On Cuba, Hope and Change / Alexis Romay

President Obama, a man who actively promotes the audacity of hope and based his presidential campaigns on the idea of change, has combined both concepts in his long gaze at Cuba: he hopes Castro will change. However, that option isn’t remotely possible in Cuba. Back in 2003, Castro Bros. added to the Cuban Constitution that the socialist character of the Cuban revolution is irrevocable.

Lest you think the Cold War is over, and it’s time to move on, Raul Castro is there to remind you not to forget. Both Castro and Obama had agreed to announce the news of a new dawn for Cuba-USA relations, simultaneously, at noon on December 17th, a day that has particular significance in Cuban lore, as it celebrates San Lázaro, the patron saint of the needy, the one who brings hope to the people.

Obama conducted his press conference standing up in a properly lit room. He’s a young man, during his second presidential term, talking naturally. Castro, a player from the Eisenhower era, was sitting down in an obscure mahogany time capsule. He read from several sheets of paper (paper!), with the affected tone reserved for a grandiloquent speech, the only tone with which he has always addressed the Cuban people. continue reading

Obama, the Commander-in-Chief of the United States Armed Forces, was wearing civilian clothes. Castro showed up in his military uniform with all the medals he has bestowed on himself over the years (he’s been the head of the Cuban Army since he and his older brother took power in 1959). That choice of attire was carefully considered.

Raul Castro appeared between two black-and-white framed photos. In one, he poses with a comrade in arms who died fighting the previous dictator —not Fidel, the one before him. The other photo shows Raul with his late wife, the most powerful woman in Cuba in the last half-century. As much as the president of the United States wants to move forward, Raul Castro is a man living in the past.

But if the retro look wasn’t enough, then Castro opened his mouth. These were his first words: “Since I was elected President…” That’s exactly the moment the educated audience should have known this is a complete farce: Raul Castro has never been elected.

The agreement to open an American embassy in Havana was preceded by a quid pro quo mambo in which an American spy serving time in Cuba was traded for three Cuban spies. (According to the trophy-of-war selfie Raul Castro took with them upon their arrival, his spies were well fed in their American prisons). The USAID subcontractor Alan Gross, who lost most of his teeth and over 100 pounds in his Cuban prison, was released on “humanitarian grounds” after five years of wrongful imprisonment for handing out laptops and cellphones to the Cuban Jewish community.

Additionally, Obama announced he wants to revisit Cuba’s standing in the list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Yet, the same day of this exchange, the long tentacle of North Korean repression reentered America’s collective consciousness by dictating to Sony Pictures (and its global audience), that if Sony releases “The Interview,” there will be terrorist retaliations.

Nothing has changed in Cuba since July 2013, when the Chong Chong Gang, a North Korean ship, was caught in Panamanian waters carrying 240 tons of weapons concealed under sacks of sugar. The ship and the weapons were coming from Cuba, from the same regime that brought the world to the brink of nuclear war in the early sixties, the same regime this new development is trying to appease.

In his inaugural speech on January 20, 2009, Obama hinted at the Castro dynasty: “To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.” But Castro’s fist is as tight as it has ever been.

On the morning of December 20th, 2014, the news of a Cuban Coast Guard sinking a vessel, carrying women and children, that was fleeing the island started to reach English media outlets. So far, one passenger has been reported missing. Expect more snubs to the US government (and the Cuban people) where this came from.

There’s a parable that illustrates the doomed relationship between Obama and Castro. A man sees a scorpion drowning in a puddle. He weighs the outcome of his actions, but decides that his nature is to nurture, so he picks up the scorpion. The scorpion’s nature is to sting. The man reacts to this venom by opening the hand, which drops the scorpion back in the water. With his limbs beginning to swell and about to hallucinate, the man sees a scorpion in a puddle. And he feels an urge to save the creature.

***

Alexis Romay is the author of two novels and a book of sonnets. He blogs on Cuba, literature and other tropical diseases at http://belascoainyneptuno.com.

Note: English text provided by the author.

Debating Social Networks / Luis Felipe Rojas, Alexis Romay

“Modern Times” courtesy of Osmar Santana

I asked several cyberactivists their opinions about the social network Facebook, about its impact on the island and the relation it’s created, within the island, outside the island, with Cubans and the insults from Power.

Alexis Romay, a good man, partner and friend, sent me (after-hours) this response and was kind enough to include it on his personal blog Belascoaín y Neptuno. Many thanks to him, and to the friends who joined in the debate, thank you as well.

Totalitarianism in the times of social networks

By Alexis Romay

Cuban poet and activist Luis Felipe Rojas, author of the blog Crossing the Barbed Wire, is doing a survey on cyberactivism and, by the way, sent me a question. Here goes, followed by my response.

How do you think social networks like Facebook — with many detractors who see it as puerile — are helping the community of activists on the island?

In a totalitarian regime like Cuba, social activism beyond the margins of Power has a very high cost which started with the automatic conversion of these activists into “dissidents,” which implies a dangerous and immediate association of the term with this aberration of all nationalisms: the dissident is a traitor to the fatherland. We can’t forget that in the name of love, mother, fatherland with a capital F, the worst atrocities are committed.

This isolation of the activists, converted by state decree into dissidents, passes through dehumanization (they are then transformed into “worms” by similar abracadabra), slides down the scale to social stoning and may end in physical death.

In other words, the “worm,” before being one, was a dissident, social activist, citizen, and in the beginning, a person. I put the steps in order to illustrate the precipitous drop on this scale in which the nonconformist Cuban — or person in any other totalitarianism — begins his journey as a human being and ends it in the order of invertebrates.

I give this preamble to highlight the pariah status that opposition in Cuba leads to. In the face of this forced isolation to which Cuban activists are subjected, social networks, not just Facebook, become the human tissue that envelops them. To feel the support of a virtual community has a specific weight for anyone who has been separated, by imperial edicts, from the society to which they belong. But in addition to filling this gap, social networks also serve as a protective shield for activists; they make the impunity of the regime ever more costly for it at the international level; they remind the Castros that the vast dungeon they have made of Cuba has glass walls and it is already impossible for them to hide their repressive methods.

If the political police evict a family of opponents, deal out a beating, or effect an arbitrary arrest at eleven in the morning, five minutes later the information will be circulating on the networks with hashtags that tarnish this great achievement of the regime of the island which is projecting an image of itself that does not correspond with its totalitarian reality.

In fact, Castro has a huge presence in the networks, the budget allocated for this purpose must be incalculable. As Cuban Democrats we can and should establish a presence on the networks with an infinitely more appealing discourse, creating and disseminating our own spaces. This will be the testing and projection in the digital world of that democratic country we dream of.

5 June 2013

A Pawn to Distract You / Alexis Romay

Editor’s note: This article was originally published at time of Luis Pavón Tamayo’s reappearance on Cuba Television in 2007, and was translated to post here on the occasion of his recent death.

On more than a few occasions, those who analyze Cuba and even those directly engaged in the country, compare it to a game of chess. This practice has given us quotations that make clear our condition as mere pieces (and, thus, expendable) on a giant political chessboard. It is quite possible that those with good memories still recall the invitation that Spanish President José María Aznar offered to Fidel Castro at the end of the ‘90s: “Your move.” In that game —it pains me to remember— white won.

Understandably, the fascinating world of the sixty-four squares and its apparent simplicity —where things really are black and white— invites us to use its terminology to describe or simplify complex situations; however, I fear that those who make use of this shortcut perhaps do so in search of a quick and easy metaphor to create an image, while lacking a thorough understanding of the game.

There are several chess tactics that have always been present in the actions of the Cuban regime. And they have resurfaced with tenacity since it has been classified as a State secret that the royal intestine —Fidel’s— had a blockage.

For example, a little less than a month ago, in response to the Pavón affair —where Luis Pavón, a dark censor of “the five gray years,” was resuscitated on Cuban television after three decades of well-deserved oblivion and where, in response, a group of intellectuals on the island and in exile spoke out against him— a friend of mine asked what I thought about it all. To her utter amazement, I replied: “It’s a distraction,” a chess tactic in which an enemy piece placed in an important position is “distracted.”

Once a piece is “distracted,” it is possible to exploit the new scenario attacking other vital elements of the position of the adversary. Usually the job of the “distracted” piece is to protect another. Once it is “distracted” from its function it leaves the other piece unprotected and, therefore, vulnerable. This occurs with great frequency in chess. The same happens in politics.

In Cuba, the tactic of distraction is used systematically by the government in order to avoid reality. These distractions make it possible not to have to pay attention to what is urgent: the poor state of the national economy, the discontent of the population given the lack of resources, the lack of civil liberties and economic freedoms, the eternal repression and the right of Cubans to be aware of the health of the Chess Player in Chief.

Distractions on the island’s most recent chessboard are: the embargo (the champions of euphemism call it the Blockade), the child rafter Elian Gonzalez, the Five Heroes imprisoned by the empire, the government’s response to the Varela Project which does not mention the Varela Project, the Battle of Ideas (?!), the dismissal of several figures of the Castro elite, the plan to distribute rice cookers, the embargo yet again, the Pavón affair mentioned above, and the subsequent and much awaited declaration of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). This latter —in line with the amendment to the Cuban Socialist Constitution (2002) which declared Socialism irrevocable— says that “the political culture which is undogmatic, creative and participatory, consistent with the thinking of José Martí and with Fidel and Raúl (sic), founded with the ‘Words to the Intellectuals,’ is irreversible.”

Esteemed members of UNEAC: please be precise. What’s really irreversible in our recent history is the endless number of executions whose blood has forever stained the walls of La Cabaña and, incidentally, the Cuban soul; the irreversible is the political imprisonment of thousands of compatriots simply for disagreeing with the government; the irreversible is the Mariel boatlift; those who fell in the wars in Africa, the Maleconazo, the thousands of boat people who never touched land; the irreversible is the massacre of Canímar River, the massacre of the tugboat “13 de Marzo,” the death in exile of hundreds of thousands of Cubans; the irreversible is that in the quest to escape the island a group of suicides crossed the Caribbean Sea in a 1950s Chevrolet; the irreversible is for a woman to have sent herself to the United States in a DHL box so as not to have to live in the much hyped proletarian paradise. The irreversible is what is irreversible.

To paraphrase José Martí, our poet: “I lived in fear and I know its entrails.” And so, I do not pretend to judge those from Cuba who have raised their voices against the consequence of censorship —the pawn Pavón— nor does it interested me to criticize my compatriots in exile who admonish those on the island for not even mentioning in passing the cause —the king, now castled and one move away from losing the championship game. What I do care about is pointing out that the resuscitation of the old censor is once again designed to divert attention toward the unimportant.

I think the debate is healthy (and it is something that Cubans need to exercise), but I refuse to participate in an exchange about events that happened thirty years ago when, at the moment, as I write my chess-infused note, the number of prisoners of conscience in Cuba totals almost three hundred people.

We mustn’t forget that the so-called “five gray years” embarked on by Luis Pavón and against which a mass of intellectuals on the island have protested, are no more than a fraction of the five decades of our Iron Age, a period which, according to the dictionary of the Spanish Royal Academy is defined as: (1) Among the poets, a time in which all virtues fled from the land and all vices began to reign. (2) A wretched time.

Friends and detractors on both shores: beyond wearing ourselves out with talk and disagreements, there is nothing we can do about the past. Furthermore, there is still much to do for the present. When we have solved the problems of these —still gray—days, I propose an exhaustive review of the darkest passages of the last half century to prevent them from repeating themselves, like Borges’ fictions. Until then, I don’t know about you, but I promise not to be distracted and not take any loose pawn sent my way by the Machiavellian chess machine that is the Cuban regime.

 ***

Originally published in Letras Libres in March, 2007: