Monday, April 29, 2013

Welcome Eliécer Ávila: Meet & Greet @ Baruch College, NYC 4-6 p.m., Thurs. May 2 - RSVP now!

We've been having quite a different kind of "Cuban spring" here in NYC this year!

Following April's historic visits of Yoani Sánchez and OLPL to the Big Apple, this week I have the honor of hosting the 27-year Cuban old computer engineer and activist Eliécer Ávila.

He arrives to JFK on Tuesday afternoon, April 30.

We have set up an informal "meet & greet" for him at Baruch College, this coming Thursday, May 2, from 4-6 p.m. just following his visit to my "Sociology of the Internet" class.

If you'd like to come and welcome him, or even ask him some impertinent questions like the ones he posed 5 years ago to Ricardo Alarcón, launching him on his still-unfolding odyssey, you can RSVP by sending me an e-mail at

Thursday, April 25, 2013

My Week with Yoani: Another reader responds...

Dear Ted,

I have been meaning to email you to say thank you. I appreciate the time that you took and the interest you showed in helping me to get a ticket for the Yoani Sánchez event at the Freedom Tower.  As you may recall, I ended up getting two tickets.

I really liked the way it started – with Yoani reading “Cubanos y punto.” I also saw her at the Coral Gables Country Club. That was a Q & A format and I got to ask a question:

"Had she read Vaclav Havel’s El Poder de Los Sin Poder?" I asked.

"Yes, . . . of course," she responded.

I thought she was absolutely, incredibly, 110% terrific.

She is extremely well-spoken, poised and composed.

She’s determined and focused, warm and genuine.

She won us over!!! Big time!

She did not have to say much to win me over, but for those (few) who had their doubts about whatever, she was impressive.

I really liked her spirit of reconciliation.


Laura María

The City that Care Remembered: My Students Reflect on New Orleans

My students working at a Habitat for Humanity site, 
Central City, New Orleans, March, 2013. 

For the sixth time since 2007, during Spring Break I led a group of 14 of my students on a 10-day service-learning adventure in New Orleans, Louisiana. As part of my honors class at CUNY entitled, “The City that Care Forgot: The Roots, Ruin, and Rebirth of New Orleans," we all visited the “Big Easy” from Friday, March 22, through Tuesday, April 2, working on rebuilding projects with Habitat for Humanity and harvesting vegetables at Grow Dat Urban Youth Farm.

My students and I also took levee and "human geography" tours of the city, visited the swamps at Barataria Preserve, rode the St. Charles Street Car, evaluated the progress of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation in the Lower Ninth Ward, and even learned how to Zydeco at the famed Mid City Lanes Rock 'n' Bowl!

Click here to see a quick 30-second YouTube video of us each saying our favorite N'Awlins word: CreoleGumbo, Y'all, Jazz, Crawfish, 9th Ward, Lagniappe...

What follows are a series of reflections on the trip written by the students themselves.

Monday, April 22, 2013

My Week with Yoani: Day 1 - Columbia's J-School (Thursday, March 14)

Josh Freedman and Mirta Ojito of the Columbia University School of Journalism.

What I have begun below and will continue in a series of subsequent posts is to create a digital archive of the heady and historic week of March 14-21 when I played host to Yoani Sánchez and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo in New York City and Washington, DC.

Given that we covered so much ground visiting a half-dozen universities (Columbia, New School, NYU, Cardozo, Georgetown, and CUNY), did scores of interviews (CNN, CNBC, PBS, NPR, NYT, NY1, NTN, etc.) and sit downs with editorial boards (Bloomberg, WSJ, and WaPo), made various presentations at assorted think-tanks (Americas' Society, Cato, and Brookings) and human rights organizations (Committee to Protect Journalists), and paid visits to a hand-full of government institutions such as the Czech Embassy, the US Congress, the OAS, and the UN, I think it valuable to provide a detailed listing of our day-by-day activities, with embedded videos and photos of public events with links to key articles from the many interviews.  That way, there will be a one-stop place to get a day-by-day summary of all the events from that week.

Let's begin with the conversation Sánchez had (via LiveStream) with Mirta Ojito of the Columbia University School of Journalism followed by a Q&A with Columbia students.  Ojito is a former Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter and the author of Finding Mañana, a memoir of the Mariel Boatlift.  She previously interviewed Yoani via phone in December 2011 for the episode, "Tweeting Under Castro," as part of Columbia's J-School BlogTalkRadio series.


Other interviews done by Yoani either just prior to or immediately following the J-School event include:

*Andres Correa of the Venezuelan newspaper El Universal interviewed Sánchez (audio on SoundCloud). In the interview she discusses the challenges facing Venezuela and the Venezuelan opposition. She also acknowledges that Venezuela is heading down the road that Cuba is now walking away from.
  *Part I: Yoani Sánchez: "Venezuela está entrando donde Cuba va de salida."
  *Part II: Yoani Sánchez: Una espina clavada en el pie.

*An exclusive international Telemundo Interview, with other good coverage from Miami Telemundo reporter Maria Montoya herehere (also with Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo), and here.

*A report for CNBC by their chief international correspondent Michelle Caruso-Cabrera.

Yoani Sánchez and Juan Manuel Benítez.

*New York 1 - Noticias - Pura Política: Entrevista Exclusiva con Juan Manuel Benítez (but you need Time Warner Cable to view it).  If you do have TWC you can see some of Benítez's past coverage and interviews with Sánchez via telephone from Havana here.

Sánchez and Josh Freedman.

*Huffington Post - Roque Planas, "Yoani Sanchez, Cuban Blogger, Plans Independent Newspaper Online." After Yoani herself, Planas is my go-to Twitter feed (@RoqPlanas) - over 3,800 Tweets and counting - for a wide variety of news related to Latinos in the US.  His updates are smart, constant, comprehensive, and full of wit and wisdom.

*The Guardian - Gizelle Lugo, "Yoani Sánchez: dissident Cuban blogger hopeful of digital change." Lugo is a stand-out former student of mine who now works for both the Guardian and the Nation.  I reached out to her for what turned out to be her first solo-authored exclusive interview - a very good one at that!

*Florida Center for Investigative Reporting - Tracey Eaton, "Cuban Dissident Blogger Tours the US" - article and video in English and Spanish).  Eaton is a good friend, former Dallas Marning News correspondent in Havana, and fellow blogger who was also kind enough to post 152 of is photos (many of them very good like the one to the left) from Sánchez's visit to New York.

Interview with Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez from Tracey Eaton on Vimeo.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

My Week with Yoani: So you say you're against the embargo...

As an addendum to my previous post, I want briefly to share part of a long, heated conversation I had this afternoon with two very good friends of mine.

Both are Cuban, both immigrated to the US as adults, both are quite critical of the lack of fundamental freedoms in Cuba, and both are also very critical of the US embargo - considering it not only a convenient "excusa" for the failures of the Cuban government but also an "illegal" and morally reprehensible policy that has inflicted real harm on the Cuban people.

In fact, while they expressed admiration for Yoani's valiant struggle and eloquent voice in Cuba, they were quite disappointed in what they saw as her evasions whenever asked about the reasons behind her own opposition to the embargo.  They said that whenever asked about her rejection of the US embargo, she would repeat the mantra that she opposed it mainly because the government used it as a pretext, diverting attention from the real embargo that the Cuban government holds against the Cuban people.

I wrote as much in my previous post.

They said that such reasoning was fine as far as it went, but that they expected that she would also have given a more full throated condemnation of the embargo as a violation of Cuban sovereignty and independence, and as an violation of human rights and international law - especially while visiting the United States.

I pointed out that she has indeed used some of this very same language in the past in her repeated and consistent critique of US policy, even using the word "injerencista" (meddling) when asked about the embargo while visiting the Brazilian Congress.  They shot back that while she may have used such a word in Brazil, the fact that she never used such categorical language in the US -where it most needs to be said and heard- only shows that she was being "political" and trying not to alienate the US government and the Cuban-American hard right.

I responded that her record against the embargo is both clear and well-known and that she was likely using her public exposure in the US to shine a bright light on what she sees as the more crucial issue of the lack of fundamental freedoms in Cuba.  She has also said repeatedly that the "US embargo question" is often used as a litmus test and to cynically distract attention from what she sees as the primordial issue: that the Cuban government is the main obstacle to freedom on the island.

(Photo Credit: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo)

They responded that perhaps it was she who was being cynical, opportunistic, or at least overly "strategic" in refusing to use direct, accusatory language (the same language she is adept at using against the Cuban government) when discussing the US embargo while in Washington and Miami.  They contended that her failure to "hablar de la soga en la casa del ahorcado" (speak of the rope in the house of the condemned) - or perhaps - "del verdugo" (of the executioner), indicated a weakness and inconsistency in her otherwise powerful and even-handed message.

I responded that I too wished that she had been more direct in her condemnation of the embargo, but that there's nothing wrong with her being strategic and nuanced about her message, especially when she's attempting to build a broad-based movement of social change. Moreover, I think the main cause of her reluctance to go into greater detail about the reasons that she is against the embargo is not a "strategic" or "political" one, but because she actually believes that the bulk (perhaps 80%) of the responsibility for the Cuban "problem" lies with the Cuban government and state socialism.

Moreover, she often would say that too much focus on the US embargo is both needlessly divisive and serves as a distraction from the main issue of Cuban state repression and denial of fundamental freedoms on the island.

They insisted that the US embargo and the US's historically imperialistic approach to Cuba is equally responsible for the lack of fundamental freedoms in Cuba. For them, her not admitting and addressing that "undeniable fact" directly was a failure of both nerve and intelligence.

I said that honest people can disagree about where to lay the proper measure of blame for the lack of fundamental freedoms in Cuba and the antagonistic Cuba-US relationship.

I also said that they would be hard pressed to find another Cuban -especially one still residing on the island itself- with more demonstrated nerve and intelligence that she has shown over the past 6 years on her blog - including the two of them when they still lived in Cuba and were quite "strategic" themselves in their avoidance of anything too "political."

That last comment almost got me kicked out of their apartment.  However, we finished lunch on good terms and they even offered me dessert!

(Photo credits: Cuban 5 and March with Flags photos by OLPL, all others by El Yuma)

My Week with Yoani: The Takeaway

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, Yoani Sánchez, & MJ Porter. 
(Photo by Ted Henken).

Just over a month ago at 5:15 p.m. on Thursday, March 14 Hurricane Yoani Sánchez blew into New York and Washington, D.C. from Mexico.  Since I had the distinct honor of helping to set up her itinerary, accompanying her, and interpreting for her during that week (Mar. 14 - Mar. 21), I was unable to update the blog with any of my own observations of the various events we undertook together.  However, I did try to catalogue things as they happened with fairly constant Twitter updates and links to photos, videos, and some of the many articles that came out about her visit.

On an emotional, human level, the most powerful thing for me (as someone who had met with and interviewed her in Havana before) was witnessing her meet many close friends and long-time collaborators on her blogging adventure for the very first time in New York.  These emotional encounters really brought home to me the power of social media to convene like-minded people with different talents, from different places, with different amounts of free time to work on projects of creative collaboration (Net guru Clay Shirky has called this "cognitive surplus" or "crowd-sourcing") that would be impossible without the Internet.

The best examples of this in Yoani's case are her translator MJ Porter who lives in Washington State, the administrator of the Voces Cubanas site Aurora Morera who lives in Montreal (pictured with Yoani to the right), and the graphic designer Rolando Pulido who lives in Queens, New York!  None of these people had ever met Yoani nor even one another prior to March 2013 - even though they had been working in voluntary solidarity (and near poverty!) for almost 5 years by then.

Hearing Sánchez speak at places as diverse as Google, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the OAS, and the UN; the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, CNN, and the Washington Post; the Cato and Brookings Institutes; and Columbia, NYU, CUNY, Cardozo Law School, and Georgetown Universities, for me there are five takeaways in terms of the message of her trip:

Arturo Villar, Yoani Sánchez, and El Yuma.

1. Raul's Reforms: Don't believe the hype! (to quote a hip-hop guru other than Jay-Z) - that is, while the economic reforms so far enacted under Raul Castro are positive and go in the right direction, their lack of depth and glacial slowness is exasperating, especially since they include almost nothing in the realm of civil and political reforms.  (At one point, Yoani even half-joked to me that Obama's efforts at updating US policy could be described similarly: while they are positive and move in the right direction - toward openness and engagement -, they also lack depth and are frustratingly slow).  In other words, we should not expect the important and necessary changes in Cuba to come from either the Cuban or the US government.

2. The Birdcage: La cage aux folles - in appearance after appearance Yoani has matched the witty and incisive written words we all knew her for, with a poised vocal eloquence, stamina, and don de palabra that caught many of her listeners by surprise.  Where does she get the confidence, energy, and strength?, many people wondered.

She also impressed her listeners with a clarity and quiet femininity as she delivered one devastating criticism of the Cuban regime after another, and in a way - often seated in conversation with a female interlocutor - that put many of the traditionally intransigent and bombastic Castro critics to shame - as noted by Carlos Alberto Montaner when he wrote, "In more than half a century of tyranny, nobody has been more effective in the task of dismantling the regime’s myths and exposing Cubans’ miserable living conditions. [...] Yoani’s weapons have been sincerity, a crushing logic, an innate ability to communicate, and her own attractive personality."  (Photo courtesy of David Garten).

All this was often combined with her expert use of incisive vignettes, powerful stories, and apt metaphors to make her convincing points.  Her favorite metaphor of all was the birdcage: when asked about Revolutionary Cuba's free and universal health care and education, she wold invoke the image of a bird imprisoned in a gilded cage - always expected to be grateful for the free feed and water but never allowed to escape through the bars of the cage and fly free.  And by the way, the alpiste y agua ain't what they used to be!  

3. Hope and Change: The kind you have to believe in to see - Though we should not expect major changes from on-high, Cuba IS changing in significant ways because Cubans themselves are changing (from the inside out) - losing their fear and beginning to make new demands and form civil society movements.  As a response, Cubans on the outside should not waste their energy looking back to the past in anger, but forward to the future with optimism.  However, such optimism should not be an escape or illusion from the very hard work and road ahead of helping the emergent Cuban civil society in concrete ways.

4. New Times: Call for New Policies - Prior to her visit to Washington, D.C., Sánchez was often asked what demands she would make to the US government.  "I'm not going there to ask for anything," she repeatedly responded.  "Because the necessary changes in Cuba must come from within Cuba."

At the same time, however, she often insisted when pressed that the embargo hasn't worked and it was time to try something new.  For her, it only serves as a convenient scapegoat for the Castro regime to blame everything on - "from the lack of tomatoes and potatoes on our dinner tables, to the lack of the right of assembly and association, to the absence of Internet... I'd love to see how they explain these problems when they no longer have the embargo as a whipping boy."

She would also often add that the internal changes in Cuba call for a fundamental re-examination of US policy, that would double-down on the Obama administration's principled engagement, expand people-to-people contacts, and promote new and innovative ways of reaching out to the Cuban people highlighting the liberating power of technology.  "It's time to update many policies," she told Telemundo (in the main interview linked below) when asked what she would tell President Barack Obama if she had the chance.  "It is also time to strengthen and help empower Cuban society technologically, materially, and in all senses."  Such help could come from US policy-makers, but Sánchez more often emphasized the role US citizens and Cuban-Americans should have in lending a hand of "citizen solidarity" to Cubans on the island. (Photo of Yoani Sánchez supporter taken at NYU by Tracey Eaton).

She also suggested that the Obama administration surprise Cuba by offering to sit down and discuss their differences, but that any such discussion should rightly include the voices of Cuban civil society and the Cuban diaspora.

Just before she met with US Senator Marco Rubio, I reminded her of his criticism of US visitors to the island who - in his words - "visit Cuba as if it were a zoo."  When she met with him, she told him that she actually liked his metaphor but that he should imagine himself inside the cage with the other animals.  Wouldn't he prefer that someone on the outside come and help unlock the cage, instead of abandoning him inside?

5. The Bridge: Cubans, period - Finally, in her pair of well timed and perfectly pitched blog entries posted on Saturday, March 30, "Flan de coco" - just after arriving in South Florida - and Monday, April 1, "Cubanos y punto" - just before taking the stage at Miami Dade College's Freedom Tower - Sánchez delivered a powerful and heartfelt message of reconciliation to Miami's Cuban-American community. Without any pandering or bombast, she told them that she had discovered "Cuba outside of Cuba," thanked them for preserving many traditions that had long since been lost on the island, and asked them to come together, work together, and never again allow a government, an ideology, or a single man to divide them or decide who is and who is not worthy of being called a Cuban.

"There is no 'you' and 'us'," she declared.
"There is only an 'us'."

Monday, April 15, 2013

Jay-Z, Marco Rubio, Cuba, & Me: Rights and Responsibilities

This morning I had the pleasure of appearing on "Good Day New York" (Fox 5 in Manhattan) with Alexis Romay (@ARomay) and Kim Osorio (@KimOsorio1) along with hosts Greg Kelly (@GregKellyFox5) and Rosanna Scotto (@RosannaScotto) to discuss Jay-Z (@S_C_) and Beyoncé's (@Beyonce) recent trip to Cuba.

My two cents was that all Americans should have the right to travel anywhere that they can get a visa and that we should not demand rights for Cubans by taking them away from Americans.  I also pushed back against claims by Senator Marco Rubio that Obama's people-to-people programs needed to be put under the microscope or scaled back. Instead, I advocated for the continuance and even deepening of such academic, religious, and cultural programs as a great way to reach out to and connect with the Cuban people.

Still, I believe that when Americans travel anywhere, the exercise of that right also implies certain ethical responsibilities about the social, political, and economic reality of the country that we travel to. I also indicated that it was wrong for the Cuban government to continue to require that Cubans in the diaspora get permission before traveling back to their homeland.

Rights and responsibilities.

Here's the video:

New York News | NYC Breaking News

I also recommend the following incisive essays on the Jay-Z/Beyoncé trip by Achy Obejas, Phil Lord, and Isabel Kaplan.

Then there are the comments of two very different GOP US Senators, Jeff Flake and Marco Rubio.

Finally, here is a link to Jay-Z's "Open Letter," which had 1,357,331 listens as of tonight!