Friday, May 28, 2010

Escape from Havana: An American Story (CNBC)

I just caught an intriguing documentary on CNBC called "Escape from Havana: An American Story" about Operation Pedro Pan (Peter Pan) the mini airlift that spirited 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children to the U.S. between 1960 and 1962.  [A reader, Maria Estorino, comments that it will be shown again on Sunday, May 30th and Monday, May 31st at 10 p.m. - Thanx Maria.]

I think what I liked most about the documentary is that (for mainstream cable) it featured a refreshingly broad range of stories and opinions on the revolution, on U.S. Policy, and on Operation Peter Pan itself.

[For a completely different take on the "balance" of the documentary see Alberto de la Cruz's cynical rant at Babalu Blog here.  He says he did not watch it to be fair or to actually listen to the experiences or opinions of any of the Pedro Pans (except for the only one, Carlos Eire, he already agreed with), but only because watching it "serves to vindicate my cynicism and distrust" in the MSM. Well, if you've already made up your mind before opening your eyes, your eyes will only see what it lets them, and it might be better just to keep them closed in the first place].

There was an especially interesting section on the CIA spreading false rumors about a Castro plan to send kids to the USSR, indirectly leading many worried parents to send their kids alone to the U.S. via Pedro Pan instead in order to save them, or so their parents thought. 

I'm glad to see that they included not only the moving story of Maria de los Angeles Torres as a Pedro Pan herself, but also her research and analysis as a political scientist who has wirtten about the exodus with the critical eye of a scholar.

Here are the six featured Cubans - all of whom are "Pedro Pans" themselves:

Carlos Eire - Author of "Waiting for Snow in Havana" and Professor of History and Religious Studies, Yale University. Carlos last saw Cuba 48 years ago when his parents put him and his brother on a plane bound for America. "For me, Cuba is some other dimension, like some other planet – because I can’t go there."

Tomas Regalado - Mayor of Miami, Florida. Regalado was a young boy when his father, a journalist and critic of Castro, disappeared. "A lot of militia guys banging on the doors and calling the name of my father. A lot of guns. They came into the house and my mother was crying. It was a very bad day."

Maria de Los Angeles Torres - Political Scientist and Director of the Latin American and Latino Studies Program, University of Illinois, Chicago. Maria was just 5 years old when Fidel Castro took over. Her parents supported the revolution that brought him to power, but their hopes for the future soon turned to fear. "My parents were horrified with the firing squads and they had a very close friend who as 17 at the time he was arrested. He was... killed by a firing squad."

Candi Sosa - Singer/Songwriter. As a young child, Candi caught Castro’s attention when he heard her sing. He tried to take [send?] her away to study in Russia. Her parents refused. The revolution really hit home when Candi’s father was arrested for treason. "It was a torturous time. He got very traumatized…to lose that whole sense of well-being, to lose everything you possess."

Carlos Saladrigas - Chairman and CEO, Regis HRG and founder of the Cuba Study Group. Carlos arrived in Miami – alone and penniless – at the age of twelve. Prevailing has been his mission ever since that fateful day when he was airlifted away from his home. "I had a tough time. I mean I cried by guts out daily. But that particular moment, it was full of hope and expectation, and a sense of adventure, too."

Silvia Wilhelm - Activist, Founder and Executive Director, Puentes Cubanos. Silvia arrived alone in Miami when she was 14 years old. She was sent to live in Buffalo, NY boarding school. She remembers the Bay of Pigs invasion and learning that the American trained Cuban exile forces were defeated by Castro. “That’s when I really realized, I’m not going back. I’m here for good.”

I would have also liked to hear the stories of Nelson Valdes and Roman de la Campa both Pedro Pans who have written movingly and sometimes critically of the experience.  Also, I wonder what percentage of the Pedro Pans were Afro-Cuban - given the demography of the exodus at that time, I'd imagine less than 5 percent.  Anybody know?

Try to catch the show - well worth watching and arguing about over a glass of ron anejo and a pan con lechon.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Look who's blogging now! - Silvio

Yes, that Silvio.

Solvio Rodriguez kicked off his blog, named "Segunda Cita," on May 9th and his first post already has 329 comments. His blog also already has 1,752 followers. Though unless he puts his music catalog up for free streaming and download, I don't think Yoani has anything to fear. Actually, she has a lot to celebrate - the Cuban blogosphere continues to grow!

Rodriguez does mention that he has read all the comments on his first post and stresses that his readers can expect one thing above all from him: respect.

In his latest post he announces that his Carnegie Hall show set for June 4 is already sold out and they are trying to add a second show (perhaps on June 11).

Hernandez Busto over at Penultimos Dias points out that he has no tour dates yet scheduled in Miami.

Unfortunately, I'll be out of town when he's here in New York, so if any cubiches in Miami want a place to crach while seeing Silvio in New York - let me know - that goes for Montaner too - though I think he lives in Spain.

I leave you with Silvio:

A cambio garantizo respeto, que es mejor.

Descubro que administrar un blog es como jugar a Dios. Todo queda en nuestras propias manos: la imagen que subes (está bueno eso de "subir"), lo que dices, a quien das voz.

Creo que voy a resultar un diosito ecuménico; un diosito que no se las cree todas consigo sino que se cree entre todos; un diosito que precisa aprender cómo es el mundo que hace dos días era nada y de pronto convoca lo divino y lo humano.

Así que bienvenidas bondades, dolores, convergencias, divergencias, enfoques, desenfoques, autismos, egotismos, despistes y otras hierbas. Ustedes han decidido hacer un punto de encuentro de esta ilusión. Me encanta que honremos la coincidencia y que, si alguna vez nos falta, nos quede la honradez.

Cuando al viejo Dagoberto [su padre] le preguntaban cómo le iba, solía decir primero: "Yo, bien", y después, como explicándose, agregaba: "la vida es bella y en colores".

Siempre me pareció una definición bien digna de la vida, fuera real o imaginada. Mucho más ahora, cuando me consta que aquel hombre tuvo razones para decir lo opuesto.

Damas y caballeros, blogueros, visitantes, compañeros, amigos y curiosos: si el domingo no pude menos que sentirme inaugurado, el martes comparto con ustedes la expresión favorita de mi padre: "La vida es bella y en colores".

Hagan buen uso de ella.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

More on Cuban political prisoners

An important lesson: This could never happen through negotiations with the U.S. - viewed by the regime as antagonistic to its existence, but the Catholic Church is another animal - local, national, and "universal" - and God knows that the Church needs some good press these days.

Release of Cuban political prisoners may be close

By Manuel Alberto Ramy
Havana, 5/23/2010 (Radio Progreso Alternativa) - The release of political prisoners may begin within the next 24 hours, sources close to the Catholic Church in Havana informed the Progreso Weekly Havana Bureau.

To read the complete Progreso Weekly article click here

Cuba to improve conditions of prisoners - Reuters

Let's hope this is a sign of the beginning of real progress on the political prisoner issue in Cuba, and kudos to the Catholic Church.

First for intervening on behalf of "respect and tolerance" for the Damas de Blanco and now for this.

!Ojala que sea una trifecta!

By Esteban Israel, HAVANA
(Reuters) - Cuba has agreed to move political prisoners held in far-off jails to facilities closer to their hometowns and transfer sick prisoners to hospitals, a dissident said on Saturday, following talks between Catholic Church leaders and President Raul Castro this week.

Guillermo Farinas, on a hunger strike for 88 days demanding ill prisoners be released, told Reuters in a telephone interview that he received the news from a bishop who visited him in the hospital where he is being fed intravenously.

A Catholic Church source, speaking on condition his name not be used, confirmed what Farinas said. "Everything appears that is what will happen," he said.Cardinal Jaime Ortega and Archbishop of Santiago de Cuba Dionisio Garcia, who heads the Cuban Bishops' Conference, held a four-and-a-half-hour meeting with Castro in Havana on Wednesday which they both described as positive.

Farinas said Prelate Juan Dios Hernandez, the auxiliary bishop of Havana, brought him the message from Ortega after the cardinal was informed by the government that measures were being taken as agreed in the meeting.

"These are first the transfer of all the prisoners to their respective provinces of residence, and the transfer also of all sick prisoners to hospitals," Farinas said.

He said he was told a second meeting would be held next week toward "resolving the situation of the prisoners."

There was no immediate word from Cuban officials.

Wednesday's meeting was the Cuban Catholic Church leaders' first talks with Castro since he took over the presidency of the Communist-ruled island from his ailing elder brother Fidel Castro in 2008.

"The Church is interested in there being some kind of relief in the situation of the prisoners, which could include the freeing of some of them, and that is what we're talking about," Ortega said during a news conference on Thursday.

He said the subject was being discussed seriously, but neither he nor Garcia offered specific details of what steps the Cuban government might take over the political prisoners.

The cardinal added the talks would continue.

The rare meeting, which received wide coverage in the official media, followed Ortega's successful mediation between the Communist authorities and female relatives of imprisoned dissidents earlier this month hat allowed them to resume weekly marches without being harassed by government supporters.

The Vatican's foreign minister, Archbishop Dominique Memberti, is due to visit the island next month as Cuba is facing increasing economic difficulties and international attention on human rights abuses in the country. Political prisoner Orlando Zapata Tamayo died in February after a hunger strike.

Memberti is expected to press authorities to release political prisoners whom the government brands as mercenaries and subversives in the pay of the United States.

Local human rights organizations put the number of political prisoners in Cuba at around 200, while Amnesty International says there are around 60 prisoners of conscience.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

The (Grand)Children of the Revolution: The U.S. Can't Turn a Deaf Ear Anymore

Here are two clips from Carlos Montaner's new documentary, "The Grandchildren of the Revolution," followed by an editorial in the Miami Herald by Tomas Bilbao, Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group.

The U.S. can't turn deaf ear anymore

BY TOMAS BILBAO, The Cuba Study Group (

For too long, the debate over U.S. policy toward Cuba has been dominated by narrow arguments at the two extremes. They either ignore Cubans' demands for desperately needed change in their country's failed system or appeals for necessary changes in U.S. policy. Both sides have been successful in turning a deaf ear to the fact that Cubans on the island are calling for change -- and not only in Cuba.

For those who would turn a blind eye on the suffering of the Cuban people, it is easy to overlook the desperate calls of countless Cubans who, through their voices and actions, have made clear the need for fundamental changes in the Cuban system. Meanwhile, defenders of the status quo work hard to ensure that the overwhelming majority of voices from the island calling for change in U.S. policy are never heard, lest they undermine their efforts to ensure nothing ever changes in Washington or in Miami.

Fortunately, Cubans are finding new ways to make their messages of change heard through increased contact with Cuban Americans and other travelers, blogs, social media and provocative documentaries such as The Grandchildren of the Cuban Revolution, released this week by filmmaker Carlos Montaner, son of prominent Spain-based columnist Carlos Alberto Montaner.

This thought-provoking 60-minute documentary provides a window into the lives of Cuban youth and their desire for change at a time when the island nation faces one of its most difficult periods in half a century. It follows average Cubans as well as well-known activists such as Yoani Sánchez, Claudia Cadelo, Dagoberto Valdés and artists such as Silvito El Libre, Los Aldeanos and Gorki Aguila, providing direct accounts of the deep disconnect between the 51-year-old revolution and Cuban youth today.

While most of the film features the attitudes of Cuban youth toward the revolution -- apathy or outright rejection of it -- an important part of it features prominent dissidents calling for fundamental changes in U.S. policy toward Cuba: ``I believe if the United States lifted all the sanctions, financial ones too, the Cuban government is going to be in dire straits. I don't think they'd know what to do about it,'' says Cuban author and blogger Claudia Cadelo, a protégé of Yoani Sánchez.

Prominent lay Catholic activist Dagoberto Valdés says: ``I believe the U.S. embargo needs to be lifted and allow the free flow of U.S. citizens and Cubans and companies, because I believe that opens the country.''

These statements echo those of many other dissidents not in the film, including Miriam Leiva a founding member of the Ladies in White and Oswaldo Payá, the leader of the Varela Project.

While these brave dissidents risk their lives calling for changes in U.S. policy as profound as the total lifting of all U.S. sanctions, the U.S. Congress continues to debate whether much more modest steps, such as allowing American citizens to travel to Cuba, would be in the best interest of human rights and democracy on the island.

The time for turning a deaf ear on Cuban dissidents is over. The power of the Internet and powerful documentaries, such as The Grandchildren of the Cuban Revolution, are allowing brave Cubans to have their messages of change, in Cuba and in Washington, heard around the world. It's time that everyone started listening to them.

If we are serious about bringing about change in Cuba, we can no longer afford to listen to Cubans' calls for change in their government, but turn a deaf ear when they call for changes in U.S. policy.

Tomás Bilbao is executive director of the Cuba Study Group in Washington.

Read more:

Friday, May 14, 2010

Una nueva bomba de La Flaca

A few weeks ago I noted the stepped up defamations and detentions of some Cuban bloggers, Ladies in White, and dissidents.  I also told readers of El Yuma to prepare themselves for these attacks to intensify after May 10. 

Well, I hope you are ready.

Yoani Sanchez has just released a two-part, 17-minute recording of a violent, illegal detention she and her sister suffered in early March when they attempted to attend the funeral of Orlando Zapata Tamayo.

Sanchez filed a legal complaint at that time with the proper Cuban authorities and has waited patiently for them to respond within the 60 days they have by law to answer any such complaint.  However, after waiting for the slow wheels of justice and bureaucracy to respond - nothing...

So she has described the events in her most recent blog post (here in Spanish and here in English) and provided a transcript of the recording she made during the detentions.

And here's the kicker: The cell phone she used to record the detention continued recording the conversations of the Ministry of the Interior agents even after they had confiscated it.

Here's a taste of the recording (an English translation of the transcript should soon be available at the GY English site):

Tu pa aca chica, tu pa aca! 
A ver, una mujer es lo que te hace falta a ti,
una mujer, una mujer!
Sientate aqui, que tu aqui no mandas.  Aqui no mandas tu!
Que te pasa vieja?  Ta bueno ya.  Callate la boca!

Guess who's on Twitter? USIS, that's who!

I just got this e-mail in my in box with the subject line reading: Unete a nosotros.

¿Eres un bloguero? ¿Tienes una página en Facebook? ¿Usas el Twitter?

Ahora en: TWITER!

La página de Facebook de la Sección de Intereses de los Estados Unidos le proporciona una serie de discusiones esporádicas en línea.

El tema de la primera discusión es: "La libertad de navegar en Internet: ¿Ha de ser para todos?"

Para publicar tus ideas, por favor aceza al sitio: encontraras la discusión sobre “La libertad de navegar en Internet” en el logo para “Discussions”.

Para preguntas, llama a la Oficina de Prensa y Cultura, de la Sección de Intereses: 833-3967 o correo electrónico:

¡Te esperamos allí!

Equipo de Prensa y Cultura
Sección de Intereses de los Estados Unidos

Thursday, May 13, 2010

NOW! - Lena Horne and Santiago Alvarez

American singer, actor, and civil rights activist Lena Horne died this week.

As John McAuliff rightly points out in this recent post at The Havana Note, none of the covereage of her passing that I heard took note of her amazing in-your-face performance of the song "NOW!" (Does anyone know if she wrote the lyrics to the song too!?)

Here's a taste of the lyrics.

The message of this song's not subtle
No discussion, no rebuttal
We want more than just a promise
Say goodbye to Uncle Thomas
Call me naïve
Still I believe
We're created free and equal,
Now, now, now, now

Everyone should love his brother
People all should love each other
Since they say we all got rhythm
Come on, let's share our rhythm with 'em

Now is the time
Now is the time
The time is nowwwwww
So, why is El Yuma mentioning all this here in his Cuba blog?

Well, it turns out that I had heard this song before (I even played it for my students in class a few times) but did not really know it was Lena Horne singing it. (Hey I was born in 1971 and they did not play Lena in my house).

NOW! is the title to a 5 minute documentary film by the late, great Cuban propaganda filmmaker Santiago Alvarez (and I do mean great and I do mean propaganda).

The film is simple enough. Lena belting out the words, while Alvarez fills the screen with endearing footage of sweet home Alabama in the 1960s - bloodied Blacks with batton weilding white cops and German Shepherds lunging. Sweet home indeed!

Take a look at the film below.

I wonder what would happen if a Cuban made such an "urgent" film about race relations, civil rights, or human rights in Cuba today. (Well I think we know what would happen). Come to think of it NOW! is just the right word for that too.

If this gets your blood pumping, there's a lot more from Alvarez. Start with this: "He Who Hits First, Hits Twice: The Urgent Cinema of Santiago Alvarez." This great DVD collection includes an hour-long documentary on Alvarez as well as a collection of many of his best works. (More here, here, here, here, and here).

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Ya viene Silvio... Y los demas?

This just in - Silvio Rodriguez was just granted a U.S. visa and so will indeed give his much anticipated concert at Carnegie Hall on June 4.

This is indeed good news.

And while I largely disagree with Alina Brouwer's recent letter questioning the wisdom of granting "official" personalities like Rodriguez visas to visit the U.S., I do agree that it takes two to tango.  (See Anya Landau French's discussion of cultural exchange with Cuba at The Havana Note).

As we put pressure on the Obama administration to continue to allow these kind of exchanges and, indeed, to lift the travel ban entirely, we should also be consistent by criticizing the Cuban government's completely unacceptable denial of exit permits to people like Yoani Sanchez or the "underground" hip-hop group Los Aldeanos (or independent journalists and economists like Oscar Espinosa Chepe). 

For example, I'm currently putting together a panel on Information Technology in Cuba for the "Cuba Futures" conference at the Bildner Center here in New York City for March, 2011, and I'm hoping to include on the panel BOTH the well-known independent blogger Yoani Sanchez (who has been denied the right to travel abroad several times by the Cuban government) AND the young professor of communications at the University of Havana Elaine Diaz-Rodriguez who writes the blog La Polemica Digital, and who has written one of the few academic studies of blogging by (official) journalists in Cuba, "Blogs y periodismo en Cuba: entre el 'deber ser' y la realidad" ("Blogs and Journalism in Cuba: Between 'what is' and 'what ought to be'").

Based on recent history, it is likely that the U.S. will grant Sanchez a visa for the event, but if Brouwer had her way, Diaz would be denied.  On the other hand, you can bet that Sanchez will be denied an exit permit once again while Diaz, as a university professor in good standing with the Cuban government, is sure to get hers.

To her credit, Diaz has formed a Facebook group to gather support for ending the exit permit requirement.

Indeed, until it ends its policy of requiring the hated "tarjeta blanca" (exit permit), the Cuban government's complaints about denials of U.S. visas to its "chosen" travelers are both laughable and hypocirtical.

I just have one question: Will the Silvio Rodriguez concert at Carnegie Hall include an opening act of a Q&A with special guest star Carlos Alberto Montaner. 

Now that would be revolutionary!

Monday, May 10, 2010

Una Isla Virtual

Thanx to Hernandez-Busto over at Penultimos Dias, I just discovered this fascinating video from the group of bloggers at Voces Cubanas. (Be patient - it takes a few minutes to boot up).

The 30 minute video highlights nine independent Cuban bloggers, each of whom narrates a bit of the story behind how and why they began blogging. Each blogger also gives their name, the name of thier blog, when the blog was launched and a bit of its subject matter, as well as their original profession or educational background.

Interestingly, nearly all of the bloggers now exercise a profession different from what they were educated to do. Moreover, they discuss how, over time, they have been transformed (by accident or design) from independent bloggers into cyber-activists.

The bloggers highlighted in the video are:

Dimas Castellanos: El Blog de Dimas (February, 2009).

Claudia Caudelo de Nevi: Octavo Cerco (October, 2008).

Ciro Diaz: El Auditorio Imbecil (April, 2009).

Lia Villares: Hechizamiento/Habanemia (April, 2008).

Ivan Garcia: Desde La Habana (January, 2009).

Miriam Celaya: Sin EVAsion (January, 2008).

Eugenio Leal: Veritas (February, 2009).

Reinaldo Escobar: Desde Aqui (December, 2007).

And Yoani Sanchez: Generacion Y (April, 2007).

Note: Voces Cubanas also hosts 21 other independent blogs - total of 30 in all. All or nearly all of these blogs are available in English tanslations thanx to the folks at Hemos Oido.

H/T Penultimos Dias.

"The Heroes of Cuba" - NYRB (Part III)

In two previous post from late last week, I shared my thoughts on and a few long quotes from the article, "The Heroes of Cuba," by Nik Steinberg and Daniel Wilkinson published in the May 27, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books.  (Now available in its entirety at the links below).

Jose Goitia/The New York Times/Redux

Interestingly, the article seems to have two different titles, each one reflecting a different half of its content.  The first half of the article, "The Heroes of Cuba," deals with Cuba's systematic violation of the human rights of its citizens - especially those who dare speak out and challenge the system. 

The second half of the article, however, critiques U.S. policy toward Cuba arguing essentially that the embargo has only served to deflect real criticism of the Cuban government by giving its international supporters (like Gabriel Garcia Marquez - who is named in the opening of the article) another target, "Tio Sam," to attack and condemn.  "Yet when outsiders hear of Cuba’s political prisoners," write Steinberg and Wilkinson, "many think first of what the U.S. embargo has done to Cuba, not what Cuba has done to its own people. The effect is to seal Cuba’s prisoners off from international sympathy and reinforce their prolonged solitude." 

This half of the article, "Cuba - A Way Forward," offers suggestions toward changing U.S. policy away from unilateral regime change toward a multilateral defense of human rights and the release of all political prisoners - placing the onus of Cuba's internal problems where it belongs, squarely on the Cuban government.

I wholeheartedly agree with both sentiments.

Here's the lead in to the article:

"Some have hoped that Raul Castro would begin a process of political reform in Cuba. In fact, more than one hundred political prisoners locked up under Fidel remain behind bars, and Raúl’s government has used sham trials to lock away scores more. These include more than 40 dissidents imprisoned for “dangerousness,” a charge that allows authorities to imprison individuals before they have committed a crime, on the suspicion that they might commit one in the future. Yet when outsiders hear of Cuba’s political prisoners, many think first of what the US embargo has done to Cuba, not what Cuba has done to its own people. The effect is to seal Cuba’s prisoners off from international sympathy and reinforce their prolonged solitude."
Go here to read the article on line at The New York Review of Books website.

And here for a PDF of the entire article.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Los Van Van - Here's the answer

Kudos go to Phil Peters over at The Cuban Triangle for this info on the cancellation of the U.S. tour of Los Van Van:

It turns out that the cancellation has nothing to do with the group's U.S. visas, which they were granted, but was "due to an unresolved business matter between the group and a third party." Also, they are calling it a "postponement" not a "cancellation."

See below for part of the article explaining the decision and go here for the full article in Spanish.

Ya no vienen Los Van Van.

El grupo cubano de salsa y timba que estaba programado para presentarse el mes próximo en el Playboy Jazz Festival, ha cancelado su gira estadounidense, confirmaron ayer fuentes a La Opinión.

El anuncio oficial de la cancelación llegó en un escueto comunicado del abogado de San Francisco, Bill Martínez, quien había tramitado la emisión de visados estadounidenses para los integrantes de la banda cubana.

"A los coordinadores de la gira de Los Van Van les pesa anunciar que, debido a un asunto de negocios no resuelto entre el grupo y una tercera entidad, y circunstancias fuera de su control, la gira estadounidense de Los Van Van debe ser pospuesta", reza el comunicado en inglés.

"Esta decisión no tiene nada que ver con las relaciones entre EEUU y Cuba o cualquier problema de visado. Las peticiones de visa I-129 [del grupo] habían sido aprobadas".

"Esperamos traer a Los Van Van a EEUU tan pronto se resuelvan los factores que no nos permiten realizar la gira en este momento".

Thursday, May 6, 2010

This Just In: Juan Formell y Los Van Van cancel NYC S.O.B.'s Show

While I will be at S.O.B.'s next Thursday night, May 13 for the Carlos Varela show, I just learned that the June 6 Juan Formell y Los Van Van show at the same venue has been cancelled.

Anyone know what's up with that?

"The Heroes of Cuba" - NYRB (Part II)

In my last post I introduced, "The Heroes of Cuba," an article by Nik Steinberg and Daniel Wilkinson (both with the Americas division of Human Rights Watch) included in the May 27, 2010 edition of The New York Review of Books.

After reading the article, my assessment is that it is surely one of the sharpest, most well-informed, and bravest essays I have read in a long, long time about the human rights situation in Cuba on the one hand, and about U.S. policy toward Cuba on the other.

Since the article is not yet on-line, I will follow up my previous post with more quotes from it and perhaps a few of my own humble observations.

The article is divided into two roughly equal halves, the first of which is a detailed, unflinching description of Cuba's abysmal record on human rights and fundamental freedoms (drawn from the Human Rights Watch report released on November 18, 2009, "New Castro, Same Cuba: Political Prisoners in the Post-Fidel Era"). This is followed with a sharp assessment of current U.S. policy along with a number of specific suggestions for "a way forward."

The fact that the article begins with such a devestating and convincing description of the Cuban government's human rights abuses is to the authors' great credit since it is common for American-based writers to focus first on U.S. policy, giving only lip service to the human rights issue.

However, the article goes even further than that by offering one of the most incisive analyses that I have ever read of the strange and anamolous phenomenon whereby "the notion that to criticize Cuba is to abet its more powerful enemies was, for Fidel Castro, the key to achieveing what his prisons alone could not - ensuring that his critics on the island remained isolated and largely ignored."

The report goes on to describe the Orwellian crime of "dangerousness" and the government's various strategies aimed at silencing its internal critics and isolating them from their potential audience - by throwing them in prison.

"Those who continue to speak out while in prison are isolated even further. One man was arrested and sentenced to four years for 'dangerousness' after he tried to hand out copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in public in 2006. In 2008, he attempted to commemorate International Human Rights Day (Dec. 10) by reading the Declaration aloud to fellow inmates. But according to his wife, a guard cut him short, ordering him to eat the text - literally. When he refused, he was beaten, thrown into solitary confinement for weeks, and sentenced in a closed-door hearing to six more years in prison for disrespecting authority."

The article then describes how the regime attempts to silence and control those critics who are not in prison by denying them the rights of free movement and permission to travel abroad. "While not all dissidents are locked up," they write, "nearly all are effectively imprisoned in the island itself - by [the government practice of] requiring its citizens to obtain permission to leave the country - in clear violation of international law."

The article names blogger Yoani Sanchez as a case in point of this practice, she having been denied permission to leave the country on tree consecutive occassions.

Furthermore, its assessent of what it calls a "nascent blogosphere" is spot on in that it heralds its emergence while recognizing the severe and effective constraints placed on it by the regime.

"The emergence of a nascent blogosphere has been heralded as a sign that Cuba is opening up, yet the government systematically blocks critical websites and strictly controls access, forcing bloggers to upload their posts using thumb drives and illegal back channels. Because an hour's use costs roughly one third of Cubans' monthly wages, and since there are few connections outside of cities, the average Cuban has no access to the Internet. Although Sanchez was named one of Time magazine's one hundrerd most influential people, most Cubans on the island have never heard of her, let alone read her blog."

This first section of the article ends with the perceptive observation, "The political prisoners may be small in number, but they are a chilling reminder to all Cubans of what has been a basic fact of life for half a century: to criticize the Castros is to condemn oneself to years of enforced solitude."

Maybe Garcia Marquez got it only half right when he titled his classic novel, "One Hundred Years of Solitude."

The second half of the article, which I will address in my next post, shifts its focus to assessing U.S. policy. But here's a quick tidbit that perfectly captures the skillful way the Cuban government manipulates "national sovereignty" in order to trample on its citizens "individual sovereignty" - and the way U.S. policy makes this strategy so easy for the regime:

"Invoking national sovereignty may be the most common tactic used by governments around the globe - and across the political spectrum - to counter criticism of their abusive practices. It is the international equivalent of the 'states' rights' claim that segregationists in the US South used for years to defend their racist laws and policies. The aim is to shift the focus of public concern from the rights of abuse victims to the rights (real and imagined) of the states that abuse them."

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

"The Heroes of Cuba" - NYRB (Part I)

Just arrived in my mailbox:

The new edition of The New York Review of Books with the article, "The Heroes of Cuba," featuring blogger Yoani Sanchez among others, by Nik Steinberg and Daniel Wilkinson (May 27, 2010).

The article is not, to my knowledge, available on line yet.

I'll summarize the article here later but for now here's the opening paragraph:
"In a 1980 interview, Gabriel Garcia Marquez told The New York Times that he had spent three years writing a book about life in Cuba under Fidel Castro. But, he said, 'now I realize that the book is so critical that it could be used against Cuba, so I refuse to publish it.'"
Who knew?

Cecilio Valdes, Las Damas de Blanco, Paquito D'Rivera, and Carlos Varela

No, that's not a typo.

On Monday night here at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York City I attended a wonderful concert by Paquito D'Rivera and friends (Paquito D’Rivera, clarinet; Alex Brown, piano; Dana Leong, violoncello; Brenda Feliciano, soprano; Loli Marquez Sterling, contralto; and Mariano Vidal, tenor).

We were treated to some of the songs from, "Cecilio Valdes: El Rey de La Habana," an opera/zarzuela type work that D'Rivera wrote back in 2006 with the help of librettist Enrique del Risco and lyricist Alexis Romay. The idea was to reimagine the classic Cuban Cecilia Valdes story as a modern star-crossed lovers tale, this time with a black Cuban Hip Hop/Rock musician in the title role of Cecilio (not Cecilia) Valdes who has fallen in love with the beautiful white hija de papa Patricia. Unfortunately for Cecilio, Patricia is the daughter of Gamboa, a Cuban general, who would much prefer that she return the affections of her rich, white, Spanish tourist suitor Pepe (El Pepe).

While D'Rivera and friends have not yet been able to secure the financial backing to perform the work as a full operatic production, what I saw on Monday night was quite promising and not a little humorous. For example, here's a sharp exchange between the father, General Gamboa, and the daughter, Patricia:

Gamboa: Yo te ordeno que te cases/ Mientras la suerte nos dure/ Necesito que una boda/ Mi retaguardia asgure. (I order you to marry/ While our luck lasts,/ I need a wedding/ To secure my rear guard).

Patricia: Ordenes, retaguardia/ Tu siempre estaras en guerra/ Soy tu hija, no un soldada/ Ni mi corazon trinchera. (Orders, rear guards-/ You'll always be at war./ I'm your daughter, not a soldier,/ And my heart not an entrenchment).

We were also present for the world premiere of "Las Damas de Blanco," a new work by D'Rivera commissioned in 2009 by the Foundation for Iberian Music and dedicated to Las Damas de Blanco, of course.

Apart from being an accomplished, world-rekmnown, virtuosic musician, D'Rivera is also a classic "jodedor cubano," which he proved over and over as he regaled the audience with his wit and often off-color but always on the mark chistes.

For example, he recounted that back in the mid-50s when he was a young boy of just 5 or 6, his father brought home a record of Benny Goodman playing live at Carnegie Hall. When his father put the record on the phonograph, little Paquito's mouth dropped open and he asked his father, "Y que es esto?" His father responded, "Benny Goodman tocando en vivo en Carnegie Hall." Though Paquito loved the music, becoming an instant adict on the spot,he was a bit confused by his fahter's explanation since he understood him saying, "carne y frijol" in place of "Carnegie Hall."

As is El Yuma's habit, during the Q&A I reminded D'Rivera that he had once expressed the hope to play his music again in Cuba - another Cuba to be sure. Knowing he has been harshly critical of the Cuban government and against the separation of families by government regulations (especially since he was cut off from seeing his own son for many years after defecting from Cuba in 1980), I asked his opinion of the recent shift in U.S. policy that has allowed a new generation of Cuban musicians to begin giving concerts in U.S. cities. I specifically mentioned La Charanga Habanera (who I saw live at SOB's back in January) and Carlos Varela (who will play at SOB's next week - look for me in the front row!).

Paquito did not seem to like my question very much. He was done joking (at least for a few minutes).

He responded by comparing Cuba today to apartheid-era South Africa, saying that there was a united front among American musicians who boycotted playing in Sun City, South Africa, back in the 80s led by Little Steven Van Zandt (the guitarist of Springstein's E Street Band and, more recently, of The Sopranos).

Essentially, his argument was that if American musicians could come together against the racist regime of South Africa then why shouldn't they also do so against Cuba's communist one now (adding that Paul Simon was nearly lynched when he returned to JFK after breaking the boycott by playing in South Africa - even though he had made a point of playing in the Soweto slums for the marginalized black South Africans).

Interestingly, the next question to D'Rivera was from Bildner Center director Mauricio Font, who prefaced his question (focused on musical influences in New York City) by reminding D'Rivera that his good friend and mentor, the late, great, Dizzy Gillespie, would likely disagree with him since he had made repeated trips to Cuba in the 1970s in order to open up a "musicial bridge" between artists in the two countries.

All this leads me to Carlos Varela himself, who is now in Miami on the first leg of his new U.S. tour. While there at a press conference he surprised many Miameños by answering all questions put to him quite frankly (sin pelos en la lengua) and, even more significantly, expressed public support for the nomination of the Damas de Blanco for the Nobel Peace Prize.

He also roundly condemned the mob attacks (actos de repudio) against them that had become routine up until this week when they were called off after Havana's bishop intervened with the Cuban government.

I leave you with Varela's own words. See my transcription and translation of the video below and see you at the show at SOBs! (Thursday, May 13, 9 p.m.)

Un imagen dice mas que mis palabras. Que una parte del mundo se proponga nominarlas por el premio Nobel de la paz me parece fantastico. Pero me parece que tambien se merecen ciento de miles de mujeres que no salen a la calle y que marchan a diario y batallan a diario desde el silencio de su cocina. Cualquier cosa que despierte la voluntad de mirar de que Cuba se abra al mundo y el mundo se abra a Cuba me parece [fantastico].

Lo que si creo que es fatal es los actos de repudio. Siempre hay gente que se presta para esto. Hay mucha gente que no se presta para esto. Y regresare a la Habana sin importarme las consequencias de mis declaraciones. Siempre me he considerado un hombre totalmente libre de decir y pensar lo que digo y me he buscado lo que me he buscado para bien y para mal.

An image says more than my words could say. That part of the world has nominated the Ladies in White for the Nobel Peace Prize I see as fantastic. But I also think that the prize is deserved by hundreds of thousands of other women who do not go out in the street but who march and struggle each day from the silence of their kitchen. Anything that awakens the will for Cuba to open itself up to the world and for the world to open up to Cuba I think is [fantastic].

However, what I think is really fatal are the mob scenes [against these women]. There are always people who join these acts but there are many who refuse to join them. And I will return to Havana regardless of the consequences of my declarations. I have always considered myself a totally free man, free to say and think whatever I say regardless of what it has brought me for better or for worse.