14ymedio, Victor Ariel González, Havana, 18 November 2014 — I have spent several days trying to digest the mass of information coming out of the first TEDxHavana, where I was present as just another spectator. However, no matter how much I ruminate on it, I just can’t seem to swallow it. So before it gets too old, I must write this article, especially before its content becomes more toxic — because the more I consider the issue, the uglier I find it, and the worse I make it out to be.
To give the reader the opportunity to escape from this article early on, I will break the ice now with a phrase that sums up my general impression: the first TEDxHavana was, in essence, a fiasco. I don’t call it a disappointment, only because it is not surprising that in Cuba it is possible to distort the proper concept behind such an event. In the final analysis, more important and lasting things have been spoiled than the five hours of TEDx in the Covarrubias Hall of the National Theatre.
Paradoxically, if each presentation is considered separately, it can be said that there were more positive aspects to the event than negative ones. The diversity of topics discussed lent comprehensiveness to the program, although I still did not encounter Cubans there willing to say anything truly daring. On a personal note, I found interesting the presentations by Yudivián Almeida, X Alfonso and Natalia Bolívar, not to mention others that also shone, for the most part.
Nonetheless, there were various elements that detracted greatly from the proceedings. As the hours went by and it became evident that there would not be much more to the event, it was obvious that the plurality of discourse was limited to those differences that have been deemed acceptable by officialdom — nothing more. Thus, the first TEDxHavana failed to cross the frontiers of political censure.
Now, going on to the details, some of the talks were quite poor or made use of quite unfortunate phraseology. One example was when the architects Claudia Castillo and Orlando Inclán, in a presentation that they obviously had not rehearsed sufficiently, called the inhabitants of Havana an “elitist vanguard” because they get around in boteros — taxis — (“those incredible machines”), or that it is a “luxury” to look in the eyes of “he who brings the packet” instead of downloading movies from the Internet. In other words: “It’s so cool to be backward!”
I don’t call it a disappointment, only because it is not surprising that in Cuba it is possible to distort the proper concept behind such an event.
According to them, “all Cubans, when they hop aboard a botero, are aware that they are becoming a statistic.” The hushed derisive laughter emanating from the public seated behind me – who had their peak moment at the statement, “we invented ‘vintage’”– did not cease until those two inhabitants of a Havana that I don’t know, but that intrigues me, left the stage.
Eugene Jarecki added another bit of fantasy. The documentarian stated, in English, that Cubans are, above all, proud of their educational and healthcare systems, and very happy to live here. Of course, the more than half a million souls who in the past 20 years have emigrated to the US alone do not count. The same speaker said that he would not like to see how “savage capitalism” might arrive here and turn us into “just another Puerto Rico.” As he displayed postcards of Cuba such as those sold to tourists, Jarecki pretended to give me a tour of my own country.
Another North American suggested that there should be many, many independent film festivals; that “every individual should get a camera and produce a film” and show it “in his own cinema” or, simply, project it “onto the largest screen he can find.” This was Richard Peña, who obviously does not know that just very recently a government decree prohibited private video screens.
If anything tarnished the event, it was also its emcee, supposedly charged with threading together the various presentations and providing some dynamism to the endeavor. More than that, Amaury Pérez bestowed hugs and kisses upon almost everyone who arrived to give a talk. Few were able to escape his incontinent expressions of affection. As if that were not enough, we also had to endure his jokes in poor taste.
With all that occurred that Saturday afternoon, I was left with many unanswered questions because the organizers left no room in the program for voicing doubts. This was, above all, because neither CuCú Diamantes nor Andrés Levin wanted to pay any attention to me – first, to keep the matter under a “low profile” and second, because they wanted to have pictures taken. Frankly, I, too, would have ignored some nobody who might suddenly shout the question, “What would it take to be a presenter here next year?” – the beginner’s mistake of an amateur journalist.
The gathering served to market a sweetened image of Cuba, and its misery as a souvenir.
The gathering served to market a sweetened image of Cuba, and its misery as a souvenir; as a forum for some political campaign or other; and, according to Amaury Pérez, to demonstrate that “yes, there can be dialogue between Cubans and North Americans.” It turns out that some still need such demonstrations.
TEDx Havana was, among other things, an elite event orchestrated by show business denizens, as well as an opportunity to sell national beers as the “modest” price of 2 CUCs (which is 10% of the median monthly salary). Ingenious idea of the sponsors of this event! If at the next one these people give a talk titled “How to Cheat the Thirsty” I will applaud them until I burst.
The fact of a TEDx in Havana does not lack a certain transcendence, in spite of it all. An architecture student told me that she had not liked several presentations, but that it was “magical” to see the enormous sign with its red and white letters, the organization’s logo on an actual stage and not on a screen. Upon the conclusion of that inaugural gala of TED in Cuba, where a couple of extemporaneous versifiers improvised a rhyme for “our five heroes, prisoners of the Empire,” I ran into a friend who calls himself a “compulsive consumer of TED Talks” who confessed, visibly annoyed, that he “expected more from TED in Havana.”
May I be honest? I expected nothing more.
Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison