Interview: The Spanish Son of the Dear Leader / Ernesto Morales Licea

Creating a novel character based on his profile would be relatively simple. His birth name is Alejandro Cao de Benós, his adopted name is Cho Son-il (Korean for “Korea is one”), and he boasts the disconcerting title of Honorary Special Delegate of North Korea, which means that this Catalan with aristocratic roots is the official spokesman of North Korea abroad.

But his duties extend a little further.

His defense at all costs of the Kim dynasty since the beginning of the nineties and his solid and imperturbable activism outside the peninsula have earned Alejandro Cao de Benós the absolute confidence of the recently deceased dictator Kim Jong-il, such that he has ended up setting himself up as a kind of supreme national censor, to the point of deciding what information is transmitted from North Korea out to the world, and vice versa.

We are talking — as he himself has said in his own words — about the only Westerner to belong to the all-powerful inner circle of the most isolated and ferocious country in the world today.

This telephone interview, agreed to after the death of the “Dear Leader” (as all North Korea is obliged to call the late Kim Jong-il), hardly lasted twenty minutes. Mr Alejandro Cao de Benós answered my questions with a great deal of aptitude, although sometimes I wondered if he was responding to mine or someone else’s. At times his words did not even touch on the caustic issues which I was trying to investigate.

In any event it was, without a doubt, one of the most delightful interviews I have done to date. The martial tone of the dedicated Communist enamored of an ideology, his astonishing arguments explaining concisely why North Korea needs the atomic bomb more than food, provided me with twenty minutes of true journalistic surrealism with the man who, when he learned of the death of Kim Jong-il, confessed that it was like losing a father.

Hours after North Korean television announced the “terrible and irreparable” loss of the Dear Leader, a new leader appeared on the horizon. A 28-year-old leader baptized shortly earlier as “Brilliant Comrade”, unfamiliar even to many members of the innermost elite. I am speaking of Kim Jong-un, youngest child of Kim Jong-il.

Ernesto Morales: Mr Cao de Benós, how is it possible that Kim Jong-un, a young man of 28 years of age whom not even you know, as you have hinted in other interviews, is henceforth the leader of 24 million people who did not elect him?

Alejandro Cao de Benós: It’s not quite like that. Comrade Kim Jong-un has a military position, is currently vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and has not been named leader. What’s happening is that he has received military instruction and is well loved by the Army, and there are many among the Korean people who are lending him their support and gathering around him.

That doesn’t mean that he will have absolute power over the Army or the country. That has never happened in North Korea. At present the leader depends on Mr Kim Yong-nam*, who is the President of the Supreme People’s Assembly. So we say: it is the hope of the Korean people that General Kim Jong-un continues the legacy of his father, General Kim Jong-il, but this doesn’t mean that he will make all the decisions or that he is in charge of the country right now.

In May 2001 the Dear Leader’s first-born son, and until then the clear heir of the dynasty, Kim Jong-nam, was arrested at Narita International Airport, in Tokyo. He was traveling on a false passport from the Dominican Republic, using a Chinese alias, and planning to visit Tokyo Disneyland. After spending a few days under arrest he was deported to China. The incident caused a diplomatic earthquake among North Korea, China, and Japan, and forced a shamed Kim Jong-il to cancel a trip to Beijing.

EM: Mr Cao de Benós, we understood that the first-born son, Kim Jong-nam, who you tell me will get the title of president, had lost the favor of Kim Jong-il, due to an attempt to illegally enter Japan in order to visit Disneyland…

ACB: Well, I am telling you that that information is totally false. What’s more, the Western press is creating a so-called Kim Jong-nam who doesn’t exist, who is this fat gentleman who appears on television, and who is in fact an actor paid by Japan. This man has nothing to do with North Korea.

Domestic and international tourism do not exist in North Korea. Nobody enters the country freely, and nobody freely leaves it. Not for any reason. In South Africa in 2010, North Korea took part in the FIFA World Cup for the first time. During the game against Brazil, attention was drawn to a large group of fans euphorically cheering on the North Korean team. Later it was discovered that they were Chinese volunteers hired by China Sports Management on the request of the North Korean Sports Committee.

EM: So as it seems, Mr Cao de Benós, there is a very important factor in all of this, and it is the disinformation factor. I have read interviews in which you expressly state that one of the critiques the North Korean government could make of itself is that it doesn’t pay due attention to international relations, and especially with regard to the media. Now, you decide to a large extent what information comes out of and into North Korea.

Why can’t North Koreans leave freely to do what you do, to defend their great country from Western slander, and why can’t the rest of the world freely enter North Korea, and in that way get rid of the disinformation?

ACB: That’s the part of the self-critique which I try to resolve from my point of view. Bear in mind that I am a sort of bridge between the Western mentality and the North Korean mentality. I may be the only person who has the perspective of both worlds and what I try to do is bring them together.

But basically what goes on is that Korea has been continuously subjected to periodic slander and insults. For Koreans, respect, politeness, is something typical of their culture and is instrumental in society. While for example in America or Europe there are other types of characters, an individualistic society, where everyone says what he likes and on many occasions simply insults other people, this is unacceptable in Korea.

So since so much of the media has published so much false news, what North Korea has done is close itself off completely from the outside world. And that may be debatable but it’s understandable. When a person is unfairly injured, what he does is not allow anyone else to come into his house.

EM: It’s very important to be precise: a government is not the owner of a country. A government should simply administer a country according to the interests of its citizens, just to highlight the distinction with respect to your metaphor about access or lack of access to a house.

Now, there is an interesting point: International organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, defectors from the North Korean government itself, regular citizens who have escaped through China, they have all persistently denounced the concentration camps and human experimentation, the elimination of almost half a million political opponents in the last four decades, the torture, the disappearances.

The question most basic to common sense is: How is it possible that all these people are lying, how is it possible that hundreds of testimonies agree, while you do not allow the world to come into the country to check what are simple falsehoods?

ACB: Well, look, speaking specifically to allowing someone to enter your house or not, first I state explicitly to you that the government of North Korea is a government of the people, which is originates from the people and serves their interests, it is not a government of oligarchs or multimillionaires, OK?

As in other nations, the people feel united, otherwise this system would not continue. Bear in mind that the other socialist countries have increased the level of capitalism, as in the case of China, but North Korea and its 24 million inhabitants follow the same destiny even now and will continue along the socialist path. If the North Koreans decided to do the same as other socialist countries and turn toward capitalism, it would be a decision of the people itself which could materialize through democracy.

And responding briefly to your question, it’s because of false and malicious propaganda such as what you mention that every day Korea hardens itself more in its position of distance from a slanderous and aggressive West.

On 30 November of this year, Amnesty International reported the existence of at least six concentration camps in North Korea which hold more than 200,000 political prisoners. The largest of them, Yodok, imprisons around 50,000 people, including women and children. A report from 2006, commissioned by among others recently deceased former Czech president Václav Havel and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, revealed chilling statistics: more than 400,000 people dead in North Korean prisons in the last 30 years.

EM: So according to you there exists the concrete possibility of exercising a democratic opposition inside North Korea. Let’s suppose that I am a North Korean and I don’t approve of what’s happening in my country. Is there a viable possibility that I can express this publicly without anything bad happening to me?

ACB: Of course, just as in any other country in the world.

But really what I mean is that if anyone goes and sets foot in North Korea and meets North Koreans, he will realize that the government’s ideology springs from a popular basis. And what’s more, those organizations which have so much to say about North Korea, many of them have never set foot in the country, and if they continue to defame it, well, Korea will be much less inclined to invite them, because all they’re doing is attacking the country before getting to know it.

If I go into a country with prejudices, thinking I’m only going to encounter what I have read or the lies I have been told, then of course I won’t be able to understand that country.

EM: Mr Cao de Benós, we have seen reports, documentaries, even ones in which you appear, in which visitors and journalists are not allowed to freely ask questions of people in the street, to film North Koreans or talk with them, without your directing and dictating what segment of the population can be visited, which areas can be filmed and which ones not. And I have seen you specifically saying with all your authority: “You can’t film that.” How is this explained from a democratic perspective? Under what precept do you think that is appropriate for a country with freedoms?

ACB: Well, look, it’s very simple. That happened because the people whom I myself have brought (I deal with hundreds of journalists from every country in the world) sometimes come to inform but others come to make trouble. They come to defame.

So if a person who comes with a camera, and has entered the country thanks to my arrangements, and for whom I have arranged the visa, then arrives in the country and what he does is make trouble, break the law, logically I am not going to give him more leeway or more opportunities to keep causing damage, especially since I am responsible because that person has entered due to the confidence of our government in me.

There are other journalists who have had more access to the country, and it depends on the level of trust I have with them. Depending on how they behave, Korea responds to them accordingly.

EM: So filming an area which is not a military zone, filming a park or a town which you or the North Korean authorities don’t want filmed, is breaking the law…

ACB: It’s not quite like that. I’ll give you an example. I have lived and worked in the United States. In fact I was in the part of California, in one of the places with one of the highest costs of living. I was working there because in my original profession I was an I.T. consultant. When I was in Palo Alto, with, of course, the mansions and millionaires who live there, I realized that after 7 p.m., when the sun goes down, all the people who lived on the street came out, the homeless, the war veterans, the impoverished masses and the drug addicts.

So, if I take a camera and film San Francisco during that time and only shoot those types of people, and I say that “this is San Francisco”, obviously that’s a distortion intended to give a poor image of that area…

EM: That’s true, but there’s a difference, Mr Cao de Benós: in San Francisco nobody is going to stop you from filming in complete freedom. And if anyone does, you can sue that person because he would be breaking the law. The law in this country is not “you can film here, but not there”. The law in a democracy is that there cannot exist someone with your authority, to determine what can be asked, photographed, or filmed, and what can’t.

ACB: That’s not the case. Every country has guidelines with respect to the media, and besides you can’t produce any show, either in the U.S. or in Spain, without a press authorization, and without press credentials.

First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

EM: No, that’s not true. Nobody in the United States needs press credentials for those purposes.

ACB: Look, it even happens here in Spain. I’m telling you because I know all the journalists here. You can’t be filming the Ramblas in Barcelona with a camera without the needed authorization.

But look, all the same I’m not going to go into, I don’t have to go into such concrete details and talk about my very long experience with the media or the press, but I’ll just tell you that although you’re completely free to go all over the U.S., most people don’t go out into the street after 7:30 at night for fear of being assaulted. And besides if you don’t have a car, poor you, because it happened to me, not having a car in the U.S., having to resort to public transportation, and truly feeling afraid due to the urban insecurity you live through where you are.

Natural disasters and insane economic management destroyed the North Korean economy in the middle of the 1990s. According to estimates, the famine which then ravaged the country caused around two million deaths. In 1998 Doctors Without Borders reported cases of cannibalism among North Korean peasants, as the only way to overcome their hunger. Nevertheless, North Korea is one of just nine countries in the world which possess atomic weapons and boasts the fourth largest army in the world with 1.2 million men under arms.

EM: One last question, Mr Cao de Benós. It is well known in the world — I don’t know if you’re going to deny this too — that North Korea has a sizeable food shortage. In the past you have explained that this is simply the result of natural disasters which have ruined the fields.

All right, how is it possible that this can happen in a country which has nuclear weapons, which directs uncommon amounts of money to sustain the fourth largest army in the world, while people don’t have anything to eat?

ACB: Well look, it is explained in the following way: the main problem in North Korea is that if we don’t defend it from an empire like the United States, which has already destroyed several countries, Iraq, Afghanistan, and recently Libya, if we don’t truly defend the country, it would lose all its museums, all its culture, and would end up basically being a wasteland.

In other words, if there’s no way to defend the country, its schools, its hospitals, its education, and any advances that have been made in the last fifty years would all be lost.

North Korea knew perfectly well that Bush reserved the right to launch a preemptive attack. We also knew that since 1994 Clinton had plans to attack North Korea, and if in fact that empire held back it was because we demonstrated that we had nuclear capacity.

So I tell you that since 1994 the United States has clearly wished to launch preemptive attacks, and if we didn’t have a large army it wouldn’t matter if we built hospitals, it wouldn’t matter if we had better tractors for farming, because they would all be annihilated by American bombers.

Therefore, now that we have ensured the strength of the country, now that we know the United States won’t attack us because we have a nuclear guarantee, we can develop the economy and develop the standard of living of the people to the needed extent.

(Special thanks to Dr Vilma Petrash for arranging this interview.)

Translated by: Adam Cooper

[*Translator’s note: The blogger spelled the name of Kim Yong-nam, President of the Supreme People’s Assembly, as Kim Jong-nam, the name of the eldest son of Kim Jong-il; this has been corrected.]

December 27 2011

Other Circular Symphonies / Ernesto Morales Licea

Lionel Messi (Argentina, Barcelona FC) y Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Real Madrid)Left: Lionel Messi (Argentina, Barcelona FC) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Real Madrid)

When God is bored he repeats himself. Generates cyclical crises in the economy, identical natural disasters, literary characters called William Wilson in Edgar Allan Poe’s stories. And creates suspiciously similar and symmetrical duets from time to time. As worldly amusements.

I think about this every time Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo appear on the same playing field, either before or after the kickoff, the background of hundreds of decibels generated by a match between their teams, and between them, the tension almost tangible, you can almost touch it, in a game where they match in egos, status and talent.

I look at them and think: the story of a Mozart and Salieri, capriciously transmuted to two men who make music with their feet. Not in an art, but in a sport.

What could be the unspeakable martyrdom of an elite player like Cristiano Ronaldo? Not to possess, today, the Golden Ball or the FIFA World Player? No. Let’s look further. To be player number two, shadowed by another name, the one who is spoken of as a complement, not as essence? So close, but no.

The personal drama of Cristiano Ronaldo, an industrial Portugueseso media prominent, a factory to make millions and attract flashes, is to be the acolyte of a little, too-flamboyant star and at the same time, too vulgar. To say today thatthe ArgentineanLionel Messi, at23-years-old, with his good-natured image is the best football player in the world, may sound facile. In factit is.

But if we look at recent history, only in 2008, when the Portuguese Christiano seemed untouchable, and in an egocentric fit worthy of anthologysaid to theBrazilian newspaperO Estado de Sao Paulo, without his voice trembling,that he was “the first, second and third in the world,” everything takes a new twist.

The next year and the year following, he would no longer be.

I think of Cristiano like that Antonio Salieri portrayed in Milos Forman’s fabulous film, who secretly sniffed Mozart’s scores, enjoying withsearing passion that inaccessible matter, too high, inhumanly sublime for histalentof a worthy, but mortal, artist.

Right: Mozart (Tom Hulce) and Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) in the film “Amadeus”

Salieri himself did not understand how God had made such a terrible mistake of giving such an extraordinary gift, the unfathomable genius of the eternal, to a ridiculous character like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: uneducated, boorish, lacking the solemnity of creation.

Christiano’s face, put on a scale with Messi’s, could not inspire a more exact, more visceral envy, than that of the courtier Salieri.

Why Lionel Messi? Why is the player who is spoken of in irritating terms (not just the best in the world, but, horrors! the one pointed to by many players, authoritative voices, as the best of all time), why is he, it’s precisely that, well, such a little thing?

How is this so? Because inverting the sense of certain of Ronaldo’s own words: so short, so little. I piece of a man. A boy at odds with all glamor: no facial beauty, no physical beauty, no class. With the voice of a happy little laborer, who cuts short every sentence, and who must be pushed by the interviewers if they want to hear him say more than platitudes and little kitsch phrases.

Left: CR7: The moniker given to the sophisticated Portuguese striker of Real Madrid

Lacking charisma, not seeming to understand that he’s the third highest-earning athlete on the planet, who seems not to know that two hundred and seventy children’s clubs in Latin America have his name, and who is still showing he wants to be the scrawny kid who just wants kick the ball around the neighborhood. And nothing more.

If we add the ability to convert great goals, his ability to make destabilizing moves, we have a crack that moves the sports world at his feet.

But this fierce Lusitanian didn’t take something into account, known to be talented, enjoying it, looking down and savoring it. The best man in 2008 didn’t take into account, when it was said he was the first, second and third best in his sport: the silent presence, almost insignificant, of an undeniable genius, the kind that only occurs once every hundred years. As one Argentinean writer would say: because they tear the womb of Nature.

Right: Messi “the Flea”: Golden Ball in 2009 and 2010 and the FIFA World Player in 2009 and 2010

And it is not always that he breaks his own his records. The magic of him name comes, above all, from his way of playing. It is unique, an unrepeatable secret. The sense he gives the ball on the ground, the juggling, the impossible tricks, the joy with which he starts every play, whether it is frustrated or ends up in the goal.

Leo Messi plays like no one, scores like no one. According to Eduardo Galeano, writer and soccer maniac, he is the best of all because he still plays like a little kid in the neighborhood. And revels in it. Just does it. And if he misses, he suffers in silence: he doesn’t cry for the cameras, he doesn’t look for cover. At the same time, nor does he externalize happiness far beyond normal. Even with some of those goals for which some football idols and have coined a particular term: Playstation goals.

Because there is an immaterial particle, an atom higher and elusive, that separates the great men of real genius. There is something in a certain class of men — Miguel Angel, John Lennon, Pablo Picasso, Capablanca — that distances them from those whom we admire, but who are rarely remembered through the centuries.

And that’s the tormented difference for a man of exceptional virtues like Cristiano, but distant — perhaps just by a step, a single damn step! — from the category of genius: he knows that this little drab-haired man will be remembered by world football fans, when he himself we be spoken of only in statistics.

Cristiano knows he is a man for the years, but not the ages. He knows that stripe is Roberto Baggio, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Fernando Redondo, David Beckham: unforgettable players. But that never, how hard he tries no matter how much he wants it, no matter how violent his fibrous body and scoring goals like a machine, as much as he is the “scorer” of the League, he could join other display names , residents of another shrine: Maradona, Pele, Di Stefano. He will not be a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF. Time Magazine will not consider him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

What will it feel like, the number one, two, three Cristiano, when listening to legends such as Karl-Heinz Rummenige, Enzo Francescoli, Romario, and Maradona himself, saying quietly that Messi-the-flea is not just better today, but in the history of the sport, there has not been another like him?

What will he feel when they say that other cracks today, like Arjen Robben, Thierry Henry, Wayne Rooney and Ronaldinho Gaucho, I say it again?

How to digest that the man who left the post of deputy, who has taken the last two gold balls, measuring seven inches less than him, unless it is the vigilance of advertisers who do not know how to sell his image deteriorated, and to top it off: he has cost 95 million euros less than him?

That is the acid data, that exclusivity adds ironies in the history of the elect: while the most celebrated club in the sport, Real Madrid, paid 95 million euros to Manchester United’s Portuguese striker, it is estimated that the FC Barcelona invested in Lionel Messi, since he became a child player at age 11, only 330,000 euros.

Lionel Messi, snapped up by FC Barcelona at age 11

God is also often beautifully wicked, and builds legends worth speaking of: The parents of little Lionel should move from Argentina to the Catalan city, if they wanted to save his talent and even his life. At eleven years old he was diagnosed with a serious illness affecting his growth, so that he should be in Europe. It was the only way that the boy could grow normally.

For the minimum sum of $900 a month, the Barcelona Club paid for Lionel’s hormonal treatment: daily injections in both legs for three years. In this way, he entered for life the only professional club he has belonged to, the ties of gratitude to which bind him beyond what football, and from which it has managed to destroy all the hallmarks of previous legends.

While today’s clubs would be willing to shell out terrifying sums on this player, the team paid for Messi only through his treatment. Not a penny more.

The motto of the Cristiano is a futuristic spectacle: CR7. Like everything about him. His initials, and number. The motto of Messi, is also worthy of him: the flea. Just that. The magazine player versus the ugly duckling. The virtuous selfishness against modesty exacerbated. A refined Antonio Salieri that will not forgive his God for placing the sacred genius in Mozart’s trashy soul.

Cristiano knows that he desired by the fans, by the technicians. He knows he is feared by goalkeepers. But within him, a bitter taste, an imperceptible twinge pulses, pulses, pulses: he knows he is number two. And against that, there is no remedy. Especially when journalists make hay from his unbridled grief: when he is asked, mercilessly, by the raptors of the news: To you, is Leo Messithe best in the world? And he should say yes. Although he swallows the phrase. And even chews his assent, almost biting, with an indifferent expression in his eyes.

The two: one a machine player, the other player a rustic genius, Cristiano Salieri, Amadeus Messi, unknowingly staged an exciting and sinister plot, a script of impeccable suspense, in the mosaic of characters, secret poetry and vital energy, which is to play the ball. In what better way to define football, as there is none other than the mercies of God.

Translated by: Angelica Morales

May 11 2011

 

Medical Policy, or Political Medicine? / Ernesto Morales Licea

A little less than a year ago I lived for two weeks thinking I had cancer in my lymph nodes. In November, 2010, a team of pathologists at the “Carlos Manuel de Cespedes” Provincial Hospital in Bayamo signed a yellowish paper, prepared on a typewriter with a number of typing errors, telling me I had a Hodgkin lymphoma of the nodular sclerosis type.

The news was soon running like wildfire in a city of two hundred thousand people where my name, due to journalist-politician confrontations, had gained unfortunate notoriety.

Fifteen days later, another team of pathologists, these belonging to the “Hermanos Ameijeiras” Hospital in Havana, would make my mother let loose a flood of withheld tears,by telling us that opinion was nothing but a monstrous error.

The tests repeated in Havana on my lymph nodes showed an alteration (hyperplasia) which may have been the product of an ancient virus, which did not contain any sign of malignancy.

The diagnostics that would save me from the clutches of chemotherapy came after procedures as tortuous as a bone biopsy of the hip, a medullogram, and another nasal tissue biopsy (only practicable by introducing a kind of fine scissors in my nose to the larynx, and cutting a piece of tissue), from which I suffered for several days.

On returning to my eastern city, with another paper telling me that at age 26 I was not facing any cancer, never let me know what the five pathologist from Bayamo did or did not see when they determined that I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

That’s right: literature searches and dozens of questions to other physicians let me know that these kind of lymphoma cells have a clear structure, well-defined, classical, which make any confusion very difficult.

I will never assert that behind an opinion that destroyed the nerves of my family and my friends, was the dark and powerful hand of the State Security, as several of those close to me asserted, alarmed at the inconceivable error. It is not my specialty to found my opinions on subjective bases, without arguments in hand: that is the specialty of the slanderers.

However, now that after the incredibly sudden death of Laura Pollan some well-known Cuban dissidents (Elizardo Sanchez, Guillermo Fariñas, Jose Daniel Ferrer, among many others) have signed a declaration of refusal to be hospitalized for illness, I find it impossible not to recall my own experience.

The national tragedy reaches such extremes of justified paranoia: when apparatchiks of State intelligence have the power to expel students from the University, to decide who can and cannot travel outside the country, to block a person from purchasing food at a supermarket, or entering a public movie theater; when these apparatchiks are present even in the most anodyne and least important institutions of society, why not believe their interests would also prevail in a hospital?

This statement of the Cuban Democratic Alliance, saying that only in case of emergency surgery do they want to be transferred to a “hospital of the regime” (read: all Cuban hospitals), and only if a doctor they trust tells them so, I believe represents one of the most terrible statements that could be known for a long time: not even in the medical system do the disaffected feel they have full rights.

Not even in a quasi-sacred ground such as health care, where professionals swear the Hippocratic oath to defend the lives of their patients at all costs, an area that should not ever yield to pressures or influences of any kind, not even there can Cubans who oppose the government can feel safe.

Yoani Sanchez once told me how the emergency medical attention she received at a clinic in Havana, was reported later, in minute detail, by a reporter who aired a television report against her.

Just as I will never know how much was error and how much was intentional in a diagnosis that ripped away a large part of my youth, it’s likely we may never know to what extent two deadly viruses entered the body of Laura Pollan naturally, if she was already infected with them, and whether they were really the cause of death of the Lady in White. That’s one of the many consequences of the obscurantism with which everything moves at the official level in Cuba.

But we do know a hard truth: the values of a society are too riddled with rot if even the responsibility, the incorruptibility of medical ethics must be distrusted by those who disagree with government policy. With or without reason.

(Originally published in Martí Noticias)

October 20 2011

The Circus is in Town! CELAC is Born / Ernesto Morales Licea

That the first summit of the “Community of Latin American and Caribbean States,” the newly born CELAC, would be a quaint circus where some of the worst habits of our part of Latin America would be on display was well-known. We didn’t know the dimensions of the tent, the variety of numbers that its protagonists would perform, and the rare specimens that would make up the circus acts.

Who didn’t count on the star of the cartel being the bloated Venezuelan president, whom not even the terrible cancer cells can bring to his senses?

Hugo Chavez has managed to establish himself as the official harlequin of all attending the conclave. Suffice to recall that the Iberoamerican Summit of 2007, where he was ordered to shut up by King Juan Carlos I who’d had enough of the leader’s verbal incontinence; or the Trinidad and Tobago Summit of 2009 where, in one of those act supposedly symbolic but in fact ridiculous, he presented Barack Obama with a copy of “The Open Veins of Latin America.”

(It was never clear if the gesture had a symbolic purpose or if was just a boost to the economy of his comrade Galeano, the book’s author; after the git to Obama “The Open Veins of Latin America” moved up on Amazon’s bestseller list from position 60,280 to position 10. A commercial miracle.)

Now, a Chavez of inexhaustible rusticity is one-man band: he described with hand movements and delightful onomatopoeia (“Rrrrrrrrrrr”) how he had looked inside the Cuban scanners; he presented Argentine president Cristina Fernandez with a gigantic painting of her deceased husband and former president Nestor Kirchner, (that he himself painted), which even without the triple squint represented by the artist was, per se, in bad taste; and to put the icing in the cake: he named as provisional leader of CELAC a Chilean president who had arrived in Caracas with Sebastian for a name, and sent him back to Santiago rebaptized (again, by he himself) as Samuel.

Sebastian “Samuel” Pinera is, in my judgment, a figure of major importance this time. And not because of his heroic and Hollywoodesque rescue of the miners. But I will leave that for X paragraphs below.

Does anyone doubt other proved comic incidents would season the meeting that, according to figures from the always nebulous government in Caracas, cost Venezuela some 25 million dollars?


Appearing there was the sullen president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, in a Venezuelan army jacket that more than an attack on the morale of the Uruguayan army was a crime against aesthetics. Under the most pleasant acts of Mujica, with his everlasting affect of a friendly armadillo, we can include the words of the Uruguayan senator Ope Pasquet in a radio broadcast on El Espectador: “The image of the president is the image of the country, and the image of the president dressed liked this is the image of a backwater.”

Among the endemic species impossible to ignore at such a Summit was Fidel Castro. The old guy was there. Through the mouth of his brother.

As an apology for being such a teeny thing, such a tiny little President, Raul Castro stepped foot in Venezuela and excused himself, “He who should really be here is Fidel. He is the one who deserves it.” and of course he said it with that voice of his, in the higher octaves.

During his speech at the summit, a speech that was written badly and read worse, Raul Castro had to interrupt his words and ask if the gunshots he heard were Chavez’s war against the mosquitoes. A very refined sense of humor. No, the General has no one to tell him that those cannonades silenced by Chavez’s acolytes were the Venezuelan people banging on pots and pans demanding food.

And someone for whom food is a first priority, is the graceful Evo with whom I share a last name. Morales swore that the new community, without the presence of the perturbing United States, would be able to debate “how to deal with the energy crisis, the economy and the hunger ravaging the countries of the region.”

Yes, Evo is concerned about feeding his people. So to do this he has taken chicken off the Bolivian menu; he knows, he knows very well that chicken hormones create baldness and homosexuality, as immortalized in another little speech, and this cannot be allowed among his comrades of the coca and the poncho.

However, perhaps the least visible and at the same time most scandalous act, a number subtly presented, without the spotlights of the spectacle, was another. It was that starred in by the democratic presidents, decidedly distant from the populists and their totalitarian derivatives, those such as Sebastián Piñera, Felipe Calderón, Juan Manuel Santos, and Ricardo Martinelli, reunited with the repulsive ruling class of Daniel Ortega, Raul Castro, Evo Morales Rafael Correa and the host, Hugo Chavez.

I definitely cannot find a sensible explanation.

What Latin American Unity are they talking to me about, that functions as a framework for cooperation that can exist between countries led by impresarios of the center-right such as Piñera and the Panamanian Martinelli, and those run by individuals from the fierce left with authoritarian mentalities such as Raul Castro and Daniel Ortega?

Still worse: I can’t believe that none of these statesmen gathered at the 1st CELAC Summit ignored that this organization, conceived in minute detail by the Chavez brain, is not pursuing, even from afar, an economic purpose. Before, long before, it has a political objective: distancing itself from the only two countries in the Americas that were invited to join the group The United States and Canada.

If, as is an open secret, the principal directive of CELAC was to dilute the Organization of American States (OAS); if only to supplant the OAS by another community with more respect and credibility were its essence, I think that I myself would have signed on to create it. It would be about burying once and for all an organization dull and useless like few others, whose death throes would not trouble me too much.

But, to give shape to a CELAC whose economic and strategic framework is that of Chavez and Castro, establishing a distance from the United States that frankly could be defined as hypocritical (even the Phoenix capsules that rescued the 33 miners were made by the Chilean Army working with the United States’ NASA), seems to me to be an ethical and moral disaster unparalleled in recent history.

Ugly history begins to demarcate the entrepreneur Piñera, one of the politicians with the most democratic vocation and liberal thinking in the whole region, if he has no qualms in leading a ruling troika of CELAC whose other two members are none other than Hugo Chávez and Raúl Castro. From the time I was small I learned what happens to someone who sidles up to a bad seed: tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.

CELAC’s Big Top rose in Caracas, amusing many, surprising others with its bizarre actions. But having dropped the colorful mantle and started up the ruckus, a strange sensation of Latin American farce, of the populism of some interwoven with the opportunism of others, left the too attentive audience with a frozen smile.

Contextualizing and broadening the spectrum of the most famous phrase of the disenchanted Peruvian, it seems that for too long we’ve continued to ask ourselves, like that delicious character of Vargas Llosa, at what moment in time did we fuck over the region.

(Originally written for Martí Noticias)

December 7 2011

The Rebellion of the Righteous / Ernesto Morales Licea

He’s brought Raul Castro an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the possible honesty of his words. In the handful of years during which he’s been the regent of this feudal family that is the whole Island, the younger of the Castros has never stopped repeating a maxim in his sharp voice and as if it were revolutionary: “Let everyone say what he thinks, let everyone criticize with sincerity, and their disagreements will be heard.”

Now that Eliécer Ávila, a young man of 25 from the countryside, without international awards to worry him nor family abroad to mitigate his unemployment, has returned to the news, Raul Castro, were he interested, could give proof as an example of his attention, showing that when he speaks, he means it.

How? An infinite number of possibilities come to mind: a five-minute phone call ordering a certain pockmarked vassal: “The next guest on the Roundtable TV show will be the young man Eliécer Ávila. The program will be the same length as his interview on Estado de SATS, two hours, so you will have equal time to analyze the critiques of a young revolutionary.”

I recognize, with an insolent itch, that my imagination can be unfortunately fertile. Because not even Raul Castro is interested in demonstrating some truth, nor does he have to in a country that only obeys, never demands: nor are the claims of its weary citizens of interest to him, much less those of a boy from Puerto Padre, a village almost adjacent to his native Birán, which he wouldn’t know how to find on a map of his country.

After listening to the two hours of dialogue where the now unemployed computer engineer and ex ice cream vendor, giving vent to his catharsis of nonconformity and undisguised rage, I thought again of the same thing that happened three years ago when Eliécer Ávila became an underground celebrity: the most beautifully sad thing being that he doesn’t speak for himself alone. In the throat of Eliécer Ávila are the voices of millions of the enslaved, whom biology hasn’t given the balls to make them worthy of licking his boots.

As during that questioning of Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, Eliécer has exploited again, without even knowing it, a factor which determines the impact of his words: he is an exponent of the rebellion of the most humble, the lowly, those just now coming to life (he’s 25) who refuse to accept the destiny of their parents, of their grandparents; this destiny in which they grew up, came to awareness, and which they are no longer afraid to begin to face: the tragedy of living in a country without dreams or aspirations.

Leaving aside the obvious historic references in which he rests his ideals, ignoring the reading and study that this computer scientist with a humanistic vocation displays in spades, the best of all is that the discourse of Eliécer Ávila is not a political discourse. This, I believe, is the heart of his enormous reach.

Even to those in politics in its pure state it seems to us a lamentable but essential matter, without which a social entity is incomplete, the tone in which some of the discordant voices on the Island confront the establishment weighs on us at times. It sounds to me like hollow discourse, shouting, an archetypal method with its valid reasons but not defensible ones.

The beauty of Eliécer’s exposition, which provokes this turning of heads, nodding while listening to his complaints, his sentences, his questions, is that he is not someone who portrays the disillusionment; he is someone who incarnates the disillusionment.

Disillusionment with a failed promise of happiness, a failed promise of equality and progress. Disillusionment with an electoral system that rather than serves to choose, serves to perpetuate the inept and tyrannical. Disillusionment with a timid press that he doesn’t categorize as good or bad, simply as nonexistent. Disillusionment with the neglect of his leaders, with the chaos that is his country, with its poverty, its hunger. Disillusionment with the mountain of feces that the Revolutionary Project turns out to be that he, as I two years earlier, was taught in high school history class was perfect.

And the great thing in the personal history of this computer engineer, is that the disillusionment didn’t come at birth. It came from his own learning.

Eliécer Ávila was president of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Enseñanza Media (FEEM), Federation of High School Students, during his pre-university years. Those of us not that removed from the Cuban school year can attest to the atrocious indoctrination, the machinery of manipulation that young “cadres” are exposed to convert them into what the Argentine Guevara promulgated: the basic clay of the Revolution.

After those three years of high school, Eliécer Ávila led an Information Security project at the University of Information Sciences (UCI) where he studied. Needless to say that in the school pampered by el Comandante, the school that is the apple of his eyes, the doses of ideological injections are doubled.

So then what happened to this young man, shaped like all of our generation in the iron-scheme, among the bars of Marxist-Leninism that island philosophy that is the most idolatrous cult of the Castro regime? What happened to this young man they educated to extract from him a docile Paul, that he became an ungovernable Saul? What happens to all the honest, the free-thinkers, the uncastrated is what happened to him: All the lies were too big, they could not fit in his brain anymore.

Because of this he had to challenge with his native words and his (our) eastern accent the member of the Island Olympiad whose title is President of the Parliament and who is only worried about the fates of the five members of Cuba’s Wasp Network, imprisoned in the U.S. Because of this Eliécer Ávila couldn’t escape this opportunity of the gods, the ultimate circumstance; that moment in which he held in his nervous hands a notebook with precise points, and freed a part, barely a portion of the questions that millions of Cubans have choked one without ever finding the courage to express them.

And also because of this, facing the questions of the moderator Antonia Rodiles at Estado de SATS, three years after having come to the attention of the country and the world, Eliécer Ávila returned to the headlines: it is not usual for a Cuban “in Cuba,” and even more a Cuban not linked to any formal opposition group, to express with such naturalness (and so much oratory talent) his distance from the official doctrine under which he was raised biologically and cerebrally.

Cubans now replay this interview in their homes. They comment on this talk show with relief, they quote it, talk about it. They heard him say that he feels cheated by a system that allowed him to study information science but then left him hopelessly unemployed. In Puerto Padre, Eliécer Ávila receives the social payment for daring so much: a lemon vendor doesn’t charge him (he tells us from his Twitter account), a woman takes off her sunglasses to confirm that it is him, and gives him a wink of complicity and admiration.

Today, relying on the telephone as the only solution, I spoke for some minutes with this guajiro from Puerto Padre to whom, as I said myself three years ago in another text, every worthy Cuban owes a handshake.

Precisely in the name of those, those who admire and celebrate the rebellion of the righteous; those who yearn for a country of hope and promise, where their children don’t need to flee like ruffians in search of fortune and freedom; in the name even of the readers of this writing; of those who died waiting for sovereign voices like Eliécer’s to sing out of tune with the official choir; and those millions of his compatriots who find in his courage the only reason not to lose faith, from afar I offer him gratitude impossible to quantify, and a subtle warning: your country will not forget you.

(Published originally in Martí Noticias)

November 30 2011

Guilty of Spreading the Word / Ernesto Morales Licea

The starving girl Kong Kyong in March 1993 in Sudan. Photographer Kevin Carter

A terrible phrase summarizes the maxim: “Within you, a voice exclaims: ‘My God!’. But its time to work. Deal with the rest later.” The phrase is from Kevin Carter, author of one of the most famous and controversial photographs in the history of the genre: that in which a vulture stalks the agony of one who, it later became known, bore the name Kong Kyong, who was a boy, not a girl as was thought, and who despite the famine that ended thousands of lives in Sudan, survived.

The photograph got two things for Kevin Carter: First, the Pulitzer Prize of 1994. Second: the merciless vilification by those who went as far as to accuse him of being the second vulture, for capturing the image instead of helping the dying child.

Carter took his own life a year later. His acquaintances affirm that it was not exclusively because of the media bombardment that he received as a result of his photo, the accusations of being evil and callow, but also emotional disorders that had always traveled with him

Kevin Carter’s case is the most notable case. Unfortunately it is not unique.

La triste y célebre foto de Frank Fournier: la niña Omayra Sánchez mira a su lente poco antes de morir

The sad and celebrated photo by Frank Fournier: the girl Omayra Sanchez looks into his lens a short time before dying.

In 1985. the Colombian volcano Nevado del Ruiz erupted and took the lives of more than 25 thousand people.

The photojournalist Fran Fournier documented the disaster in Colombia with a meticulousness that chilled the bones. But he did something more: he aimed his lens at the precise angle required to turn a scene into History: the girl Omayra Sanchez clinging for dear life, holding on to a tree branch, while she struggled to escape being swallowed by the tide of mud and quicksand.

The image is painful by itself. To know that the attempt by rescue workers to save her did not bear fruit, and the girl died, transformed the photo into a heart rending testimony. And its author, for many, into an immoral character.

Fournier was not Kevin Carter: he did not take his life, and was able to struggle against the accusations of those who berated him as a cruel opportunist, even if, at the instant when he pressed the shutter, it still looked possible to save the valuable life of Omayra Sanchez. But his snapshot placed him in the center of an ethical-moral debate that is not over to this day.

These examples by themselves would fill a volume with the names of the slandered, both of the photographers who filmed scenes that may have been avoidable if they had left their equipment sitting on the ground, and of the journalists who narrated live an execrable event of which they were the immediate witnesses.

Tough profession. Tough inner conflict for those who, obeying the maxim to spread truths, realities, facts, keep at bay the screams of horror in their throats, and do their jobs. They click the shutter. They hold the camera steady. They narrate the facts for all to hear. They remember that through their eyes, their voices, their lenses, the world will find out what is happening. And they do not care what comes later. “Deal with the rest later,” as one who could not do it would say.

True journalism, that which respects itself, that which responds to iron precepts, the same way that medicine bends to its Hippocratic oath; journalism that knows who it works for: those who otherwise wouldn’t know that things like this happen in far away places, is without a doubt one of the most necessary professions among all that exist, and honestly, one that receives one of the worst shares of gratitude in return.

When Kevin Carter was horrifying a well-fed world with that image, when he was improving the angle and the position of the light instead of waving the buzzard away, he was doing something more important than saving that life: he was saving, perhaps, tens of thousands. There was no better way to denounce the Sudanese tragedy than to grate on the nerves and sensitivities of the world with such a scene.

Cuatro estudiantes asesinados por la Guardia Nacional de Ohio. Al menos una de estas muertes, fotografiada por John Paul Filo, sirvió para vengarlas a todas. Filo ganó el Pulitzer.

One of the four dead at the University of Ohio, photographed by John Paul Filo in 1970.

When John Paul Filo captured the choleric scream and pain of that young woman before one of the victims at Kent State, shot miserably by the National Guard while they protested the war in Vietnam, instead of succoring the bullet-ridden, he was doing something that perhaps no one else could have done: pinning the image on the historical memory of that country so that crimes such as these, violations of freedom of expression such as this, would not happen ever again.

There is a reason why dictatorial regimes, satraps the world over, those who love doing and undoing to their heart’s content, eject or jail authentic journalists.

There is a reason that some of the best exponents of this Fourth Power have paid with their lives for the arrogance of shouting with no limits about what was happening in Pinochet’s dungeons, what is happening in the narco-violence infected streets of Mexico or in the human experimentation laboratories in North Korea.

Too many responsible for not allowing crimes to exist with impunity, violations without denunciation, catastrophic events without aid, left this world not receiving in return the most deserved prize that humanity can bestow: gratitude. It is not too late to think about them, those who, between bombs in Afghanistan, dangerous conflicts in Libya, Syria and Egypt; those who amid savage butchery in Mexico or cruel state repression Cuban, Venezuelan or Ecuadorian style, commit their lives to tell the facts, to spread the word.

Translated by: lapizcero

October 24 2011

Ticket to (Another) Paradise / Ernesto Morales Licea

The landing gear descended and, as vertiginous as it is, rushed his body into the daylight. Hanging upside down, cut by irons and cables, semi naked, the torso of a Cuban greeted Barajas’ airport with his halo of death and desperation. That torso was only 23 years old.

Nobody likes the word: desperation is an alarmist term. But let’s see, how many world citizens, honestly, how many unhappy and disappointed, would be willing to emulate Cubans in the methods employed to escape their earthly paradise?

Not many. Not to be absolute. The East Germans who offer their bodies to the barbed wires, landmines, and the aim of snipers don’t exist today. Desperate fugitives who flee in the middle of snow storms, who die frozen among the snow, escaping comrade Stalin’s paradise don’t exist today.

What exists are Cubans, yes. A new race of fugitives that are setting records in the ancient art of evasion.

Some say: Central Americans also emigrate. True. They jump on frenetic trains, they tie themselves to its roof tops, at the mercy of wild gangs and bandit cops, at the mercy of bad weather and losing their legs under the wheels of the iron.

Yes, they emigrate from El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, to the United States. To the country that — whether liberal friends around the world like it or not — is still the oasis of opportunities that offers a blanket to the lawn mowing emigrant, just as to the parents of Facebook’s inventor.

Some say: Haitians also emigrate. And they also do so in flimsy rafts, food for sharks. Where do they emigrate to? To the same place as Central Americans. To the most vilified and envied country of the world.

But neither Mexicans, nor Salvadorans, nor Guatemalans, nor Haitians, emigrate to anywhere. We, the homus andantis from Fidel’s paradise, the children of the new Motherland, demand much less: barely a different country than the one where we had to live. The demand is just another country of the orb. Only that. It doesn’t matter if it is Finland, Ukraine, or South Africa. What matters is that it is not ours.

For that, Cubans put their brains in gear. The build floating monsters, amphibian Chevrolets, they put together tires and planks, they hang anti-shark diesel in the corners, and head out to sea.

They take over a Peruvian embassy by force, inside its walls ten thousand sweaty, thirsty, malnourished, hopeless souls seclude themselves. Waiting for a ticket to freedom.

White flesh and black flesh meet, proud mulata nationals with Italians with bad breath, adolescents of recently developed breasts with Spaniards who take Viagra; they swallow up their modesty and nausea, and they marry in the Island with a metallic love.

They serve as archivists: they dig, dig, dig, they ask, they photocopy, they print, they solicit Spanish citizenship and bless the grandfather who had the wit to be born in the Motherland a century and a half ago.

They populate half the world, a Cuban today, ten tomorrow, they flood Ecuador with their cracked dreams, and although pursued illegals, they prefer a very poor nation like that at meridian zero, before their big tropical island.

Today, one appears in the news: I will jump into the void from my window if you try to deport me to Cuba. Another one appears tomorrow: frozen, shredded, his bones cracked by the undercarriage of an airplane that doesn’t care about misfortunes nor the anxiety of freedom.

How horrible, how disheartening, what a bitter paradise have they built on the Island that watched our births. God. When our country’s History gets written some day, the History behind this story of tyrants and victims, of deserters who die horrendous deaths; that day we will lack many siblings: drowned, crushed, shot by Mexican coyotes, chewed up by sharks’ jaws, beaten up in Panamanian jails, killed by the cold weather or by hunger halfway along their journey.

Those, I would like to think, are resting somewhere else: in the Paradise reserved for the victims of our insular paradise.

Translated by: Angelica Morales

July 18 2011

Pablo (not so) Loved in Miami / Ernesto Morales Licea

On August 27th, Pablo Milanes will sing in Miami. According to the billboard ads, it will be a historic concert. Of course it will: for his followers as well as for the Vigilia Mambisa. Some will lose their voices for singing along to his songs; others, outside American Airlines Arena, will lose theirs screaming out “communist” at him.

Without a doubt: a historic concert.

No wonder. Pablo is not just another Cuban troubadour. Pablo has been unhappily confused with Paulo FG (some protests that can already be seen in Miami exhibit banners that say: “Out Paulito Milanes”), but unlike the salsa singer, Pablo is unique, and is the other component of the most representative binomial of Cuban music during the post-revolutionary era. Silvio and Pablo: the sharp duet.

If I am tied to Silvio Rodriguez by the admiration for the sublime poetry of some of his best songs, and the absolute rejection he inspires me as a man of ideas, and further more, as a human being, with Pablito I invert those factors a bit: I fancy him more honest and worthy than the singer of the Unicorn, but his music is not as appealing to my ears. I respect it, but I don’t love it.

When I speak about inverting the factors just a bit, I am exact: Pablito Milanés, born in the same city as I, erected lately as a media critic of the Cuban Revolution, doesn’t offer me any confidence or attention as a committed artist. What’s more: I fancy him lightly opportunistic.

(One point to be clear about: to evaluate him politically is fair because he doesn’t skimp in talking about politics. José Ángel Buesa was asked in Santo Domingo about the nascent Cuban Revolution, after he traveled outside of Cuba in 1959, and he answered: “Did you ask Fulgensio Batista about poetry when he passed by here a week ago? Don’t ask me about politics.” One cannot evaluate José Ángel Buesa with a political standard. Pablo Milanés sometimes talks about his music with the foreign press.)

Why an opportunist, Dear Pablo? Simple: because screaming when they stomp on our toes is very easy. To scream without the stomp, is very different. And I don’t think I am revealing a secret when I say that the divorce between the great troubadour and Cuban officialdom has a date and almost a time: at exactly the instant when his plans for the Pablo Milanés Foundation were thwarted.

Since then, put a camera in front of him, he’ll say his thing. With success great or small, but he’ll say it. It is possible that all of a sudden he’ll throw out ideas like the Revolution will continue after the death of Fidel and Raul Castro, something he thinks is great; it is possible for him to affirm that Raul and Fidel truly want to repair the country they have mistreated; but he’ll also criticize the gerontocracy that governs the destinies of the country, he’ll support harsh declarations from Yoani Sanchez, and defend the talent and pose of the censured rappers, Los Aldeanos. Good for Pablo.

However, it is still a suspicious and questionable attitude for an artist to pose as politically committed to the democratization of the island, just so long as he is outside it.

Has somebody heard Pablo Milanés in Cuba confronting the regime in Cuba loud and clear, saying uncompromisingly that which he declares to the Spanish or South American media? Where was the Pablo who repeatedly gives controversial interviews in foreign countries, when 75 people were imprisoned for writing against what they saw all around them, or when three Cubans died before a firing squad for wanting to escape the country? Could it be that then he wasn’t outside Cuba and therefore, the lock on his throat did not disappear?

I adored the Pablo who invited Los Aldeanos to sing at the Havana Protestrodome itself, sticking out his tongue to the censorship that falls over this rap duo. But it seems too little to admire him like others.

So then Pablo comes to sing in Miami: I’m so glad that’s the way it is. I applaud the happiness of those who will enjoy him this coming August 27th. However, what is he doing, what has he done, and what will our Dear Pablo do to unlock a cultural exchange which he now favors, but which is a one-way exchange?

I am not talking about words in front of the amateur camera of a young filmmaker who interviews him in Havana. No. I am talking about real efforts. I am talking about demanding and fighting for the rights that his compatriots in exile possess, his co-artists, of singing in the country that watched their birth and of which they have been stripped by the grace of an exclusionary ideology. I am talking about declaring himself inside, of utilizing his concerts, of demanding in writing before all the Ministries, with a signature that it is not from just any other Cuban: it is the signature of Pablo Milanés.

Did Pablo ever defend the right of Celia Cruz to sing her songs at a plaza in Havana just as he is coming to do at the Miami Arena? Would he publicly invite Willy Chirino to collaborate with him on the Island, knowing that Willy would give a piece of his life to be able to sing in his homeland? Again and again: No.

That is why I, who defend tooth and nail the right to freedom, and therefore the right of an artist to show his work at any stage on the planet, I don’t promulgate but I do understand the claims of those who, from this side of the ocean, feel incited and indignant by the presence of Pablo Milanés, and even more: by the presence of the avalanche of Cuban artists who step on American soil today. (Of course: to then say, as does a certain character whose name I’ve always tried to forget, that Pablito is not a musician but an agent sent by Castro, goes a long way toward separating the wise from the intellectual orphans.)

Miami, let’s stop the false statements, is not just any city. Miami has been, for half a century , the oasis of victims, of the pursued, the imprisoned, the exiled from Cuba, and that cannot be disregarded when it comes time to put the circumstances in perspective. A portrait of Josef Mengele is not the same on a New York corner as it is in Jerusalem.

Personally, I will not carry any signs nor will I raise a hand to condemn the presence of my fellow countryman in this symbolic city, but the reasoning of those who will, does not seem illogical to me.

The subject is one of a tremendous moral-ethical complexity.

If it was only Pablo, the excessive emotion would all blow over a day or two after the 27th. But the reality is much more serious: turning on the TV in Miami, switching to on any Hispanic channel, has made me ask myself where I am: do I, or do I not live in Cuba?

If Ulises Toirac works at MegaTV before returning in a few months to the ICRT; if Nelson Gudín appears at the same time on the show in America Tevé before returning to Cuban Television; if Osdalgia closes, repeatedly, with her music on Alexis Valdés’ show, and Gente de Zona announces their concerts at The Place and in Las Vegas; if Alain Daniel — and this is the last straw! never before seen! — admits that this time he hasn’t come to offer any concerts, he is just going to spend a week in Miami recording and mastering his new CD; if such a notorious apologist for Fidel Castro as Cándido Fabré splutters with his phantasmagorical voice that he feels happy to be in this city; if all singers, humorists, painters or journalists who I saw in Cuba 7 months ago are the same people I see before the cameras of this country, it becomes difficult for me to situate myself in time and space.

But most of all, I find it hard to swallow that this reality is just and acceptable. I find it hard to applaud the dual speech of musicians such as La Charanga Habanera, when they sing inside of Cuba “You’re crying in Miami, and I’m partying in Havana”, and as soon as they step foot at Miami International Airport they despicably vary the chorus to please who will fill their pockets: “You party in Miami, and I party in Havana”. I find it hard to accept that those same salseros (salsa singers) and regueatoneros (reggeaton singers) who today do extremely well for themselves thanks to Miami and its audience, thanks to capitalism, to the market economy, to the country of bars and stars, are the ones who, when they return to the Island, sing at celebrations for the 26th of July and celebrate anniversaries of the same Revolution that denies the entry to so many residents of Miami. And let no one come to me with stories: my memory is only 27 years long, with 7 months of exile.

So then, what is the benefit to the exiled community from this euphemistic cultural exchange? None at all. How what does it benefit it economically? As little as possible. The beneficiaries, the only ones who profit out of the bridge that Manolín asked for in his song that in some ways now exist, are those same artists who play a dual role, an embarrassing role as cultural political supporters of the Cuban establishment, while they go to the abode of the enemy to fill their coffers.

It is not the same thing to have Frank Delgado in Miami, as Cándido Fabré. It is not the same to have Los Aldeanos, as Gente de Zona. It is not the same to have Pedro Luis Ferrer, as Pablo Milanés. The outcast among the unjust is not the same as the accomplice and the ones that were integrated into the unjust.

Morality must be very fucked up in a country that screams out slogans to the enemy, and later looks for, in silence, the enemy’s gold. My best wish for the great Pablito, the icon of the Nueva Trova, an illustrious Bayamés (someone born in Bayamo), is that he enjoy his stay in Miami, and hopefully the whispers of pain and nostalgia from the million and a half emigrants that wander about on this land, won’t overshadow his magnificent voice during his concert.

Translated by: Angelica Morales

August 1 2011

Achtung, Baby: A Whisper of Liberty in 360°

I wanted to not write about Bono, but I couldn’t. I wanted, for example, to write about something more global: music, my untameable ally, my refuge during times without peace. And to do so, let’s say, through U2, through the brutal concert U2 gifted me with.

But I knew I would betray myself: I don’t chose the topics, the topics – like Cortázar’s stories – choose me, and there is nothing left to do.

Because just when I start thinking about how to start typing, and I need to return to the images, tap the affective memory, right that second I hear Bono flooding the stadium with his mythological voice, rattling in seventy-five thousand ears with a noble whisper: to tell all Cubans that a beautiful man, a good doctor like Oscar Elías Biscet, was important for U2. To tell Cubans that they were aware of Cuba’s situation, that someday freedom will come, and that U2 was watching. They were watching all Cubans.

So then I have no choice but to abdicate and write about four Irish men who for one night, for two and a half hours, made me the happiest poor devil on the planet. To write about the rock band that made the 14-year-old Ernesto lose his sleep the first time he heard a hypnotic song like One, without knowing that 12 years later those musicians would sing for him.

Is there any bad news behind those fascinating words pronounced by Bono during the ecstasy of his art? Is there something to mourn about, after seeing him — listening to him — knowing he said that just like many others, he also desired to see a free Cuba someday? Yes, at least for me: my friends in Cuba will not be able to hear them anymore on the radio stations. My mother, a Bono fan — thanks to her son — will not be able to watch their version of the Ave María sung along with the great Pavarotti, favorite clip of “De La Gran Escena“, a night-time television show of my country.

I don’t doubt in the very least that since last night, U2 thickens the list of prohibited musicians by the owners of thoughts, of sexual and musical preferences of Cubans. A small anecdote: twenty-four hours after the anti-Chavez declarations by Alejandro Sanz in 2003, while releasing his album “No es lo Mismo”/”It’s not the Same”, all his music disappeared from the national radio stations. Till this day. And the words of this Spaniard are suckling babies next to our Irish’s.

A futuristic stage at the Sun Life Stadium, four hours before the concert.

The real impact of that statement from U2, the wish of freedom for the Island and the tribute to a Cuban whose emotional stability and many years of his life were snatched away, doesn’t surprise me that it came from a rock star whose media influences can be compared to Elvis’s or John Lennon’s decades before. It is not a lie, even, that the fascination U2 generates with its 190 million sold discs, and its 22 Grammy Awards; or that this same Bono is the only person nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, the Oscars, the Golden Globes and the Grammys.

The point is this: the clamor of liberty came out of a humanist admired by both Tyrians and Trojans, a man with a splendid reputation, whom millions of people, instead of isolating him from the planet, took him, for example, to launch a campaign and fight like a tiger in order to liberate the Third World from its external debt, and who has used his name to work for causes unanimously acclaimed, call it Greenpeace, Amnesty International, or Feed the World.

How to ignore, then, his voice? How to counter with “revolutionary propaganda”, by repeating Cuba’s national anthem “Cuba, socialist paradise”, the cry of liberty uttered from the stage by someone who goes for good over evil, who earned immortality a long time ago with his art?

I venture off to look for an “official explanation”: Bono was ingratiating himself with the ultra-rightists of Miami. That’s it.

What is hard to understand is the reason why one of the richest and venerated musicians on the planet would want to be in good standing with politicians who would like to have at least one-third of his universal influence. When a person makes 195 million dollars in 2010 alone, together with his band, he can afford to not even be in good standing with God. (Even though you thank him before bedtime.)

I am sure that for the rest of the non-Cubans who attended, U2’s concert in Miami had another connotation. It was the mega-show of splendor, at times overwhelming, with a science fiction stage in 360 degrees, a screen which served to show us the beautiful face of the Burmese activist Aun San Suu Kyi after being freed, as it served to show us Mark Nelly, the husband of Senator Gaby Giffords who was shot, speaking to the Miami audience from the International Space Station.

For the Ecuadorians who shared hugs and tears with me, who came from their country just to watch the mystical U2, the concert was the excess that you hope to find in the band that has reached the impossible: to be liked equally by the pure bred rockers and the non-rockers of this world.

For me, who in my youth of discoveries dreamt with delirium to hear them sing albums like “Achtung Baby” and “All that you can’t leave behind”; for me, who understands music as that essence and compliment without which I wouldn’t know how to breathe comfortably, the two and a half hours in front of U2 had a meaning incomparably superior.

The tears they ripped out of me, expressions of mixed feelings halfway between pain and discomfort, between melancholy and impotence; my tears between not being resigned to the country that gave me life, and not being resigned that my friends of a thousand battles could not enjoy this sublime music with me; and without doubt, tears of happiness hilarious disobeyed my restraint reminding me that I’m alive, they were my most basic gratitude, most primary humanity, before four men whose songs will still be heard by my children, and the children of my children. Just as another writer said about the Beatles.

Translated by: Angelica Morales

July 1 2011

CNN’s Havana / Ernesto Morales Licea

When the documentary was close to its end, I discovered an unbelievable sensation deep inside of me: the “destination” Claudia Palacios was proposing was absolutely unknown to me and made me feel the urge to visit it. CNN, through one of its reporters of spectacular beauty and proven professionalism, had just managed to make a Cuban who has only been out of his country for 6 months, hardly recognize Havana, and see himself tangled in a unrepresentative trap and the superficiality of the ample report to the point where he could accept the reality its author was proposing: yes, Havana is a place of enchantment in a paradise which had to be visited.

So different was the city that the ineffable journalist presented to me some days earlier, on the segment “Destinations CNN,” with a Havana I had visited dozens of times throughout my life, as a Cuban, and whose intricacies I knew like the palm of my hand.

The gray antecedent of this unfortunate material came from a Spanish television show. It was called “Spanish in the World”, and also filmed a sweetened, graceful, smiling Havana, which no doubt exists, but as an epidermal make-up which those inside know is empty and incomplete.

But the miscalculations of Claudia Palacios, the incisive interviewer of public figures, the journalist who knows her profession well enough to be able to assume that “speaking without knowing” is understandable in tourists interested in vacationing, not in communication professionals, seemed mildly scandalous to me.

Let’s say: to present Havana as a festive, tropical city, a city of clandestine cigars and people who serve you, is not exact. To only present Havana as a city of never-ending festivities, of happy and dancing Cubans, of mojitos and rental cars, without later delving into the refinements, inside the veins under the social skin, is a journalistic misfortune. And by this, I know I am not saying anything new to the talented reporter, which makes it worse.

Was it necessary or essential to present the most cruel Havana of all, of nocturnal thugs, the galloping corruption or the semi-juvenile prostitution? I wasn’t even asking for that, as a spectator of a coverage that evidently didn’t try for depth or questioning. I know the profiles and perspectives in which journalists sometimes focus our work.

But to affirm that behind the plans of “economic reactivation” undertaken by Raul Castro’s government, Havana had bloomed in a spectacular way, seems to me to be a conscious falsification of the truth, and that, in all its essence, is a crime of “lese journalism.”

Didn’t the smooth Claudia Palacios visit the barracks where hundreds of Habaneros or Orientales stack themselves, people who come from any part of Cuba or those born in the capital, without potable water, between cracked walls and grime stamped on the ceilings? Why was the reporter content with following the tour of La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) offered to her by a designated guide from Havana Tour, and not stepping out of the script of that tropical Virgil, not going down the pestilential streets that haven’t been repaired by the Historian’s Office, which are very close to those places she filmed? Perhaps the informed journalist is unaware of the usage of nations like Cuba, where those guides are faithful people chosen by and for the State Security, people who know precisely what they can and cannot show?

Perhaps Claudia Palacios didn’t see the private businesses with repeated products, fried flour patties, breads filled with spreads made from indecipherable ingredients, because of the lack of viable source materials that would allow them to grow as true business men? In that city she described as a Paradise made up of sea water and smiling people, didn’t she see the sweat running down the skin, the anguish of hunger, the buses crowded with irritable people, didn’t she see uncertainty, a little bit of indifference and a lot of hopelessness? Perhaps the beautiful Palacios doesn’t know that in that city whose growth in tourism she praised no end, attributing it among other reasons to the festive nature of Cubans, that a cohort of adolescents sell their bodies to repugnant tourists for barely a decent dinner or a letter of invitation to another country?

I find it impossible to grant credibility to the reporter of a leading world news chain, who doesn’t know that an immense percentage of Habaneros cannot visit those luxurious restaurants she showed in her documentary, and that for Habaneros and Cubans in general the fascinating Valle de Viñales remains of those places like Varadero, Cayo Coco, and the Hemingway Marina, that have been prohibited to Cubans due to the economic inaccessibility.

Evidently the objective of “Destinations: Havana” was simply marketing. It was to sell a destination, and nothing more. But I ask myself how far can journalistic ethics and decency permit, how far is it lawful to accept a manipulation of realities, showing only half the face of a city so complex as is Havana only because your work load is this and not that.

I ask myself: if all of a sudden the series “Destinations” thought it necessary to recommend Teheran, would Claudia Palacios step on Iranian soil concentrating only on showing the Tomb of Cyrus, the friezes of Persepolis Palace, or address with silk gloves the obedience of its feminine population, without delving into the whys, without diving under the surface, as her journalistic responsibility requires?

I think that aside from pink-skinned Europeans with desires to spend their savings well (I will always remember the words of an Italian in his sixties who said, in front of me, while he caressed the rear of a very young mulata accompanying him:”What would we be without Cuba!”). Aside from the brainless tourists from half the world, and aside from the representatives-implementers of a system like the one my native country suffers from today, nobody else could have enjoyed the “Destinations” filmed by Claudia Palacios.

Not even the people of the city where she took her images. Unfortunately those cannot give their opinion, because they live in one of the few countries where watching CNN is prohibited outside of some hotels, where cable TV doesn’t exist in each home, and so they will not be able to watch the fair mantle of the surreal circus attraction with which the journalist has shown them to the world.

Right this second I still ask myself if I ever truly got to know my Havana. I think that along with that Havana told by Dulce Maria Loynaz in her memoirs, along with the delinquent Havana of Pedro Juan Gutierrez, or the eternal nocturnal and sinful Havana of Cabrera Infante, we can now start to include the Havana of the beautiful Claudia Palacios. I wouldn’t know how to distinguish which of these belongs more to fiction.

Translated by: Angelica Morales

June 23 2011

Acknowledgment of Receipt / Ernesto Morales Licea

Closed during vacations-

Just that, my friends: well deserved vacations. At the beginning of next month “The Little Brother” is going to be one year old, and its author, administrator, and copy editor has decided to take a few weeks of sabbatical. Next Monday, after my three weeks of cyber vacations I will come back to by job and post number 80 will appear here. To those that have written concerned about my absence. Is it health problems, blog abandonment, lack of free time? I confirm my gratitude to your concerns. I never imagine that a little personal effort as this blog could mean so much to unknown friends.

Until 4 days from now, “The Little Brother” is closed…to take a break.

Translated by A.Roy

June 16 2011

Doomed to Solitude / Ernesto Morales Licea

Is there anything really new in the terrible incident that has just cut short the life of another nonconforming Cuban? In my view, only the speed with which his death has been echoing around the world, on Mother’s Day, when the news wires and standard television programming prefer to convey messages of family harmony.

Sad to admit it: the new chapter of extreme intolerance, militaristic asphyxia, which snatched the breath of Wilfredo Soto Juan Garcia of Villa Clara, is not just another episode to mark in the history of abuses and misdeeds of a system designed to kill, one way or another, the rebels who refuse to live without freedom.

Similar stories of prolonged martyrdoms, beatings that end in the cemetery, physical and psychological torture, have occurred for decades without many–I include myself among them–even suspecting among the dense fog that repressors extend them to ensure impunity.

Not surprisingly the dictatorial procedures manual that all the tyrants and aspiring tyrants seem to work from, includes absolute ownership of the media as an inviolable element. The fourth power in the hands of the State makes it impossible that any reporter dares to attach to a national newspaper the stories of those who knew the damp hell of Kilo 8, Las Mangas, Villa Marista, Boniato, or any of the provincial gulags where opposing Cubans are confined.

Juan Wilfredo Soto García, aporreado hasta la muerte

Juan Soto Wilfredo Garcia, an opponent bludgeoned to death in Santa Clara.

The problematic, however, of this dreadful new death of a man whose crime consisted of not wanting to leave a public park in his city, and who, on refusing to do so, received a police beating that hospitalized him until his death this last Sunday, is that it puts Cuba back in an internationally embarrassing dilemma that no one seems to want to resolve.

But to keep your mouth shut when three youths are shot for wanting to escape from the country where they were born, to keep your mouth shut when a bricklayer dies of hunger for claiming fair conditions for a prisoner of conscience, and to keep your mouth shut when a peaceful opponent is beaten to death by police who encroach on his right to remain where he pleases; to look the other way when this is happening in the Socialist Paradise, goes beyond indecency: it’s an ethical and moral disgrace.

But to keep your mouth shut when three young people are shot for wanting to escape from the country where they were born, to keep your mouth shut when a bricklayer dies of hunger for claiming fair conditions for a prisoner of conscience, and to keep your mouth shut when a peaceful opponent is beaten to death by police who encroach on his right to remain where he pleases; to look the other way when this is happening in the Socialist Paradise, goes beyond indecency: it’s an ethical and moral disgrace.

I have never understood why these intellectual thugs, under the camouflage of “progressives” advocates for universal justice, go to extremes to cry for the rights of the butcher Osama Bin Laden to have a legal representation; which is why I hate the hypocritical humanity of those who shed tears of ink for the innocent children of Muammar Gadaffi, but who change the channel, turn the page, and dance salsa with a good cigar in their mouth, when the atrocities taking place in Cuba are right before their eyes.

What can we expect after this Monday, when the body of another innocent rest underground and his mother will never again enjoy an ordinary day? Well, I believe two things are too predictable to be able to boast of my powers of prediction:

First, the swift campaign to discredit those who can not defend themselves today, as they could not defend themselves in life. The unimaginative script that runs whenever the name of an opponent brings ill winds to the guardians of power: we will expect to hear about a long criminal history, perhaps as a butcher, perhaps as a pederast, his record of vandalism that made him a scourge to without the right to sit in a public park, where some said that Mariela Castro, daughter of the General-cum-President, was going to make her appearance.

This, if the turmoil caused by the crime is similar to that of the notorious Zapata case, when it was impossible to conceal or to not offer an official version to the world and to Cubans. If the tide does not cause too strong of waves, nor require the work of defamation, they will simply ignore it.

The second thing we expect is that John Wilfredo Soto García feed the news agendas of some of the world media, his name and his case will be followed with great attention while generating readers, listeners and viewers, until another news event will steal the scene, and his drama will remain as some vague, incessant, incurable pain, that his poor mother will exhale forever.

Nothing will change. No conclave of the powerful will take this straw that broke the camel’s back, and what is worse: no group of the masses, of the millions of Cuban, will take this new assassination as the call to slaughter against the satraps who ride the straw horse of “change” and “reforms” and “congresses,” while death or exile remain the only options for those who refuse to live without dignity.

And so those who cling to a habitable Cuba are alone. So those who are not afraid of silence are alone. Doomed to solitude in hostile territory.

May 9 2011