On May 5, Liu Santiesteban, from Havana but living in Spain, sent seven questions to Ivan for an interview in his blog, Todo el mundo habla (The Whole World Talks). Ivan does not like to be interviewed, he said that journalists are for interviewing, not being interviewed. But a week later, he sent back the answered questionnaire. In an final note, he said that he had made an exception, although it was not my birthday, he wanted to give me a gift for opening a blog with my name, Tania Quintero.
Ivan, you come from a family of importance in politics and journalism, from Blas Roca Calderío to Tania Quintero. When did you decide to make the leap to independent journalism?
Liu, journalism is all around me. It is not alien to me. The punishment of my grandmother Carmen — as a boy I was an extremely active child — was that my mother Tania Quintero then a reporter for the magazine Bohemia, took me with her on her trips to the provinces. Thus was born my passion for the craft of reporting. Met in the writing of Bohemia great writers of the sports section such as Capetillo Enrique and Jorge Alfonso. Also a very old man with ugly glasses who had a small room in the office smelling of mothballs. The old man was kind enough to satisfy my curiosity and tended chat with me, named Jose Zacarias Tallet. Years later I learned he was one of the sacred cows of Cuban poetry.
In particular, apart from sport, the only profession I have a calling for is journalism. But I never belonged to the Communist Youth and from the 80’s, the revolution of Fidel Castro seemed to me a complete failure. Therefore, I couldn’t even dream of studying journalism. For guys like me, politically misguided, there were two ways: work as a plumber, undertaker or be other than black man going to prison for robbery, assault on a tourist or a pimping.
I preferred to speak up. That took its toll. In 1991 I was spent two weeks detained at Villa Marista and the State Security officials, arrests without cause and constant hostility towards me, pushed me get started in independent journalism. I had no resume. I just wanted to be doing something I liked.
I worked a couple of months as assistant director at the Institute of Cuban Radio and Television (ICRT) and learned something about broadcast journalism. In the printed press I had the influence of my mother and personally, a morbid inclination for U.S. journalism. The sober style and storytelling of American journalists captivated me. Also the colorful chronicles the Brazilians and, of course, good stories and excellent use of the language that we read in the newspapers back in Spain.
One morning in December 1995 with a cold from hell and an overwhelming desire to have a cup of hot chocolate, I went to the home of the poet Raúl Rivero, director of the newly founded Cuba Press independent news agency where my mother was already working. I said I wanted to write sports and social issues. He looked me slowly up and down smoking a cigarette, meanwhile rocking rythmically in an old chair and drinking coffee from a cup.
To myself I thought: “The fat guy’s going to give me the bat,” (say no). In reply he said: “Write something, then we’ll see.” The first two papers I wrote were about the long jumper Ivan Pedroso and self-employment. Recently, in an old notebook I’d given up for lost reread them and I swear I wanted to cry, they seemed to bad to me. But that morning, Rivero accepted them. Then, between Raul’s soliloquies about journalism on the balcony of his home in the Havana neighborhood of Victoria, the advice of my mother, and my desire to eat the world, I polished my style. By the end of February 1996, Cubanet and El Nuevo Herald published some accounts of mine.
To Bernardo Marques, a former journalist for Bohemia magazine, now in Miami, I owe a great deal for his good advice, when I read him my stories over the phone, in order to post them on the web. Also Rolando Cartaya, from Radio Martí. In terms of style and journalistic analysis I must acknowledge the influence of Carlos Alberto Montaner, whose books I read and reread until they fell apart. Equally Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. Right now, I’m a fan of the way a number of writers write: Luis Cino, Laritza Diversent, Zoé Valdés, Raúl Rivero, Jorge Olivera, Miriam Celaya and Tania Quintero. I also like the casualness of pro-government bloggers like Elaine Diaz, Sandra Alvarez of Paquito of Cuba.
From my matrilineal kinship with Blas Roca, I ate so well at my Aunt Dulce’s house, his wife and the sister of my grandmother Carmen, the good home they had in Nuevo Vedado, tickets for the boxes in the Latino that Blas always sent us (my grandmother and I were baseball fanatics) and the great guy who is Yuri Valle Roca, Blas’s eldest grandson.
What media do you write for now and since when?
From January 28, 2009 I have had a blog, From Havana (desdelahabanaivan.wordpress.com) and, since October 9 of that year I collaborated with the Spanish digital newspaper El Mundo America. Also as of this year I am writing for Diario de Cuba and some stories are reproduced in several blogs, including Todo el Mundo Habla and Punt de Vista, of Joan Antoni Guerrero, so take this opportunity to thank them both.
Your blog From Havana was hosted on the platform Cuban Voices directed by blogger Yoani Sanchez. When and why did you leave there?
I myself don’t know clearly why Yoani took me off the Voices portal. She never gave me an explanation. Reinaldo Escobar, who I consider a friend, was kind enough to offer me one, although he didn’t convince me. It all started, apparently, with opinion articles against the dissidence that my mother wrote in my blog.
It’s an old habit that we Cubans have, regardless of political affiliation, if you criticize me you are not my friend. Due to time and how costly it is to access the Internet from Cuba, did not read what my mother wrote. Nor did I need to. I assume that she and anyone who writes on my blog, can pour out whatever view they want. Other than to encourage terrorism and fascism, racial and gender discrimination, violence and pornography, xenophobia and intolerance, anything goes.
I’ve known that in the environment around Yoani Sanchez that are people who have an African hatred for me. I swear I don’t know why. They don’t have the guts to tell me in a face to face chat. They go around gossiping and slandering me. I pray to God that in the day when Cuba becomes a democracy and the State Security archives are published, their names don’t appear among those who collaborated with the political police.
Liu, in the wide sector of the dissidence, democracy means to criticize the Castro brothers, not them. When their timid performance is criticized they respond by discrediting you, with intrigues and shenanigans. To me that gets my goat. If I have no fear of the Special Services, I couldn’t care less about the mediocre and cowardly campaigns of some, be they bloggers or dissidents.
In Cuba the freedom of expression is an offense as enemy propaganda. What consequences has it brought you write against the official current of the Castro government?
Not many. Except for several “friendly chats” and a citation, in the 15 years I’ve been doing journalism, I have not felt harassed. Before I started doing journalism they often bothered me, and at the first opportunity they would put me in a police cell for the whole weekend. I have to thank those security officers who tried to scare me with their harassment when I was just one more black man, anonymous and voiceless.
But I’ve moved forward and if they want to harass me now I’m going to give them a good reason. The best defense against persecution in Cuba and the impunity of the Secret Services is to raise your voice in public. If you remain silent, you get it.
It is known that there are several political opposition groups inside Cuba. Which, in your opinion, have a solid alternative project and which are working to shake up Cuban society on the island?
The Cuban dissidence to me is a disappointment. There are exceptions and laudable projects. But broadly speaking, the opposition is not a valid reference. Their discourse is more for foreigners than for Cubans on the island. With few exceptions, dissent has been corrupted and accommodated.
The time is not only past for the old Castro government, many dissidents are also a disjointed choir singing out of tune in a hoarse falsetto, trying to head in the same direction. Their discourse is exhausted and there’s little new. Many act and behave as if they were Arab sheiks. They mark their territory like wild animals.
Then there are the outlandish projects, passing the hat around Europe and the United States and giving interviews and statements to the foreign press. They don’t even try to talk with their next door neighbor. That can and must change if we really want to influence the future of Cuba and, in my opinion, is just around the corner. Otherwise they will be political cadavers, if many of them aren’t already.
I have faith that a new type of opponent will arise on the island. If not, we’re fucked. In an autocracy that is handing over power to employers in olive green, within ten years Cuba might look like Russia, but with an opposition that neither paints nor does it in color.
Before the reforms currently undertaken by the government of General Raúl Castro and the recently held sixth Congreeso PCC, what is the environment that is perceived on the street? Are people hopeful or disappointed?
Liu, people are for whatever falls off the back of the truck. The prostitutes are the order of the day and night in Havana. Devalued and screwing for pesos. They are so frightening. A high percentage of those who work, want to steal everything they can. The rest is already known. Fake it, dance to reggaeton and drink rum. To be successful in the Havana of the 21st century is to connect with a ‘yuma‘ (foreigner) and to get out, the sooner and farther the better.
Now, with new initiatives for self-employment and lax state inspectors, cafes and bootleg stalls, with cheesy trinkets brought from Venezuela or Ecuador are flourishing. Many are disillusioned with government mismanagement, but look away when they see a vacuum.
For the official control of information, people do not know the projects of the opposition. And because of the propaganda of the Castro media, some Cubans have the feeling that the dissidents are a bunch of crooks. If we sum it all up — the noticeable loss of values, the terrible hatred that builds up in society, domestic violence and in the streets, especially the verbal (the screaming, it’s like people bark)–what is upon us could be the worst version of a savage State capitalism of.
I want to be optimistic. But the picture I see looks ugly. And I’m on the street itself. I walk around town and talk to people every day.
How do you see the future of Cuba? Do you think people are hoping that Cuban exiles return to undertake the construction of democracy and a market economy?
What I would like to tell you is that all Cubans want a deep and real democratic change. But I am afraid to disappoint you. A wide band of compatriots do not even know what a Constitution is. Legal illiteracy is appalling. So the police and courts make the harvest.
What to say of democracy. For many, a good democracy is drinking cow’s milk, having two meals a day, weekends playing dominoes and drinking beer, occasionally eat bread with beef steak, such as those sold in the Havana kiosks before Fidel Castro launched a ‘revolutionary offensive’ and nationalized all small private businesses.
Democracy for them is also being able to buy a car and a house, great. Let there be no interference in prostitution by the police and openly play the ball, fine. If some or all of these possibilities are satisfied by the State, they don’t care who is on the throne. But look, there are young intellectuals who are far from open opposition to the regime, with interesting ideas. If they do not leave the country, if they overcome the mediocrity around them and frustration doesn’t wear them out, they could be a future option.
I hope that the compatriots of the Diaspora can invest on the island and carry that message of freedom and democracy learned in modern societies. But I honestly do not see thousands of exiles taking the plane back to Havana. You would have to be too crazy or love your homeland too much to go back to carrying buckets of water, sleeping with a fan when it’s 100 degrees in the shade. If many of those crazies and patriots in exile, they are welcome here. Cuba is and will always be their home.
May 18, 2011