Human Damage in an Environment of Punishment
Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo
Talking with Henry Constantin, expelled for life from the country’s universities.
The worst of a prolonged war,
is not the hunger of the siege,
nor the exhaustion, nor the despair,
nor the dead left in the dust
of no man’s land.
The atrocious, the unbearable,
what kills the desire to live,
is that you know the color of the eyes,
the gestures, the intimate shirt
of who tomorrow may be the enemy.
I had to do something petty so they wouldn’t kick me out of the University of Havana, where I studied for a degree in biochemistry while the classrooms and professors’ chairs of the country were bleeding their biggest names. Probably just remain silent. Like that shame two decades later that still stings your face like a slap, when you run across despicable acts like that the Ministry of Higher Education (MES) and the Superior Art Institute (ISA) imposed on Henry Constantin, a student expelled from the Audiovisual Communication program, from the Faculty of Audiovisual Media Arts (FAMCO). It would seem that Cuba never tires of repeating the same grotesque and perhaps convenient script.
I’ll never forget the stifling impression provoked by the graffiti, “To be young and not to be a revolutionary is a biological contradiction” (Salvador Allende) in the old charitable hospital in Luyano where my father had just died on August 13, 2000, on the almost prehistoric 74th birthday of Fidel Castro. My father was neither young nor revolutionary. And I felt that imported slogan like a sentence of civil or physical death that one day would touch me. In fact, it already touched me. To Henry Konstantin (b. Camagüey, 1984) it happened again just last week.
His visibility has cost him the record of being expelled by force from three Cuban universities. In 2006, midway through the third year of a degree in Journalism from the University of the Oriente (Santiago de Cuba), they expelled him for technically not meeting the minimum attendance requirement. His research project on the poor acceptance of the official press at the village level was precisely a poor acceptance in an academic department. Rafael Fonseca, professor of Research Methodology, was charged with the task of disproving such daring theories from the cradle. Not without the concomitant complicity of professor Isel Fernández Campanioni, head of the Department of Journalism and Social Communication, who had approved fifteen “days off” for Henry Constantine for a family situation (including the birth of his son), and later those same “unexcused absences” were the key piece in the mini-act of repudiation with which he was tossed from the classroom.
It is here that they separated him from the Federation of University Students (FEU) and the Union of Young Communists (UJC). But the small importance of “absences” still left a glimmer of hope for rehabilitation: he lost a year on the street, but the offender could return to present evidence in order to re-enter higher education.
Henry Constantin persisted and in 2008 returned for his third year of a Bachelor of Journalism, this time at the “Marta Abreu” Central University of Las Villas. In his practicum at the end of the course he prepared a report on the repercussions of the figure of Hubert Matos on the press media of Camagüey in the early 60’s. The journalist Alexander Jiménez cut him off him with a counterproposal, better to focus on José Martí. Konstantin Henry understands the wink, but chooses for his topic the theme of journalistic censorship suffered in life and death by The Apostle.
On Radio Cadena Agramonte, his practicum tutor, Miozotis Fabelo Pinares, correspondent of Radio Rebelde, is in charge of disapproving the script of Henry Constantin, for a host of structural technicalities and thematic despotisms. In closing, she renders insult in a report where each protest of the student means another aggravating factor, which even implicated the ideological representative at the provincial Communist Party of Cuba (PCC). A suspended internship is not counted, so the punishment is repeated, and he loses another year, wherever the university decides to place the student.
Henry Constantine decided to continue attending classes while his appeal was resolved at ministerial level (it would take months and he would not like to repeat another year if the case should turn out in his favor). They warned all the “cadres” and “factors” of the high study center. They considered him in resistance and even applied a disciplinary proceeding in absentia, which culminated with his body pushed outside the perimeter of the university, with threats of violence by the breath diluted by the alcoholic breath of the personnel who complied with the order.
The case fell into the hands of human rights activists and was denounced in the independent and foreign press. “It was politicized,” as it is customary to say in Cuba with a look of resignation. So MES decided to go for the most violent headline: Henry Constantine could never re-enter any university in the country. Then he decided to play dirty.
Change of scenery and in 2009, having ranked first in the national proficiency testing and in Spanish and History, he enrolled in the Communication Studies of the ISA. He omitted the truth, which is a vengeful way to lie. He simply declared his aborted stay at the University of the Oriente. In addition, he was already collaborating by then on the alternative magazine Coexistence (directed by Dagoberto Valdés) and managing a blog about travel on the rebellious portal Voces Cubanas.
Fate disposes. Returning from a couple of years of political nightmare, it was reiterated to Henry Constantin, this time with no legal right to file a claim, as they had caught him at fault when it was discovered that he had been expelled for life from higher education. After several intimate warnings (“I am sharpening a knife to put a little spin on it when I poke you,” he was warned cheerfully by one of his interviewers/interrogators from the FAMCO Disciplinary Committee), the ousting coincided minutely with Henry Constantín’s recent joining of the board of the magazine Coexistence and his preparation — with filmmaker’s credit — of the alternative audiovisual “Citizens’s Reasons,” with critical journalist Reinaldo Escobar in the role of moderator.
A last resort of hoping to stay at his dorm at ISA for the 48 hours he was given to remove himself, also did not work. Victor Gonzalez, dean of students, led a sort of joint operation, between the leaders of the FEU and guards on duty, the next day (Thursday, May 26, at almost midnight). With all his belongings gathered in nylon bags, Henry Constantine was forced to ride in a car that drove him to La Coubre Station, where for the first time in his entire career he was given a pass to buy a ticket home from the “waiting list.” Soon after, that same morning, they came down on the ISA students who publicly expressed their stupor as witnesses to the incident.
Caught in the “biological contradiction” of “being young” and not being “revolutionary,” Henry Constantín should commit suicide now, leaving a pathetic note to the rector of the ISA or perhaps the Minister of MES. As he still retains the will to survive a sick era of exclusions, exhausting one generation after another since the very beginning of modern times, Henry Constantin, suddenly homeless in the “capital of all Cubans,” sits down to talk with me with our backs to our city and faces to the black sea of another moonless midnight in this Havana so humiliating for its inhabitants.
“The least important are the political ideas,” he says, letting me scribble notes and interrupt to pry into the details of his biography narrated here,” nor even each student’s projection of what he thinks. What is really serious, throughout my university expulsions, and those of other guys I know, what has been the most sad, is the human damage in the environment of punishment. The friends who refuse to defend you, roommates who are silent, the lover who forgets everything they felt, the professors who let the “volunteers” in the classroom (as not one teacher did when they were after the medical students in 1871), who having shared the same classroom, the same food, the same parties, now you attack without warning.”
“The destruction of a student in Cuba, for his ideas, the damage precisely because of this sharp spiritual deformation takes over everyone around him, and that is rooted in fear. The message to my classmates of the national student body, more than making them think about what the political, economic or social system Cuba should have, is how in the end do they recover the annulled human condition, and their faith in others and in themselves.”
“This time, in the case of ISA, which has been the most independent of the state schools across Cuba, where I observed for two years, it is obvious that my expulsion was due to a higher necessity, and cyclical. Nor are the events of these days random and their victims have been, always, people with some relationship with the blogger Yoani Sanchez, the lay leader Dagoberto Valdez: examples are Pedro Pablo Oliva, Servando Blanco, Juan Carlos Fernández … On the earlier occasions it would all arranged to make it look like it was about events, without regard to my personal views, but the ISA had in its hands the excuse to kick me out, and they only did it now.”
“In addition, the audiovisuals of official television in the program “Cuba’s Reasons” presented copious warnings about the situation of intellectuals, bloggers and Cuban artists, and the ISA, the so-called University of the Arts, with its history of liberal thought, artistic irreverence, and a thunderous two-day hunger strike in October 2009 (where I collaborated on its documentation and dissemination), still seems a land lost to government control. It’s not by chance that the university was chosen by the Politburo of the Cuban Communist Party for the political-ideological process of closing down Cuban universities, conducted in early 2011. Henry Constantín expelled for the third time is just one more step in the adjustment of the broken mechanism of the Cuban state.”
May 31 2011