Humor in Times of Fear / Yoani Sánchez

From time to time they invite you to be on some comedy show on TV, but you don’t earn a living from this. You prefer to be hired by one of the exclusive restaurants that have begun to spring up all over Havana. Being paid in convertible pesos, a plate a food, and the freedom to make fun of anything you want are guaranteed in these entrepreneurial private spaces. With the microphone in hand and before a select audience of wealthy people, you make those jokes prohibited in front of the national cameras, wisecracks you would never be allowed in a national TV studio. You blast away sarcastically at the internal emigration regulations, and comment, snidely, that you’ve made “three illegal attempts to enter the Capital.”

As the night advances, the drinks come and go and your tongue becomes sharper, more biting. You start in on the political jokes, veiled but at times direct, when your hand makes the sign of a beard under your chin. Later, you launch into a long monologue about the poverty of your village in the east, clarifying that your mom wants to move to the city “to be able to get more eggs on the ration.” You seem different from the guy on national television, who just laughs about his own physique. Between the tables, and with the consent of the owners of the place, you also joke about the chief of police in some little sugar workers’ town who plays the local tyrant. Then comes the extensive — and coarse — collection of jokes about sex, race, and homophobia, without mincing any words and with the same crudeness one hears on the street.

The customers leave the place asking themselves if it was really the same comedian they’d seen on prime time TV. That one is funny, but the one they’ve just discovered here, under the protection of the private restaurant, is irresistibly comic, visibly free. When they see you again on some CubaVision or RebelTV program, they will notice that of your wide repertoire you only include the least uncomfortable part, a carefully chosen and censored parcel of your humor.