(La traducción al español realizada por el propio autor será puesta en breve. Blogger.)
I was about to turn fifteen, the time one is first invited to attend a Cuban “quinceañera” debutant party. With ingenuity and cunning, I had managed to let my hair grow long, almost touching my shoulders, in spite of my parents instructions to get a hair cut as soon as possible, and my teachers’ no less peremptory admonitions to the same effect. My high school friend Tania had invited me to her cousin Adele’s quinceañera party and I was glad to oblige, feeling my own coming of age something transcendental. After much rehearsing of the formal choreography required in such cases to open the ball involving the fifteen couples that formed the debutante’s entourage, of which I had been invited to be a part, we were ready to party. The chosen evening, things began as planned with all the pomp and circumstance of the occasion, and once these were concluded, the real dancing and fun began. The dance had been legitimately booked and rented by the parents of the debutant, for the purpose of this birthday celebration, the Cuban equivalent of what is known in the States as a Sweet Sixteen celebration. The person in charge of playing music for the occasion was one of us, a kid named Ventura, with a notorious magic touch to find and play all kinds of good records. Everything was going fine as we listened to the music of recordings that had been smuggled into Cuba by some diplomat’s child or some other means: the chords and riffs from Carlos Santana, the pleasing melodies of José Feliciano and the work of other musicians popular with youth; when suddenly the music was interrupted, and a lot of yelling and cursing could be heard directed at us. Uninvited, the forces of public order had intruded and broke up what they considered a dangerous criminal activity. Some parents present as chaperons tried to reason with the authorities, but to no avail. They were merely chastised by them. Boys and girls were separated into two groups. The girls were told to leave with their chaperons, while we boys were all lined up in front of a wall with our hands against it. Although the mothers accompanying their daughters were permitted to leave with them, they were reprimanded for their permissiveness and lack of revolutionary combativeness and consciousness. The target and/or presumed cause of this raid, was the stack of records being played. Ventura, seventeen years old, long hair, tight pants and loose shirt with flowery design, was pushed out of the building and taken into custody by two officers while we remained inside waiting for some decision on their part. The stack of records was confiscated, and a big show was made of breaking several of Santana’s and Feliciano’s albums, as if to show us what we had in store. (Ironically, many years later, after my departure from Cuba, I happened to witness none other than Carlos Santana himself, sporting a fashionable T-shirt imprinted with a prominent portrait of Che Guevara while performing at the Academy Awards ceremony in which a popular movie celebrating the life and exploits of a young and entirely fictitious Guevara had been nominated. I confess my heart froze first with disbelieve and then with anger, remembering the many occasions in which through the years we had been told that Santana was not only a mediocre musician, but a sellout to American imperialism as well; a bad influence from which we had better keep our distance.) Finally, we were forced to climb on the back of several trucks waiting outside. Needless to say this was a terrifying experience for a boy my age. Conducted to Police headquarters we spent the rest of the night incommunicado in a huge patio surrounded by a thick wall. In the early hours of the morning we were told to gather in front of an official who informed us we were being taught a lesson for our own good, and that we would soon be released after signing some documents and “visiting the barbershop”. With this last remark, meant to be sarcastic, he actually indicated we all were to have our heads quickly shaved by a group of barbers given this task, who were already occupying the center of the expanse that held us captive. I regret to admit that my parents and teachers approved of the lesson I was presumably taught that night, save for the part that concerned both parties having to monitor and report our activities to the authorities, for a period of fifteen days (symbolic I think). We were not officially arrested or put under house arrest, only under scrutiny.
I grew up without freely being able to listen to the sounds other youth around the world were listening to: No Rolling Stones, no Beatles, save for an occasional song played on national radio to give a false impression of openness, but nothing deemed inappropriate by the Cuban authorities. If you did, you were doing so at your own peril. No Celia Cruz either for that matter, nor any other popular Cuban artist who had fled the country, and even many who, although still living in Cuba, were considered “problematic” for a number of reasons: his or her homosexuality, alleged or proclaimed; his or her “social conduct” in other areas. Even those who would become later, much later, known as, the voices of the “New ‘revolutionary’ Song” had to first conform to the dictums and demands of the State-run and controlled radio and television media. At any moment, a popular singer, actor or artistic public figure (national or international) would simply disappear from the limelight and never be heard from again, or at best relegated to an occasional cabaret appearance or restaurant presentation. Most others would languish in limbo while those who exhibited a revolutionary spirit, which often meant denouncing what were considered the revolutionary transgressions of their fellow artists, were granted the possibility of recording and/or traveling abroad, among other prizes. That is how in the 1970’s out of the ashes of Cuban music, and in the midst of one of the worst periods of repression within Cuba, there rose like a false phoenix of legend the orchestra Los Van Van, despised by most members of my generation for this very reason. Los Van Van, officially promoted at the expense of an entire culture would become known abroad as popular Cuban music incarnate. Their artistic merit aside, the fame and acclamation of “los Van-Van” originated first and foremost in the political correctness and opportunism that made them possible, and came at the expense of a myriad of equally talented musicians, in the same manner that Alicia Alonso’s fame, stands not only on her own merits, but on the sacrificing of generations of dancers who could only be second to “la prima ballerina assoluta” of the National Cuban Ballet Company, the pride and “the pain in the neck” of the regime, considering the number of gay men and women that integrated its ranks.
After decades of this sort of strict state control over the arts and popular music, enter Ry Cooder. People in the United States and elsewhere became infatuated with the recordings of the Buena Vista Social Club, which he presented as being his great discovery of extraordinary, forgotten representatives of the Cuban tradition in music. Few knew or cared to know that these were only a sampling of a large number of great musicians who after a long and glorious career, or at the very peak of it, suffered the ostracism imposed on them by the monopoly and arbitrariness of the Cuban state over all the means of communication, a practice that resulted in putting an abrupt end to their careers. So even if not involved in any form of “counterrevolutionary” activism, which would have landed them in prison, these artists, just by being considered at some point in time to be no longer of interest to Cuban culture by the self-appointed cultural authorities of the Revolution, were doomed to oblivion. In a country where even the right to purchase or sell a set of guitar strings, not to mention an entire instrument, is solely the privilege of the government and the acquisition of such commodities on the side could land you in jail under the provisions of Cuban revolutionary laws, many musicians were simply forced to give up their careers. Many that had played for a living for years in a professional capacity were simply told that they lacked the qualifications to be considered professional musicians anymore, and therefore put in a category that allowed them to only “receive” instruments and be given venues in which to play only when these were allotted to non professionals in good political standing. This in turn meant no recordings, no public presentations, no salaries, etc., essentially a devaluation of the person as well as of the professional.
The story of the rise and fall of one of Cuba’s greatest composers and cultural icons, Meme Solis, serves as one of the best examples of the real tragedy Cuban culture suffered under the tyrannical Castro regime, and is by no means exceptional. In brief: The «Meme Solis’ quartet» shared with another popular quartet of the time, known as “Los Zafiros,” the favor and attention of young people during the first decade of Castro’s Revolution, but sooner or later both groups started to encounter difficulties that had to do with what the regime expected from them, or what it was not willing to accept, that is, “degeneracy” of any kind, “affectation”, “extravagance”; in summary: conduct unbecoming or improper, even if this was a matter of their private lives, for there was no longer a distinction permitted between one’s private and public life in the eyes of revolutionary morality as enforced by the communist rulers, except, of course, for the Maximum Leader himself, whose life, even his place of residence was (still is) a secret to most Cubans, those living within Cuba, that is. «Los Meme», as they were known to their fans all over the island were allowed to record and succeed until one day their so-called extravagant behavior and feared bad influence over their followers was no longer tolerated. That was very likely the day the owner of the famous Olympia Theater in Paris wanted to extend individual contracts to both «Los Meme» and «Los Zafiros», but the real boss (Castro and his goons), said no, and that was the end of it. In 1968 the so-called “revolutionary offensive” (offensive indeed to any semblance of sanity left in Cuban life) permanently closed down all remaining bars and cabarets, except those for authorized Cuban radio and television performers. On December 1969, ostracized and desperate, no doubt fearing for his personal safety, Meme Solís requested permission to quietly leave the country. His request was ignored, and for twenty years the eagerly expected authorization was refused and the name of the singer, composer and maestro definitively erased from the annals of Cuban music as written in politically correct literature and history circles in and outside Cuba.
Meme’s fears were far from unfounded, for against a façade of revolutionary fervor and enthusiasm, a public relations fanfare generated for domestic as well as international consumption that was echoed and trumpeted abroad by the Castro propaganda machinery and the well meaning sympathizers of the so-called “extraordinary achievements of the Revolution,” an actual civil war incited by Castro’s repressive policies was taking place, incited by the many atrocities perpetrated “in the name of the people” against real people. In the Escambray mountain range at the center of the island, a rural peasant uprising against the abuses and arbitrariness of the Castro government took place. It would take Castro’s militias more than six years to curtail it, although for political purposes he announced to the outside world the end of the war before it had actually terminated, a feat that required the relocation of entire towns to other regions of the country where they remain to this day, their residents forbidden to return ever again to their ancestral homes. Entire groups of people were being repressed for simply belonging to one or another category of individuals deemed dangerous, or potentially dangerous by, among others, Comander Ernesto “Che” Guevara. These individuals were interned in labor camps supposedly aimed at their re-education, and known as UMAPS, acronym for Military Units to Aid Production. Homosexuals, non violent political dissenters, nonconformists, seminarians and/or religious individuals, musicians, artists, writers, and anyone deemed anti-social were grabbed in the streets at different times, or called for a deceitful interview that ended up in their being forcibly transported long distances to one of the labor camps without any prior or subsequent notice to their families. At first, the existence of such camps was kept semi-secret until it was no longer possible and several international protests such as that of the Matachine Society in New York City, one of the original national gay organizations in this country, staged protests against the incarceration of Cuban homosexuals in front of the United Nations. The beat poet Allen Ginsberg, invited to Havana to serve on the jury in the Casa de las Americas’ yearly literary contest, voiced concerns about the internment of homosexuals during his abbreviated stay in Cuba; abbreviated because he was suddenly expelled by the revolutionary authorities allegedly for his liaisons with among others the young Cuban poet José Mario, and for having said in a conversation spied upon by the secret police, he thought “‘Che’ Guevara was good looking and that he would have liked to have sex with him.” Ginsberg was sent packing and put aboard a plane that took him to Prague. But José Mario, like many other Cubans, was sent to one of the labor camps in the inaccessible interior of Camagüey province. Others like poet and short story writer Ana María Simo, from Mario’s group, was forcibly taken away from her house in the middle of the night and submitted to a series of electroshock therapies to cure her of her maladies. Later returned to her family under house arrest, she was eventually allowed to live in exile in France in 1968. In fact the whole “El Puente” group lead by José Mario disappeared, disbanded by Castro himself who was heard saying at the University of Havana, “leave that bridge (el puente) to me. I’ll blow it up”. All books printed and those titles about to be printed by Mario and his group were confiscated and quickly turned into pulp, and I don’t mean fiction.
José Mario’s, Ana María Simo’s and Meme Solís’ stories as victims of censorship and repression under the Castro tyranny, is not, I must insist, an uncommon story. Separately, they illustrate a handful in a gamut of procedures applied by the Castro regime over the years to definitively censor any form of dissent.
I began by recalling a personal experience of my youth intimately connected to censorship, and continued by referring to repression as affecting both literature and what we may term popular culture, because too often when talking about censorship, we the literati and academicians tend to focus our attention on well known writers, painters, cinematographers, etc., thereby personalizing their plight, but also, all too often narrowing the scope of the effects of censorship when we should be addressing, certainly in Cuba’s case, an extensive and entrenched phenomena, inseparable and intrinsic to the ideology of tyranny, and particularly to regimes such as Castro’s with their professed hatred and disdain for anything resembling democracy or individual freedom. I want to point out that censorship in Castro’s Cuba has been aimed from the very beginning against not only individual rights but against the collective right as well: totalitarian, absolute; successfully carried out over the years, with the complicity and the complacency abroad of many who claim to represent in American or free European societies the ideals of freedom and social justice.
There exists, it seems, a double standard among advocates of the Castro regime. Laws passed in the US in an effort to curb illegal drug trafficking or the threat of terrorism, which potentially are significant limitations to our individual rights, are seen as flagrant abuses of power, while a Cuban system of no guaranteed rights of the individual in the first place, where the only lawyer showing up at your trial (in the very rare case you ever get one) is there to represent the state and whose only role is to state for the record what crime it has already been determined you committed; this mockery of human dignity is embraced. The usual argument for tolerating this obvious disconnect is to focus on the alleged social justice that supposedly thrives in revolutionary Cuban society as exemplified by its system of free education and universal health care. Allow me to address this directly.
Before coming to this country I was myself an educator. The fraud our educational system became under Castro and its deterioration over the years can only be hidden by statistics provided by the Cuban government to a Unesco committee formed by unquestioning and complicit nations whose interest are more often than not coincidental with those of the Cuban authorities. As for our health care system, I suggest you direct your attention to the many serious reports and studies from independent health care providers in Cuba, who because of their negative evaluations were subsequently subjected to harassment and/or imprisonment, such as doctor Darcy Ferrer, or the organization of “Doctors Without Borders” based in France, rather than pay one second of attention to the doctored public health data spewed out by “official” sources. Two personal stories speak mountains. First, I myself was subjected to one session after another of nine electroshock “therapies” while in the army, where I had been drafted under the “Mandatory Military Service” law, in order to presumably cure me of my homosexuality. When after my first session I asked the psychiatrist to terminate the treatment because I was afraid of what it was doing to me and the horrible side effects I was experiencing, I was told in no uncertain terms that under the revolution I was government property, and therefore had no say in the matter. I was forced to undergo the remaining 8 sessions against my will. Second, my mother died in Cuba of a colon cancer in 2000, a disease that in this country is now considered very treatable because of early diagnosis and intervention, but which went undiagnosed for two years there and thus led to her inevitable demise. I had to purchase on the black market (within the hospital) on one of my visits to Cuba to see her, twelve bottles of hyperalimentation fluid because she was essentially dying of starvation, being fed with only glucose for over a week before my arrival. I can tell you of the abysmal conditions faced by Cubans that I witnessed in this hospital, and I don’t mean just wastebaskets near overflowing or bedpans not being emptied in a timely manner that unfortunately happens all too often in the US, what I mean is soiled mattresses that remain uncovered unless the patient’s family can supply the sheets and spilled human excrement remaining on the floor for hours. In the adjacent wing, foreigners invited by Castro under programs subsidized by the Chavez regime in Venezuela and other Latin American countries, enjoyed all sorts of amenities, under what has become an apartheid system that affects Cubans in general, and black Cubans in particular, although this is not an apartheid clearly delineated along racial lines, but rather those demarcated by the Party. Much can be said about how the United Nations and similar organizations hide and disguise the real situation of health care in Cuba, as well as most of the American and European free press, in what ends up being censorship of the truth in favor of presenting a positive image of the Castro regime.
Another way the press outside Cuba participates in a sort of de facto censorship is its failure to report on significant dissident movements and events occurring within the country. These groups of brave men and women, practically abandoned to their fate by the rest of the world, have resisted, and by so doing have paid a heavy price but have made some inroads. These are today’s independent librarians, journalists, lawyers, economists, medical doctors, and others, who by their very existence within Cuba as autonomous entities constitute a threat to the regime. Castro feared both the growing number of these men and women and the effect they were having in and outside Cuba, when in the year 2003 he decided to put an abrupt end to their “treacherous activities” by throwing them into prison, precisely when the world press’s attention was focused on the US and allied forces’ invasion of Iraq. This wave of repression known as Primavera negra or Black Spring was at best, buried in the “supplement” pages of American newspapers, if reported at all. The free press, or at least a large segment of it, has shown over and over again that it is more inclined to advocate the rights of professed terrorists in Guantanamo or elsewhere, than the rights of ordinary Cubans in Castro’s gulag. And when it comes to ordinary people fighting for their rights, Cubans are matter-of-factly ignored. The assumption is that there is no struggle there; or worst yet, that no struggle is needed there, where people are free and content with their lives!
Here are other examples of Cubans having to take a back seat on the press coverage bus. How many times have you heard that Nelson Mandela is the political prisoner who spent the most number of years in prison? Certainly 27 long years for rightly opposing apartheid in South Africa is a gross injustice, but I am certain the name Eusebio Peñalver means nothing to you. Also a black man, he spent 28 years of his life in Fidel Castro’s prisons under the most horrid conditions, suffered all sorts of tortures and when finally released by the grace of His Maximum Leadership Fidel Castro, he was sent to Miami, to die in exile, never to return to his country again. Peñalver had been an opponent to Batista’s dictatorship, but then he also opposed what he considered the deceitful betrayal of Fidel Castro’s ideals and the imposition of his tyranny. Another black man, Antunez, spent seventeen years in prison for screaming at a public rally, “communism was an error and pure utopia”. He was twenty-five at the time. The beatings he suffered while in prison and the terrible conditions of his imprisonment had him on the brink of death on more than one occasion. Yes, Cuba’s gulag is filled with prisoners, many of whom are not even deemed political by the government, but ordinary criminals, and many of these men and women are black, but it seems the powerful media of the free world is as good at censoring this information as the Castro government itself.
Censorship and repression often go hand in hand, we might even say censorship is the most accomplished and “clean”, as in effective, kind of repression there is. For dictatorship, and more concretely tyranny, is the embodiment per excellence and the concretization of censorship: the tyrant himself, the almighty Censor incarnate. By the grace bestowed upon himself, he becomes, the State, the nation, the people and their traditions, wants and needs, usurping their existence and imposing a mold for conformity and uniformity, according to which all the serf-children must conform and the only free thinking adult is he, the despot, as Supreme Censor. There is no other name for this than feudalism, pure and simple. There is nothing modern or exciting, nor ideologically challenging about Castro’s Cuba or similar regimes. There is nothing that more resembles the absolute despot of old, with his indisputable right of life and death over his subjects, than Castro, nor is there anything that more resembles a feudal realm than totalitarian Cuba. Now, if you believe that traveling backwards in time as if in a time machine to the darkest moment in the Middle Ages, and imposing this social structure on millions of modern men, if that is your idea of an exciting experience, then you are right: Castro’s Cuba is an exciting, dynamic place and his social experiment with humankind a valid one.
Before we open the floor to commentaries and questions from those of you who wish to do so, I would like to add a final personal note I consider not out of place here. My partner in life and I are at present, have been for a number of years now, embarked in a labor of absolute love regarding the salvaging and preservation, albeit in a modest way, of many works of Cuban literature censured by the Castro regime, or condemned to oblivion for a number of reasons, all of them in essence, political. We are committed to publishing and/or reprinting works whose very existence the new generations of Cubans in and outside the island do not know. It is a way of contributing to an uncertain future, to a dream of freedom when a new Cuba can be possible and young people don’t have to fear arrest for the kind of music they listen to, or for their taste in literature or art, or for their sexual preference or demeanor.
© 2009 Ph. Dr. Rolando H. Morelli
(Columbia University, New York. Conference. April 12, 2009.)