Questions Like Stones / 14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar

Juan Manuel Cao during the interview. (Ivan Canas)
Juan Manuel Cao during the interview. (Ivan Canas)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Reinaldo Escobar, Miami, 4 July 2016 — For more than two years, the Mirror program, broadcast by America TeVé, has counted on the drive of Cuban journalist Juan Manuel Cao. The channel abounds in information, opinions, debates and especially interviews where, with great frequency, the issue of Cuba emerges.

Cao, born in 1961, is a Cuban educated under the current system: he was a young “pioneer” in primary school, he attended one of the “schools in the countryside,” he was awarded a scholarship, he lived on the ration card, stood in endless lines and knows what it is to travel hanging out the door of a packed bus. To complete his Cuban experience he spent two years in prison accused of enemy propaganda, and finally emigrated. His book “The Impertinent” (2015) is filled with amazing stories of his professional life.

On 21 July 20016, while covering the 30th Mercosur Summit being held in Cordoba, Argentine, he had a close encounter with Fidel Castro and took the opportunity to demand the release of a noted Cuban scientist, Dr. Hilda Molina, whom the government was not allowing to leave the island.

Escobar. A few days after your encounter with Fidel Castro he issued his “Proclamation from the commander to the people of Cuba” where he renounced all his posts for health reasons. Some see the disgust that you caused him as the direct cause of that situation. Ten years later, how do you assess that episode?

Cao. The Cuban people, to which we belong, go back and forth between seriousness and mockery. This statement is an exaggeration. On 30 July 2006, shortly after Fidel Castro made his announcement, I was on 8th Street and I found myself among graffiti that said “Cao gave him a KO” and others that were similar, between seriousness and a joke. Over the years people have continued to repeat this legend and it still amazes me.

Escobar. But the fact is that when he announced his illness he mentioned “the enormous effort made to visit the Argentina city of Cordoba” among the reasons that his health “has resisted all medical analysis, it was subjected to extreme stress, and it was broken.”

Cao. Yes, I remember that’s what he said, but I think he was referring to an incident with President Kirchner and his wife Cristina who was then the first lady. I remember that Fidel Castro had no intention of participating in that Mercosur Summer, but he went because Hugo Chavez invited him. Today we know that in midair he received a message signed by the Argentine president where (on the initiative of Cristina) he was asked to let Dr. Hilda Molina travel to Argentina to see her family.

They say he was so upset that he gave the order for the plane to turn around and go back to Havana. He didn’t do it because Chavez himself persuaded him that he should participate in the event.

Escobar. But the disagreement was limited to that message, was not it?

Cao. Not exactly. At the first official dinner hosted in honor of the presidents, Fidel Castro did not attend, and not only that, but he asked Chavez, Lula and Evo Morales not to go. As a result of this sabotage they had to fill those spaces with figures from the second line of the governments so the absences wouldn’t be noticed so much. Cristina was furious and threatened to go to Havana to meet with the Ladies in White. The situation was very tense.

Escobar. Can you relate the details of that encounter?

Cao. As is known, Cuban journalists are not allowed to get close to senior government leaders. Not even officials. An interview like the one Castro granted to Barbara Walters in 1977 has not been given to any Cuban journalist, not even to the official press. So when an opportunity arises all you can do is ask questions from the barricade, like throwing stones at the top of your lungs.

That day they were scheduled to take the traditional “family photo” with all the leaders and suddenly it was a big mess which led to not only photographers entering the room but several reporters. Shortly before I’d asked Carlos Lage the question and tried to ask Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque, but without results.

Escobar. Why were you so interested in Dr. Hilda Molina? Perhaps there were more “journalistic” questions?

Cao. The right question, from the information point of view, would have been what was Cuba doing in Mercosur and surely there were others more interesting. On my return almost no one mentioned the matter in Miami.

Escobar. Do you remember how you formulated that question and why it was considered an attack?

Cao. Long ago, among journalists in exile there was debate over how to address Fidel Castro. One looks like a fool screaming like the rest “Fidel, Fidel” or like a subordinate soldier saying “comandante.” I chose to omit any nickname and said directly, “Dr. Hilda Molina, why not release her, why not let her see her grandchildren?” At that time I did not know the history of the Kirchners having asked, it was just the question that came to mind in the midst of a battle with other journalists for mine to be listened to.

Escobar. How would you describe Fidel Castro’s reaction?

Cao. Initially he just asked my name and I said, “My name is Juan Manuel Cao, I am Cuban.” And then, as I saw he was listening to me, I repeated the question about Dr. Molina, to which he replied: “Who pays you for coming to ask questions like that?” I just managed to tell him that that was my job, that nobody paid me for asking that question. Almost immediately they took me out of the place.

Later I learned that he justified his absence at another meeting arguing that my friends could be preparing an attack. Also something very nice happened. Another journalist, I think he was an Argentine, asked if he had already prepared his transition to leave power and Castro gets confused and thinks that journalist is me and explodes into a real crisis of anger that motivates his assistants to take him out, almost dragging him away from the press. Everything is recorded and is on YouTube.

Escobar. Who were you working for at that time?

Cao. Starting in 1992 I worked at Telemundo and then I began at America Tevé. I did not want to go to the summit, actually I was tired of hearing the same lies, the same justifications. Miguel Cosio, who was the news director, was the one who insisted I go to Mercosur.

Escobar. If you had the opportunity to meet with Raul Castro now what would you ask?

Cao. Why, if you are so confident of popular support have you not held competitive elections? One could also ask him why he hasn’t simply declared as a hereditary monarchy already…

Escobar. After almost 28 years of absence, would you like to go back to Cuba?

Cao. It wouldn’t make sense to let me in if my books aren’t allowed in, my opinions, my TV reports. I want to enter as a whole being, I’m not interested in being in Cuba physically if I can’t be there spiritually.

Escobar. You don’t feel nostalgic?

Cao. I have no nostalgia. I just heard a new song from the group Orishas. It gives the impression that the Malecon, the sea, the color of the sky, palms are more important than the right to speak, the right to meet with others to discuss. Maybe it looks very cool on my part, but it seems to me a cheap, silly, frivolous nostalgia. I have seen in other latitudes skies bluer than Cuba’s and even so I don’t stop being Cuban. Almost 30 years after having left the island today I know the history and reality of Cuba better than what I would have known if I wasn’t far away. Outside, here, I have learned information that makes me feel more Cuban.

Escobar. What if the necessary changes happen in Cuba, then would you go back?

Cao. Then I would have to ask Cuban society if they are interested in someone like me reinserting himself into it.