MSI/27N: Watching from Afar, Feeling Very Close

Nothing is more natural than to emigrate. However, the conscience of the emigrant often unwittingly mocks the very order of the universe: it distorts time and confuses space. Finally, the emigrant comes to accept that he belongs now to two countries of origin: the one he left behind and that other he always inhabits through the news and the comments of his distant friends and family.

The emigrant both suffers and appreciates the distance. He has a broader outlook in front of him; now he can connect the dots, reflect on them from a new perspective. The emigrant is there and not there. His paradox is eternal.

Today, the distance does not prevent him from becoming involved, for example, in the political life of his country.

When last November the San Isidro strike and the protest of November 27 caused unrest in the social scene and shook to some extent the authoritarian ground on which power stands in Cuba, the aftershocks of that citizens’ movement were felt in various cities around the world. We talked with some of the island’s emigrants about how they felt and how they lived these events from a distance.

Enrique del Risco (writer). New York

Cubans from the New York and New Jersey area have been demonstrating all their lives. The demonstrations shown in the photos from different periods were huge, even though in Cuba we did not know they existed. For years, Cubans from the area have been demonstrating without being part of any specific organization. We were very active, especially after the death of Orlando Zapata during a hunger strike in 2010. When the filmmaker Nils Longueira invited us to demonstrate at the height of the siege of the San Isidro Movement headquarters, many of the usual suspects in the area showed up and we got the pleasant surprise of seeing there was a much younger generation of Cubans participating in what probably were their first protests. Or it seemed that way, considering the enthusiasm they showed. And that meeting of different generations of Cubans who have lost the fear of expressing themselves —because even here the fear persists— is generating its own dynamic.

The immediacy and the first-hand knowledge you lose with distance you compensate by acquiring a broader, more inclusive and sometimes even better informed point of view. In Cuba, often you only have access to what happens immediately, while abroad people have access to what happens in Cuba, what happens in other places that can affect us directly or indirectly, and above all the accumulation of past experiences. Because in Cuba —precisely because of the dynamics of resistance, harassment and escape ending in exile— it is difficult to accumulate that experience. And so many of those who came to the N27 demonstration had no idea what had happened in 2010 with the campaign for the release of political prisoners, and could think that it was due to the miraculous virtues of the dialogue between the government and Cardinal Ortega. That’s just to give an example. What is changing everything is the fluidity with which we communicate now. That fluidity is helping us to break the barriers imposed by six decades between those on the inside and those outside the island. Martí said in 1893 from his New York exile: “That’s how we all go, in that poor land of ours, split in two, with our energies scattered around the world, living without a presence in other people’s countries, and with the foreigner sitting on the armchairs of our own country! We are becoming sour instead of loving each other. We become jealous instead of opening the way together. We love each other as if separated by the bars of a prison. It’s really the time to put an end to this!” Now, thanks to the networks, it seems that we are finally in a position to break that curse.

What we can do is to lend our support. In every way we can. Starting with the economy. Helping the Cubans on the island who are fighting for the rights of all of us. Because not only the Cubans on the island are among the citizens who more deprive of rights in the world, but those outside the island are also among the emigrants who are most abused by their government: we are not entitled to practically anything on the island because if such rights are subject to our “good behavior” with respect to the Cuban regime, then they are not rights but privileges enjoyed only by those who maintain some basic obedience. And the consulates, more than instances of representation of Cubans abroad, function as organs of surveillance and repression. So if our money is good enough for helping our families in Cuba, it must also be good enough for supporting those who defend the rights of all. We have to shake off, once and for all, the blackmail of foreign funding. If by our remittances we indirectly support the regime that is robbing us, it is time for our money to be used to get our rights back.

And as for the rest, nothing has changed. Either we all participate in the change or we condemn ourselves to remain the same for the rest of our lives. Because as long as Cubans—all Cubans, on the island and abroad— do not realize that change is everyone’s business and act accordingly, nothing will happen.

Juan-Miguel Pozo (artist). Berlin

I lived what happened in November with emotion. However much the Cuban reality dilutes itself in your own daily life when you are abroad, events like this put you back in that place you abandoned a long time ago: hope returns. San Isidro and the N27 are unprecedented phenomena. Unprecedented, especially in that ideological entelechy in which the history and reality of the Cuban people have been drowning since 1959. The 27N, a posteriori, has shown that things can be much more complex than expressing your disenchantment or your rage against the corruption and the misrule of the Cuban government. That day, the positions became much clearer. And not all of them coincide.

The truth is that here there is not a community. At least I don’t see it that way. There are probably two generations. The first was the one that decided to stay after the treaty of reunification of West Germany with the East, thirty years ago. The so-called “Reisekader”, made up of political cadres, cheap labor, students and athletes. You cannot compare this community to that of Miami or Spain, to mention a different case; those communities are more organized and are more direct in their opposition to the policies of the Cuban government. These people continued to take advantage of a personal strategy that they had already been employing, which was to follow the path that chance and history had laid in front of them and take advantage of a regime change. The other generation, which could be the one I belong to, is more heterogeneous and decentralized in their purposes, although much more critical than the previous one.

What should civil society do… That’s the million-dollar question! In reality, the most important thing is that the demands and clamor of San Isidro and the 27N should reach more into the popular fabric, the ordinary people. To create a culture of peaceful opposition, to normalize what is divergent, what is different. To normalize the criticism, not only towards the cultural institutions, but towards all the government sectors that are defective and corrupt. To create a new grammar based on pluralism. Things are being achieved through social networks and by the independent press, which is playing a big role at a clear disadvantage with the official press and its nefarious policy of discrediting and defaming any attempt to voice criticism of the government.

Yanelys Núñez (curator and art critic). Madrid

What led to all this, I believe, is a continuity of events whose origin is not to be found in the recent past, but decades ago: cycles of independent and even official movements that in the end have only sought greater spaces of freedom and have not found them. But if we needed a moment closer in time, I think the spark started to ignite with the 00 Biennial, which managed to get more than 170 artists to speak out and take part in an independent event. Then came the campaign against Decree 349, which left that feeling of unpleasantness behind it because the Government never compromised, as the law is still in force. I believe that, in the end, there is a buildup of unpleasantness left behind by supposed attempts of dialogue with the Government that never came to fruition. Another factor is the Internet and the possibilities it offers, such as helping people who believe that things must be changed not feel alone, and you see these incipient networks of empathy being created, of solidarity with those who are arrested or those who are fined according to Decree Law 370. In the end, each of these factors was a bit responsible for what happened on November 27.

The N27 was a mobilization not organized by the SIM, but based on what happened with the eviction the night before and the distressing week of the strike, a fair strike, which was not based on a whim, but was an act of desperation, the result of that feeling of drowning. I see what happened on November 27 as a very courageous act, because the artists who were there know —and if they don’t know it, they have heard about it— what can happen to you in Cuba if you are part of a protest group: they can take away your privileges as an artist, they can take away your right to exhibit in galleries or show your work in a theater. In short, they know how much can cost you to take that risk.

I think what makes the difference between how things happen now and what has happened in the past is the Internet and the possibility of connecting with each other, of knowing what we think, what our positions are, and of course, of organizing ourselves. That’s super important. It is also important that the demands are coming from the artistic sector, where many have had the opportunity to travel abroad and establish their own studies within Cuba. Yes, because many economic interests are also being defended in the N27. There is an interest in legalizing independent artists, in normalizing certain economic practices that the government hinders with unfair regulations such as the censorship of independent events. I am thinking, for example, of the guys of the Cardumen, who have been demanding for some time a film law that really represents them.

The level of discontent is also important. There is a discontent that materialized through the N27, but it is also present in all of Cuban society, whether because of the shortage of supplies, because of the stores selling food only in foreign currency, or because of police violence. I believe that those political and economic nuances that permeate everything are going to mobilize certain things in Cuba.

From where I live, I look at what is happening in Cuba with anguish. When Luis Manuel, Maykel and the others began the strike, I saw in them a lot of despair. I did not see in their faces courage, or confrontation, but an act of desperation that shows how far they can push a group of happy people, who love life, who love art, creation. I saw how these people can be put between a rock and a hard place, until they find no other way out than an act that can be suicidal. While I watched the strike with anguish, the N27 did give me hope. And I think it was a rehearsal for something that will happen soon, because the government knows that there is collective dissatisfaction and that it is going to have to open up in one way or another. The government always has valves to release pressure. I think that at some point they are going to open up, because the powers-that-be know that the people are not happy.

I say all this from afar, which is sometimes very easy. But we must continue to mobilize, both inside and abroad, putting pressure on the international institutions, on the European community and also on those on the left that has Cuba as a paradigm of the communist utopia. We must mobilize, denounce, and not only in the social networks, but through legal means, since Cuba has signed agreements and some have clauses related to human rights. It is necessary to appeal to that by all possible means. That task is a job for the civil society. And I know that it is complicated because they can take away your Internet access or send the police to your door to prevent you from leaving your house, but there is an area of what happened with the N27 that is not monitored. I think this is a time for solidarity and to keep pushing. The N27 was an attempt at democracy that was OK, but the Cuban government has managed to silence it for the time being. Solidarity can no longer only be with the campaign for the liberation of Denis Solís, but also for the basic principles that the artists gathered at the doors of MINCULT demanded. We must continue to work from the standpoint of resistance and hope that these international mobilizations in front of the Cuban consulates, the petitions that are handed out and the public pronouncements in all corners of the world will force the government to open up its policy a little more. Civil society must continue, and continue to exist, which is what is important.

José Raúl Gallego (journalist). Mexico City

The place from which one looks always influences one’s perspective. I think one of the things that are important when one is abroad is the access to information. This is coming from someone who left two years ago, when Internet access in Cuba was not like it is now.

Abroad you have the experience of being connected all the time, of being able to receive information that in Cuba you may not see. That makes you aware of what is happening, sometimes with a little more immediacy than the average person inside. Although the person inside has the advantage of seeing and feeling the heat of the events that you, from here, see from a distance.

Abroad you feel the impotence of wanting to do something and having limited paths of action. If you were in Cuba, you could join the protests, take to the streets. But abroad the range of action is more limited and so you have to look for ways to have a little bit of impact, either through the social networks, making the Cuban reality visible, or giving support however you can: speaking out in places where Cuba is represented and trying to influence international opinion, something that we know affects the government.

In the case of the Cuban community in Mexico, which is where I live, you haven’t seen this kind of thing for a long time. This is a city where emigration is not usually very active politically, at least not in opposition to the government. People are living their lives. At least I didn’t have a community created. I am talking about the fact that usually we don’t get together, even though there are many Cubans here with similar backgrounds: young people, students. From my point of view, that community did not know this type of organization.

What we did was gather a very small group of friends, people who mostly studied at the Ibero (Iberoamerican University), and we said we should do something when the San Isidro thing happened, when they called for a protest in front of the embassies. We convinced ourselves that we had to do something and we began to coordinate it. In the beginning we thought that we would be about ten people, that is, by letting our closest friends know, but the day before, the raid of the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement happened, which threw many people off. So we decided to make it public and get everyone who wanted to join in. We posted it on Facebook, that this was the time to make ourselves heard, so anyone who wanted to join us could do so. People appeared who we hadn’t planned for, people we didn’t know and who were also studying here. From that point on, we began to articulate this community of people in terms of political objectives and the vindication of rights. For the second protest we already knew who was going to come.

I believe that a dictatorship has no need for a dialogue because it has absolute power. Dictatorships have to be overthrown or “forced to talk”. And I think that the way to achieve at least the latter is to make the political power feel that dialogue is an imperative: to make them feel that doing so is the best outcome. For now, the option is peaceful resistance, that is, standing up in disobedience. We must understand that whichever solution that those who hold power in Cuba want is not going to bring about the changes we are asking for, simply because they do not need them. Those changes are not convenient for them. No one gives power away. Spontaneously, the elite will not give up its share of power, because in the end what we are demanding from them are precisely the shares of power that correspond to us as citizens and that they have usurped as a totalitarian power and as a dictatorship. I repeat: right now the way forward is through peaceful resistance, it is to take to the streets as much as possible, it is disobedience to unjust laws, everything that can make them understand that the social pact has been broken, that this situation of comfort to which they were used to does not exist anymore and that they have to do something to try to amend it and get out of it as best as possible. And this is very difficult, because what we have in front of us is a totalitarian government, with multiple ways of repressing and that has no qualms about doing so.

I don’t like to talk about these things while living abroad, because it is true that I am not in Cuba risking my life, but what we are doing also has risks, and not small ones. For example, not being allowed into the country, committing outrages against your family members, whom you cannot protect. In the end, repression can affect both those on the island and those abroad.

I do believe that this is the way to move forward, making demands, putting pressure from where it is possible, from outside Cuba and from within, so they realize they have to dialogue. And I support dialogue. We ourselves need to have a lot of dialogue, especially among ourselves, the Cubans. But you cannot dialogue with those who refuse to talk to you, and the government has shown and continues to show that it is not interested in a dialogue. Insisting on a dialogue with a structure that is in a position of power can be useful to show that it is the people in power who do not want to dialogue, but concrete results are not going to be obtained.

Luis Alberto Mariño (musician). Buenos Aires

I am really observing full of hope the growing determination of Cubans to seek change, because that means that we are recovering the social fabric that had always been in the shadows. Anyone who has lived in Cuba knows that the cultural tradition of the majority of Cubans, arbitrarily and violently sown by the regime, dictates that you cannot dissent in visible spaces, much less by exposing your opinion to society. However, more and more people are courageously deciding to offer their testimony of reality despite all that this implies, including how much it may cost them and their families. To see this determination makes me undoubtedly hopeful but, at the same time, is painful because you realize that even today freedom of expression in Cuba comes at a high price.

I think that the distance and having access to a lot of information —say the press, but also a lot of literature on Cuba— gives you the possibility of seeing a more complex, broader and more diverse picture of what would be best for our country when we get our rights and freedoms back. But thinking about the present, when these fundamental rights do not exist, distance gives you more clarity to know that the first thing is respect for the freedom of all Cubans. I think that this wide range of values does not necessarily create contradictions when it comes to analyzing what is happening in the present, because what we are looking for in Cuba are basic postulates of respect and freedom. Those of us who have the experience of seeing a functioning democracy already know that, certainly, where there is freedom of expression and political freedoms in general, each one of us looks for the vision and the actions that most harmonize with their ideas and beliefs, and defends them and creates diverse spaces and thus naturalizes dissent.

For now, I believe the current level of communication and organization among Cubans is due in part to social networks and instant messaging. I really knew very few Cubans here, and it has been very beautiful to see how they have communicated with me after doing the performances in front of the embassy. Several have approached me and accompanied me. I believe that this is just beginning, that it is a social fabric that is being repaired, that is awakening and will grow for the good of all of us.

I believe that the first thing we must do as a community of Cubans abroad is not to think that our ideas to promote a future of respect and freedom in Cuba are the only possibilities. We have to get the idea of unanimity out of our minds and start thinking that everything we think is best has its advantages and disadvantages. This does not imply falling into an area of ambiguity as regards the assessment of Cuba’s present —a context without guarantees of rights leaves no room for ambiguity— but I say this strictly with a view to strategies and actions of solidarity. We have to get rid of the false dilemma that the regime has sown in us that supposedly living abroad there is no way for us to help the people living on the island politically speaking. And we must also rid ourselves of the fears and the supposed irresponsibility that comes with expressing our opinion and acting in accordance with our principles because this exposes family, friends and acquaintances to the arbitrariness and violence of the regime. All of us, those living on the island and those abroad, are one same damaged, painful, but living social body. And we must have faith that our generous commitment of time, effort, resources and ideas will make the future we want come sooner.

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