Havana-Beirut Calling. Next Stop: Freedom

112

Walking the uneven, broken and in many places nonexistent pavement of La Habana Vieja, the Old City of Havana, is a disappointing experience. It is difficult to see the precious patina of artfully framed photographs that are so easy to take here. The charm of films like Buena Vista Social Club, Wim Wenders’s oeuvre, is not really there. Reality itself contains no charm. You need to extract it and mediate through camera or keyboard of your laptop computer to achieve it. You must will it into life. Buildings here can be divided into two categories: the crumbling and already crumbled. Blind windows all above, trees and bushes protruding from what used to be stucco, piles of rubbish, piles of debris, beggars, hustlers, prostitutes and tourists; kids, playing baseball with wretched sticks and plastic bottle tops for balls, mingle with strayed dogs and miniature cats looking all like old kittens. The level of dilapidation is breathtaking.

Destruction—incidentally a topic I discussed the other day in Havana with Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello. A prominent dissident, member of the Group of Four (with Vladimiro Roca, Felix Bonne and Rene Gomez Manzano) and later of one the 75 people arrested during the Black Spring in 2003, Roque, now in her late sixties, was preparing the next issue of Comunidad, when we met in her apartment on Belascoaín Street in the city center. Her grey hair closely combed back and a fierce look in her dark eyes lend Roque defiant air. From the small balcony, she is resolutely showing me the damaged buildings around.

“In 1959 there were 176 theaters and film theaters in Havana. Today we have less than 50,” she laments. “That is a culture of destruction. The next issue of Comunidad is focused on that culture all around us. Havana looks like a city after a war.” She pauses to pierce me with her uncompromising look.

“A bit like Beirut after the civil war,” I am chipping in helpfully. “Exactly,” says Roque. “Like Beirut.”

Plastered All Over the Island…

I look at the wall of her study and among several framed pictures I see a diploma of appreciation signed by the U.S. Congresswoman from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Somewhat stupidly I ask whether Roque met her. But of course until recently most Cubans were not allowed to travel and people like Roque might face difficulties even now when most of her compatriots can obtain passport.

“She called me to congratulate,” she adds quietly.

In addition to Comunidad, a samizdat quarterly whose second issue will come out in a hundred or so copies, Roque publishes twice per month the Redecilla, a news bulletin of 475 copies.

“We have a network of 87 distributors all over the country.”

She is involved in several other clandestine activities and generally behaves as a free woman. It is an expensive freedom. A couple of weeks before our visit she was physically attacked by a neighbor working for the political police and had to wear her hand on a sling for a while. They took away her camera during the incident and returned it broken and empty. On each Wednesday, she meets with fellow dissidents here, in the second floor apartment. The meetings are regularly disrupted and often result in detentions. Roque herself was recently stopped at one of many check points that dot highways (or what they call highways in Cuba) on her way to Santa Clara, picked out of the car and sent back to Havana. Many dissidents, bloggers and independent journalists told me that the political situation got slightly less repressive in the last few weeks but Roque is clearly exempted from the trend.

Nowhere else can you picture the end of communism more vividly as a play on the iconic last scene from Godard’s A bout de souffle: With a bullet in his back the Idea runs through the street, his handsome face contorted with pain. He staggers, loses balance and falls on the pavement:

“C’est vraiment dégueulasse,” he says as he breaths one last time.

The Idea of the Revolution is dead, although you can see plenty of fresh-colored billboards plastered over the island proclaiming its victory, but like with all placard slogans these are mere decorations. Dégueulasse indeed. In the “54th year of the Revolution” you are inexorably reminded of Fidel Castro’s statement to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic from September 2010:

“The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

In case you wondered, the question was whether the Cuban model was worth exporting. I ask Jorge Oliveira Castillo why was Fidel suddenly so frank and with an American journalist to boot. Oliveira, the poet, novelist, essayist, commentator for Radio Martí and head of PEN Club Cuba received me in a small, tidy apartment in the Habana Vieja.

“He is an old man. He was just babbling and happened to stumble upon the truth,” says Oliveira, one of the former 75ers, the dissidents who received stiff, twenty-plus-year sentences in 2003. All are freed by now thanks mostly to the efforts of the Catholic Church.

Oliveira has just finished his seventh book of poems and is looking for a publisher abroad. In 2008, the Czech Center of PEN Club published his collection of poems, En cuerpo y alma/Na těle i na duši, in Spanish and Czech respectively. We discuss when the communist regime might finally disintegrate and Oliveira is quite critical of Cuban dissent that he sees as divided and unable to focus on the basics of politics. In his somewhat pessimistic view, the dissent may have missed the right time to use the terrible social situation, convert it into a viable program and win over as many people as possible.

Freedom, Oxygen and Civilization

By all accounts however, the system has lost legitimacy. It does not work even for Cuba anymore…, as Fidel says. So there you go. Even top communists know the full extent of the charade over which they preside, courtesy of cheap oil from Venezuela. In the last decade or so, the regime loosened its grip on the economy somewhat, although it certainly cannot be accused of following the Chinese path down to capitalism (still quaintly called ‘the socialism with the Chinese characteristics’ in China).

“Freedom is like oxygen. You only know how important it is when you do not have it,” Wu’er Kaixi, the Chinese dissident, once remarked.

Studying the beautifully restored Teatro Tomás Terry in the graceful southern port of Cienfuegos, I am thinking of the intimate connections between freedom and civilization. Not political freedom; civilization is known to have flourished outside it. It is also hard to define civilization. Much like freedom, you know when it is not there. Still perceptions can deceive. If you knew nothing about the history and culture of Cuba in the last 200 years, you could easily be under the false impression that this is just another banana republic run by a military junta. It is the other bitter indictment of the Cuban communist regime that in mere six decades it managed to nearly wipe out the great culture that flourished here till the start of the 1960s.

One can find the traces of that civilization in the works of the dissident artists, musicians, in the enchanting colonial and postcolonial architecture (in better shape in some provincial towns than in Havana—Parque Martí in Cienfuegos, home to Teatro Tomás Terry, is one of the very few restored gems in Cuba), or in the two splendid buildings of the National Museum of Fine Arts. To see the glorious past here is like read a palimpsest. Civilization, it turns out, rests on free will, creativity, ambition and entrepreneurship, which communist regimes among all dictatorships did their best to suffocate. The will to express oneself freely and creatively rather than a free political system is what undergirds civilization.

That will must be defended with uncompromising dedication. The defense is largely but not exclusively in the hands of politicians from democratic countries, which should make us slightly nervous. Last September, after the mass Muslim protests against the U.S. anti-Islam film, the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, condemned the violence. She also did not forget to express her disgust of the film that she has very likely not seen. Neither have I and I am perfectly content believing that the film was idiotic. Stupid attacks on great religions like Islam do pain me too, but to start a defense of free expression with an apology is worrying.

These apologies of a kind, attempt to accommodate the sensitivities of the people who are everything but sensible, keep repeating as far along as my memory serves. The Danish cartoons of the Prophet. Theo van Gogh. Salman Rushdie might have been the trigger of the shameful round of the misplaced soul searching. He recently published a memoir of the years under the fatwa, Joseph Anton. It is in Cuba where one suddenly understands the basics clearly. They are sharpedged like Moro, the 16-century citadel seen on a clear day from Malecón, the fabled embankment of the Havana Bay. There is no apology for spree speech and the wounds or perceived hurts it inflicts. If you do not like some speech, fight back with other. That is all.

I do accept Rushdie’s basic point he makes in his memoir that he has nothing to apologize for and he would have had nothing to apologize for even had he written The Satanic Verses to offend the Muslims, which he did not. Freedom of expression is a domain of its own. The right to offend must be met with an equally valid right to offend back, not with a death sentence. In a strange way it is heartening that a book, drawing, article or a display of photographs can matter to people to the point of starting a war. The other extreme would translate into total nothingness. That doesn’t meant the war over an idea should be surrendered, that a poet languishing in a prison cell full of cockroaches and rats should not be freed. It is also the struggle that is a part of the value of expression.

Amidst the debris of the totalitarian decomposition, freedom is raising its head high like the tower of the Habana Libre Hotel (formerly Hilton) in El Nuevo Vedado. After the Black Spring of 2003 it seemed that the Cuban dissent was crushed for a decade. The opposite happened. There are thousands of dissidents in all fourteen provinces now. Many are engaged in independent journalism, from Rolando Lobaina’s Palenque Vision video reporting team in Guntánamo and Baracoa in the east through Yoel Espinoza socially committed community news in Santa Clara in the middle of the island to Dagoberto Valdés’s Catholic Convivencia Magazine in Pinar del Río in the west.

And of course, there is the famous Yoani Sánchez of the Generation Y blog, and the wellknown José Antonio Fornaris presiding over the Association for Freedom of the Press (APLP). The independent arts and culture scene is stronger and richer than it was in Czechoslovakia in 1988. The newly formed group (2010) Estado de Sats, founded and led by the impressive young civil rights activist Antonio Rodíles Gonzáles, took inspiration from Charter 77 and is pressing the government to ratify the UN covenants it has signed. These dissidents, artists and journalists take advantage of digital communication and spread their message in Cuba and beyond by CDs, memory sticks and the Internet, although the connection is painfully slow, difficult to obtain and expensive. The vector of movement in Cuba points clearly towards freedom and with it to the restoring of civilization. It is anyone’s guess when it comes but it will be sooner rather than later.

Havana-Beirut Calling. Next Stop: Freedom

Walking the uneven, broken and in many places nonexistent pavement of La Habana Vieja, the Old City of Havana, is a disappointing experience. It is difficult to see the precious patina of artfully framed photographs that are so easy to take here. The charm of films like Buena Vista Social Club, Wim Wenders’s oeuvre, is not really there. Reality itself contains no charm. You need to extract it and mediate through camera or keyboard of your laptop computer to achieve it. You must will it into life. Buildings here can be divided into two categories: the crumbling and already crumbled. Blind windows all above, trees and bushes protruding from what used to be stucco, piles of rubbish, piles of debris, beggars, hustlers, prostitutes and tourists; kids, playing baseball with wretched sticks and plastic bottle tops for balls, mingle with strayed dogs and miniature cats looking all like old kittens. The level of dilapidation is breathtaking.

Destruction—incidentally a topic I discussed the other day in Havana with Martha Beatriz Roque Cabello. A prominent dissident, member of the Group of Four (with Vladimiro Roca, Felix Bonne and Rene Gomez Manzano) and later of one the 75 people arrested during the Black Spring in 2003, Roque, now in her late sixties, was preparing the next issue of Comunidad, when we met in her apartment on Belascoaín Street in the city center. Her grey hair closely combed back and a fierce look in her dark eyes lend Roque defiant air. From the small balcony, she is resolutely showing me the damaged buildings around.

“In 1959 there were 176 theaters and film theaters in Havana. Today we have less than 50,” she laments. “That is a culture of destruction. The next issue of Comunidad is focused on that culture all around us. Havana looks like a city after a war.” She pauses to pierce me with her uncompromising look.

“A bit like Beirut after the civil war,” I am chipping in helpfully. “Exactly,” says Roque. “Like Beirut.”

Plastered All Over the Island…

I look at the wall of her study and among several framed pictures I see a diploma of appreciation signed by the U.S. Congresswoman from Florida, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. Somewhat stupidly I ask whether Roque met her. But of course until recently most Cubans were not allowed to travel and people like Roque might face difficulties even now when most of her compatriots can obtain passport.

“She called me to congratulate,” she adds quietly.

In addition to Comunidad, a samizdat quarterly whose second issue will come out in a hundred or so copies, Roque publishes twice per month the Redecilla, a news bulletin of 475 copies.

“We have a network of 87 distributors all over the country.”

She is involved in several other clandestine activities and generally behaves as a free woman. It is an expensive freedom. A couple of weeks before our visit she was physically attacked by a neighbor working for the political police and had to wear her hand on a sling for a while. They took away her camera during the incident and returned it broken and empty. On each Wednesday, she meets with fellow dissidents here, in the second floor apartment. The meetings are regularly disrupted and often result in detentions. Roque herself was recently stopped at one of many check points that dot highways (or what they call highways in Cuba) on her way to Santa Clara, picked out of the car and sent back to Havana. Many dissidents, bloggers and independent journalists told me that the political situation got slightly less repressive in the last few weeks but Roque is clearly exempted from the trend.

Nowhere else can you picture the end of communism more vividly as a play on the iconic last scene from Godard’s A bout de souffle: With a bullet in his back the Idea runs through the street, his handsome face contorted with pain. He staggers, loses balance and falls on the pavement:

“C’est vraiment dégueulasse,” he says as he breaths one last time.

The Idea of the Revolution is dead, although you can see plenty of fresh-colored billboards plastered over the island proclaiming its victory, but like with all placard slogans these are mere decorations. Dégueulasse indeed. In the “54th year of the Revolution” you are inexorably reminded of Fidel Castro’s statement to Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic from September 2010:

“The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

In case you wondered, the question was whether the Cuban model was worth exporting. I ask Jorge Oliveira Castillo why was Fidel suddenly so frank and with an American journalist to boot. Oliveira, the poet, novelist, essayist, commentator for Radio Martí and head of PEN Club Cuba received me in a small, tidy apartment in the Habana Vieja.

“He is an old man. He was just babbling and happened to stumble upon the truth,” says Oliveira, one of the former 75ers, the dissidents who received stiff, twenty-plus-year sentences in 2003. All are freed by now thanks mostly to the efforts of the Catholic Church.

Oliveira has just finished his seventh book of poems and is looking for a publisher abroad. In 2008, the Czech Center of PEN Club published his collection of poems, En cuerpo y alma/Na těle i na duši, in Spanish and Czech respectively. We discuss when the communist regime might finally disintegrate and Oliveira is quite critical of Cuban dissent that he sees as divided and unable to focus on the basics of politics. In his somewhat pessimistic view, the dissent may have missed the right time to use the terrible social situation, convert it into a viable program and win over as many people as possible.

Freedom, Oxygen and Civilization

By all accounts however, the system has lost legitimacy. It does not work even for Cuba anymore…, as Fidel says. So there you go. Even top communists know the full extent of the charade over which they preside, courtesy of cheap oil from Venezuela. In the last decade or so, the regime loosened its grip on the economy somewhat, although it certainly cannot be accused of following the Chinese path down to capitalism (still quaintly called ‘the socialism with the Chinese characteristics’ in China).

“Freedom is like oxygen. You only know how important it is when you do not have it,” Wu’er Kaixi, the Chinese dissident, once remarked.

Studying the beautifully restored Teatro Tomás Terry in the graceful southern port of Cienfuegos, I am thinking of the intimate connections between freedom and civilization. Not political freedom; civilization is known to have flourished outside it. It is also hard to define civilization. Much like freedom, you know when it is not there. Still perceptions can deceive. If you knew nothing about the history and culture of Cuba in the last 200 years, you could easily be under the false impression that this is just another banana republic run by a military junta. It is the other bitter indictment of the Cuban communist regime that in mere six decades it managed to nearly wipe out the great culture that flourished here till the start of the 1960s.

One can find the traces of that civilization in the works of the dissident artists, musicians, in the enchanting colonial and postcolonial architecture (in better shape in some provincial towns than in Havana—Parque Martí in Cienfuegos, home to Teatro Tomás Terry, is one of the very few restored gems in Cuba), or in the two splendid buildings of the National Museum of Fine Arts. To see the glorious past here is like read a palimpsest. Civilization, it turns out, rests on free will, creativity, ambition and entrepreneurship, which communist regimes among all dictatorships did their best to suffocate. The will to express oneself freely and creatively rather than a free political system is what undergirds civilization.

That will must be defended with uncompromising dedication. The defense is largely but not exclusively in the hands of politicians from democratic countries, which should make us slightly nervous. Last September, after the mass Muslim protests against the U.S. anti-Islam film, the former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, condemned the violence. She also did not forget to express her disgust of the film that she has very likely not seen. Neither have I and I am perfectly content believing that the film was idiotic. Stupid attacks on great religions like Islam do pain me too, but to start a defense of free expression with an apology is worrying.

These apologies of a kind, attempt to accommodate the sensitivities of the people who are everything but sensible, keep repeating as far along as my memory serves. The Danish cartoons of the Prophet. Theo van Gogh. Salman Rushdie might have been the trigger of the shameful round of the misplaced soul searching. He recently published a memoir of the years under the fatwa, Joseph Anton. It is in Cuba where one suddenly understands the basics clearly. They are sharpedged like Moro, the 16-century citadel seen on a clear day from Malecón, the fabled embankment of the Havana Bay. There is no apology for spree speech and the wounds or perceived hurts it inflicts. If you do not like some speech, fight back with other. That is all.

I do accept Rushdie’s basic point he makes in his memoir that he has nothing to apologize for and he would have had nothing to apologize for even had he written The Satanic Verses to offend the Muslims, which he did not. Freedom of expression is a domain of its own. The right to offend must be met with an equally valid right to offend back, not with a death sentence. In a strange way it is heartening that a book, drawing, article or a display of photographs can matter to people to the point of starting a war. The other extreme would translate into total nothingness. That doesn’t meant the war over an idea should be surrendered, that a poet languishing in a prison cell full of cockroaches and rats should not be freed. It is also the struggle that is a part of the value of expression.

Amidst the debris of the totalitarian decomposition, freedom is raising its head high like the tower of the Habana Libre Hotel (formerly Hilton) in El Nuevo Vedado. After the Black Spring of 2003 it seemed that the Cuban dissent was crushed for a decade. The opposite happened. There are thousands of dissidents in all fourteen provinces now. Many are engaged in independent journalism, from Rolando Lobaina’s Palenque Vision video reporting team in Guntánamo and Baracoa in the east through Yoel Espinoza socially committed community news in Santa Clara in the middle of the island to Dagoberto Valdés’s Catholic Convivencia Magazine in Pinar del Río in the west.

And of course, there is the famous Yoani Sánchez of the Generation Y blog, and the wellknown José Antonio Fornaris presiding over the Association for Freedom of the Press (APLP). The independent arts and culture scene is stronger and richer than it was in Czechoslovakia in 1988. The newly formed group (2010) Estado de Sats, founded and led by the impressive young civil rights activist Antonio Rodíles Gonzáles, took inspiration from Charter 77 and is pressing the government to ratify the UN covenants it has signed. These dissidents, artists and journalists take advantage of digital communication and spread their message in Cuba and beyond by CDs, memory sticks and the Internet, although the connection is painfully slow, difficult to obtain and expensive. The vector of movement in Cuba points clearly towards freedom and with it to the restoring of civilization. It is anyone’s guess when it comes but it will be sooner rather than later.

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