A Pawn to Distract You / Alexis Romay

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Originally published in Letras Libres in March, 2007: