Cuba to reprisals - especially the bloggers who trusted me to interview them on the record in good faith.

I did not ask the government for permission to do these interviews given that they were done with private individuals who speak only for themselves.

However, I was well aware that conducting interviews in Cuba with a tourist visa and without the government's permission would be risky, especially if I included a number of so-called "mercenary bloggers" among my interviewees.  But long ago I learned that if you really want to accomplish something in Cuba it is better to ask forgiveness afterward than permission beforehand.

In the past, when I completed the research on which my doctoral dissertation is based, I found it frustratingly impossible to procure the sponsorship of any Cuban academic institution given that my focus was the then quite stigmatized topic of self-employment. This time around, I knew that requesting a research visa for a project focusing on the even more "delicate" topic of Internet and blogs in Cuba would only lead to an endless series of bureaucratic obstacles. In all likelihood my visa would either be rejected outright or I would never be given a clear answer.

Last month I attempted to invite the young Cuban blogger Elaine Díaz to present her research on Cuban blogs as part of a panel I organized for the Bildner Center's international symposium "Cuba Futures." She was open to participating, but in the end informed me that the Department of Communications of the University of Havana, where she works, denied her permission to travel abroad given that she had not yet completed her required three years of social service.

In my case, I did not want to wait my own three years for permission that would likely never be granted.

One of the goals of my interviews with Cuba's bloggers, 18 in total, was to make headway on a research paper that I plan to present on a panel focused on blogs and Internet in Cuba at the next LASA (Latin American Studies Association) conference to be held in San Francisco in the spring of 2012.  In fact, it will be LASA's first return to the U.S. since the 2006 San Juan conference due in part to the difficulty Cuban scholars had in getting visas under the harsh, politically motivated visa rules of the Bush administration.

Cuban blogger Sandra Álvarez (who writes the blog Negra Cubana Tenía que Ser - "It had to be a black girl") invited me to be on the panel, which she organized together with a group of other young Cuban bloggers and which we submitted to the LASA secretariat in late-March.

While we were not successful having Cuban bloggers at the Bildner Center panel, we thought we might have more luck with LASA next year. For that to happen, we will need both LASA and LASA's Cuba Section (I am a member of both) to give us the green light. Additionally, we can't move forward without the cooperation of both the Cuban and U.S. governments. The first will have to grant the Cubans exit permits and the second will have to provide them with visas. Of course, then there's the universal question of financing.

The Cubans have the perfect expression for this: "No es facil!" (It ain't easy!).

When I was in Cuba, I asked the permission only of those I interviewed and had the good fortune that no one denied me that permission.  I did discover, however, that while these many bloggers were disposed to share their experiences and opinions with me (an outsider), they do not do so very often among themselves. Perhaps they are not interested in doing so; perhaps they don't trust one another; or perhaps they are simply afraid of being "infected" by talking openly and honestly with other bloggers who are saddled with the label "official agent" by some and "counterrevolutionary mercenary" by others.

I spoke for hours with some and only for a few minutes with others. I learned many things from them and tried to respond to all their questions with honesty and transparency.

I respect Cuban national sovereignty.  I am not on the payroll of nor do I work for any foreign power or political party (though my bi-monthly pay checks are cut from the increasingly vacant coffers of the State of New York). I paid all the costs of my trip out of my own pocket. And I have gone on recored numerous times as being against both embargoes (that which the U.S. has long imposed against Cuba, as well as that which the Cuban government has built up against its own people).

I believe that the many problems confronted by Cuba, some of which are recognized by the government itself, should be resolved by Cubans, not foreigners; although I also believe that there are a thousand ways in which citizens of other countries can give them a hand of solidarity.

As an individual and as an academic, I always try to be the most independent and inclusive as possible.  In the highly politicized and polarized Cuban context this has not proven very easy.  However, independence and inclusion are very valuable when it comes time to analyze, understand, and write about a nation as complex and contradictory as Cuba.

I also recognize that each person possesses by nature an individual sovereignty and only that person should have the right to grant or deny access to his or her ideas, opinions, and experiences. This is called self-determination and should be a natural, even sacred right of each person. At the same time, I am well aware that it is the government - not the individual - which stands guard at the gateway of any nation.

None of those I interviewed asked me if I had permission or authorization from the government to ask them questions.  I don't think it mattered to them.  I got the impression that they considered themselves quite capable of judging for themselves if they could trust in my good faith or not.

All the interviews that I recorded, and I recorded nearly all of them, were done with the express permission of the interviewee.  On a few occasions, my interviewees preferred to remain anonymous, a choice which I naturally respected.  Nevertheless, the great majority spoke "on the record," giving me the right to share their ideas, opinions, and arguments together with their names and photos, here on my blog and later in any publication.

I do not know what exactly was my biggest crime: Doing interviews without the permission of "Father State" or speaking openly with bloggers the government has labeled "counterrevolutionaries" in all the official media outlets of the country. Perhaps the hidden powers of state security did not appreciate my periodic postings of commentary, analysis, and photos with my interviewees here on my blog throughout my stay in the country.

While I did interview a number of very critical bloggers, I also spoke with many others who describe themselves with quite a diversity of adjectives including Marxists, rebels, revolutionaries, disenchanted, feminists, socialists, alienated, moderates, leftists, social democrats, and liberals.  Perhaps my worst sin was exactly that: starting an open, respectful, and honest dialogue among bloggers of all stripes.

Among this wide spectrum that today constitutes the Cuban "blogosphere" there were at leas two bloggers, Sandra Alvarez (who runs the blog "Negra Cubana Tenia Que Ser") and Elaine Diaz ("La Polémica Digital"), who had recently been celebrated by the government as an exemplary pair of "good revolutionary bloggers" in an episode of the TV series "Cuba's Reasons."

Regarding her appearance in the "Cyberwar" episode of this series, Elaine confessed to me that she did not appreciate being presented, even defined, as the "Anti-Yoani".

“I am much more than that,” she told me.

Thus, I entered Cuba as a tourist because I was in truth a kind of "tourist of ideas, opinions, thoughts, and experiences." In fact, each of the more than 15 times I have travelled to Cuba since my first trip in the summer of 1997 has been done with a tourist visa. This is in part because the clumsy, out-of-date, and unfair immigration laws of both Cuba and the U.S. stipulate that you either have to travel as a tourist, "sipping mojitos on the beach," as a Cuban state security agent advised me during a brief interrogation at the airport (more on that later), or (according to current U.S. law) you can't travel to Cuba as a tourist at all.

What's more, I have many North American and European colleagues (conservatives, liberals, and progressives alike) who travel to Cuba on a regular basis for work doing so with tourist visas. We all know that it is the easiest and least bureaucratic way to gain access to the island and its people.  Although, at the same time, working on a tourist visa functions as a kind of sword of Damocles since it requires travelers to "behave" or pay the consequences.

The readers of this blog are well aware that I did not attempt to hide my activities in Cuba in the least.  Every two or three days, I would post here my observations, in addition to the photos of all the bloggers I interviewed, always with their permission. I also posted photos of the 1,001 new or recently reborn micro-enterprises, including a pair of photos of the business card of one Robertico Robaina, a former Cuban Secretary of State who now makes his living as an artist while helping his family run the paladar La Paila.

As always, during my time in Cuba I was well aware that "the revolution has friends and eyes everywhere," as a state security agent told me with pride during an interrogation on one of my previous trips. Thus, I preferred to be as transparent as possible and share the very same opinions in public as I would express in private.

I made a great effort to listen to and include in my interviews the greatest variety of voices, ages, races, genders, and political perspectives possible.

As a result, I spoke with both Yoani Sánchez and her husband Reinaldo "Macho Rico" Escobar, as well as with Elaine Díaz and Yudivian Cruz Almeida. All are young bloggers (young, at least, in spirit in the case of Macho Rico) whom the political apparatus in Cuba has tried to present as enemies or polar opposites.

I spoke with two very hospitable grad-students from the University of Matanzas, Roberto Gonzalez Peralo and Harold Cardenas Lema, who co-founded and administrate the "revolutionary" site (their words) La Joven Cuba, just as I spoke with Erasmo Calzadilla and Alfredo Fernández, a pair of very warm and sharp young bloggers who publish their critical observations of life in Cuba today at the site Havana Times.

I did the same with the black feminist revolutionaries Sandra Álvarez and Yasmín Portales, both associated with the group Bloggers Cuba, as well as with the journalist Iván García and lawyer Laritza Diversent, both also black, who have been associated with the highly critical blogging portal Voces Cubanas.

Finally, I met and exchanged ideas with the former biochemist, writer, and photographer Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo and the researcher and long-time dissident Miriam Celaya, as well as with the techies and computer programmers "ZorphDark" and RogerTM who have worked with the Bloggers Cuba digital collective.

However, it seems that my effort at being fair, listening to all sides without prejudice, and dialoging with many of the voices of Cuba's growing blogosphere impressed neither the government nor the invisible state security agents who, it seems, had me under constant surveillance throughout my visit.

I discovered that for them I am a "conflictive" element who came to Cuba to provoke controversy, impose my "arrogant point of view," and "support the counterrevolution."

In fact, ironically the last conversation I had in Cuba was not with any blogger or entrepreneur, and unfortunately I was unable to record it. Instead, it was with a pair of angry state security agents in the Jose Martí International Airport just before I left the country.

I had seen the two agents out of the corner of my eye when I first arrived at the terminal.  They were watching me without much discretion as I checked my luggage. As I made my way to pay the 25 CUC exit tax, I purposely passed very close to them to get a good look at them for myself.

Before going through the immigration and customs check points I went to the bathroom.  While there, I heard the following chilling announcement over the airport PA system: "Theodore Henken, make your way to the immigration check point please." It was then that I knew for certain what awaited me on the other side.

I passed through immigration and the security screening without any problem. However, upon arriving in the large waiting room that doubled as the gate for my flight, a uniformed woman asked me to follow her to a small examination room where my checked luggage was already waiting. They had already begun taking down my personal information when a man wearing a similar uniform arrived.  He took me and my luggage to another, even smaller examination and (as it turned out) interrogation room.

This time he closed the door.

This uniformed officer, a young man between 25 and 30 years old, began taking down my personal data once again as he proceeded to methodically open and examine the entire contents of my backpack and suitcase. However, just as he began to go through my things one of Cuba's routine blackouts interrupted him. I thought triumphantly to myself, "The collapse of Cuba's 'energy revolution' has saved me." But my celebration was premature as the lights came back on only a few minutes later.

Soon thereafter the door to our tiny interrogation room opened once again and the same two state security agents whom I had spied watching me earlier entered. There were now four grown men crammed into the tiny cell of a room. The agents quickly closed the door behind them and begin immediately to ask me very pointed questions, demonstrating that they were perfectly clued in to all of my movements during the previous 12 days.

"We are well aware of what you have been up to.  But we want to know who authorized you to do interviews and carry out a survey in out country?" demanded the one who seemed to be in charge.

Taking a deep breath, I answered: "Well, each person with whom I spoke gave me their personal permission. I did not think there was anything wrong with talking with people. What's more, I have written a guide to Cuba's paladares and I needed to speak to the owners of these enterprizes themselves so I could update it."

"As in any other country in the world, here in Cuba you need permission to do these kind of things and you can't do them with a tourist visa. If you are a tourist, as your visa says, you should be lying on the beach sipping a mojito, not visiting and taking photos of paladares and counterrevolutionaries. Besides, those aren't 'enterprizes' as you call them, but small family businesses."

"I came to learn about the experiences and opinions of these micro-entrepreneurs given the recent economic opening. I explained this to everyone and no one denied me their permission."

"You did not come to listen and learn but instead to impose your ideas," this same agent told me. "Cubans are very courteous and well mannered, so of course they are going to talk to you because they do not know what you are really up to. But we do know and we are not going to permit it. Besides, you met with a bunch of bloggers who are nothing more than counterrevolutionary elements --and you support them."

"If you really know what I was up to, you would know that I interviewed many different bloggers including those from Matanzas who support the revolution. I came to listen and dialogue with them. Do you know that word: dialogue?"

"We know very well what you were doing in Matanzas. You did not go to dialogue but to impose."

"That's not true," I insisted. "I went to listen, to dialogue... We exchanged arguments listening to each other with respect. I interviewed them and they interviewed me in return. No one imposed anything on anyone."

"We know that you defended Yoani Sanchez, a known counterrevolutionary," they retorted.

"They asked my opinion and I gave it to them. I also listened to thier aruguments and criticisms of her. They even asked my advice about ways to improve their blog to make it more inviting for readers," I told them.

"We already know everything that you talked about with them," they informed me, now giving me the clear idea that they had somehow gotten ahold of a copy of the recording we made. "And after going to Matanzas you returned to Havana and met up with a series of counterrevolutionaries!"

"I went to visit other bloggers both in public places and in thier homes. They are not criminals and as far as I know it is not a crime to talk to people in their own homes. If they were criminals, I would expect them to be in jail, not at home."

"What we do know is that you are no tourist.  You came here to write a book about the bloggers." And with deep sarcasm they added, "we would really like to read that book and see just how fair and and open to dialogue you are."

"Well," I said with my own dose of sarcasm, "when I finish the book I'll see if I can get it translated into Spanish and I'll send you a copy."

"We can't wait.  We also know that you write a lot about Cuba and that you have come here more than 13 times."

"Yes, its true.  I have come to Cuba more than 15 times."

"Is that so?," asked the agent in charge. And with great satisfaction, he indicated that our particular interview had reached its conclusion, announcing: "Well, we are here to inform you that this will be your last time. Got it?"

The pair of agents quickly vacated the room leaving me quite frustrated. There were a few things that I still wanted to say. First, I would have liked to let them know that I really don't like lying on the beach(sipping mojitos is, of course, another matter). Also, I wanted to inquire why it was that President Jimmy Carter, with whom I wholeheartedly agree, had the right to meet with those they call "la contrarrevolución" without being labelled an enemy of the nation and I do not.

Ted Henken, Ph.D.
New York

PS: I would like to thank everyone who has given me their (virtual) support and solidarity over the last few weeks from Cuba (Havana and Matanzas), Spain, Germany, Mexico, and the U.S. Among them, I want to single out the following Cuban bloggers who have each expressed their support for me publicly via their blogs and/or on Twitter: They include Elaine Diaz (also see her article at Global Voices), Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo (also see his post at Translating Cuba), Yoani SanchezIvan Garcia at Translating Cuba, and Alfredo Fernandez at Havana Times.

PS2: Readers might also be interested in my follow-up post, "Dear Anonymous," which is kind of a Part II to this one.

PS3: Finally, here are a number of other interesting links related to this whole episode:

1) A long interview maping Cuba's "blogosphere" that I did (in Spanish) with Encuentro (Part I and Part II);

2) A TV interview I did (also in Spanish) with Juan Manuel Benitez of "Pura Politica" at NY1 Noticias;

3) A few posts by the folks at La Joven Cuba in Matanzas about my visit with them (one, two, three, & four);

4) An interesting commentary by Larry Cata Backer;

5) A post by Machetera essentially saying that I got what I deserved;

6) An exchenge between Ariana Hernandez-Reguant (of EthnoCuba) and I from last year on academic freedom and exchange and the up and down sides of doing research in Cuba with and without government authorization and institutional support and sponsorship;

7) And two other related links - the first from NPR's "On The Media," about the ethics and perils, costs and benefits of doing undercover journalism in Cuba, and the second describing Cuban duplicity and the difficulty outsiders (and indeed other Cubans) have in finding out what Cuban's really think about anything, "La Doble Moral: The Problem of Truth in Cuba."


  1. Thank you Dr. Henken for this interesting post. This is but a small example of life in a totalitarian state. It also makes one admire all the more the Cuban bloggers, musicians, artist, writers, etc. that try to express their individual opinions despite the fear of reprisal by the state.

  2. Dear Ted,
    Looking at the bright side of the situation, it certainly helped to answer the question about “independency” and connectivity posted previously on La Polemica "Blogotal": An enlightening note from Miriam Celaya.
    Now we know who the sponsors/promoters of the Matanzas mischievous boys are and how they obtain their access and connectivity to the web and how much “independent” they really are.
    All the best
    Charlie, Canada

  3. Are you going to test this ban and try again soon to re-enter Cuba?