Cuba/Travel: Opportunism and Meatballs

By Alvaro F. Fernandez (Progreso Weekly)

Cartoon: Progreso Weekly

HAVANA TIMES — Director Philip Lord is a very bright, young man. No doubt he’s on many lists of up and coming Hollywood directors. He’s already registered two box office successes with “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and more recently “21 Jump Street.” This past week he ventured into the political fray – with a vengeance and head first.

Philip, who is the son of a Cuban mother and born right here in Miami, has taken on an entertainment industry power couple in Jay-Z and Beyoncé.

“I get so mad I can’t sleep,” he wrote in a Huffington Post piece. “When I saw that the Carters (Jay-Z’s true last name) were in Cuba,” Lord adds, “I got that pang that I get when I hear friends say they are travelling there.” Lord’s passion frothed because of the duo’s recent visit to Havana, Cuba. He wrote, “I cringe when Americans visit Cuba for a fun island vacation. For one thing it’s illegal (which nobody seems to care about)…”

One small point of clarification: the trip was authorized by the U.S. Treasury Department, charged with deciding those minor details. Or is Philip Lord proposing that Hollywood types take on the responsibility of deciding who can (or cannot) visit Cuba?

If Philip Lord feels this way, then I’m glad he expressed his feeling in the open letter (see below) that Huff Post published. A strongly worded piece aimed at Mr. Z, as he refers to Jay-Z in his letter. It was a retaliatory salvo for the rapper’s response in rap to criticism and insults received by the couple since their return from their visit to the island nation. I wonder if Phil Lord has heard some of the things said about Jay-Z and Beyoncé on Miami airwaves since their return?

I know what it feels like to lose one’s cool. I’ve done it myself – too often. But calling Jay-Z a “bad artist.” And referring to him as a Nihilist with a beat… (Pretty cool term, but I think wrong person.)

Let me stress that I am the first to defend Philip Lord’s right to complain about people visiting Cuba and the wrongs committed by the Cuban government. But at the same time Mr. Lord’s message confuses me. Here’s what I’m talking about.

Philip Lord in his open letter states: I actually encourage my friends to travel to Cuba, to bear witness to one of the great tragedies of our time… Exchange and travel between our two nations should be a catalyst for change… But for me, Cuba is not the place to have a fun, sexy, vacation.”

My question to Philip Lord: who died and left you in charge of where Jay-Z, or anyone else for that matter, can have a fun, sexy vacation? Isn’t that one of the things you criticize the Cuban government of – controlling people’s lives? Anyway, which is it? Are you encouraging travel to Cuba? Or not. Or is it only certain people?

In his open letter Philip Lord also maps out a litany of complaints against Cuba and the Cuban government. Again, I respect Lord’s right to address them.

What confuses me is that Philip Lord grew up in Miami. A place where freedom of speech has not always been easy, especially when it comes to the Cuba situation. People, in fact, have lost lives and limbs because of it. Just last year a travel-to-Cuba charter airline was fire bombed in Coral Gables not far from the Coconut Grove area where Philip grew up. And few have bothered to care for what happened.

In Miami lives and walks freely a person responsible for blowing up a plane in the air who carried, among others, young men and women who all perished, and their only sin was being born Cuban. Philip Lord knows this.

In South Florida live persons like Carlos Saladrigas, the Fanjul brothers, at least one Cisneros – all very well known names to the Cuban community. They’ve all travelled to Cuba, more than once.

I’ve never heard Philip Lord publicly complain about any of this.

I would hate to think that Cuban American rap artist Pitbull’s assertion might ring true. In his own rap response to the Carters recent visit to Cuba, he states: “Question of the night/Would they have messed with Mr. Carter if he was white?”

Finally, and this is important, Philip Lord premiered his first big movie, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” in September 2009. That was exactly less than two months after one of the biggest stars in that movie (James Caan of Godfather fame, who played the voice of the father) had just returned from Cuba with movie star friends Benicio del Toro, Bill Murray and Robert Duval. They were there because the Cuban government was awarding a prize to del Toro for his movie on Che Guevara. I understand they had a pretty good time and there are pictures to prove it.

Where was Phil Lord’s disgust then?

It now sounds like a bit of opportunistic oversight to me.

An Open Letter to Jay-Z

By Philip Lord

Dear Mr. Z,

I just heard your new track, “Open Letter,” released today. It’s got everything I love about your music: looping internal rhymes, an infectious beat, and imagery that draws me into a kind of swaggering, defiant fantasy.

Speaking of defiant fantasies, I’ve been following news of your recent trip to the island nation of Cuba. As the son of a Cuban refugee, and cousin and nephew to many Cubans on the island, I cringe when Americans visit Cuba for a fun island vacation. For one thing it’s illegal (which nobody seems to care about), but more importantly, it’s either ignorant of or calloused to the struggles of Cubans on the island.

I actually encourage my friends to travel to Cuba, to bear witness to one of the great tragedies of our time, to learn about the real Cuba, to put a human face on the caricature of Americans that the Castros propagate. Exchange and travel between our two nations should be a catalyst for change, as it has been even in my own family. But for me, Cuba is not the place to have a fun, sexy, vacation. Because for Cubans on the island and living elsewhere, it’s not.

So when I heard of your visit, I thought to myself, Jay Z seems like a smart, thoughtful guy. He doesn’t realize what he’s walking into. He probably just thinks Cuba is a chic place to relax with the family. He probably just doesn’t know the things I know.

He likely doesn’t know that the Cuban tourism industry is run by the Cuban military, so when he spends money at an officially sanctioned hotel, or restaurant, he is directly funding the oppressors of the Cuban people.

He doesn’t know that most Cubans have poor access to independent news sources, the internet, books, and food.

He doesn’t know that Cuba has two health systems, one for the well-connected, and one for everyone else.

He doesn’t know that before Castro, the Cuban peso traded one-to-one with the dollar, and that since then, the Castros have raided the nation’s coffers and introduced widespread poverty to a once prosperous nation.

He doesn’t know that my ancestors fought to free Cuba from Spain, and to set up a democracy to ensure that they would always be free.

He doesn’t know that in spite of those dreams, my mother and her family fled for their lives from this regime way back in 1960, as did *two million* other Cubans.

He doesn’t know about the thousands of people executed by firing squads led by sexy t-shirt icon Che Guevara.

He doesn’t know about the dissidents, artists, and librarians that currently rot in Cuba’s prisons, and the thousands more who live in fear.

He doesn’t know about Orlando Zapata Tamayo, an Afro-Cuban dissident who died in a Cuban prison in 2010 after an 80-day hunger strike.

He doesn’t know that a U.S. Citizen, Alan Gross, is currently serving a 15-year sentence in a Cuban prison for providing phones and computers to the members of the Cuban Jewish community. He doesn’t know that all attempts by our government and private citizens to secure his release have been scoffed at.

He has likely forgotten about all those who have died in the Florida Straits, trying to float on makeshift boats to freedom.

He doesn’t know that contrary to popular understanding, Amnesty International reports that repression of dissidents in Cuba is actually on the rise.

He doesn’t know that when an international music luminary shows up in Cuba, his presence is unwittingly used as propaganda to support the regime.

He doesn’t know that artists in Cuba, with whom he was supposedly having a cultural exchange, serve under the close supervision of the government, and don’t enjoy the freedom to defiantly name check the President, call out a few senators, threaten to buy a kilo of cocaine just to spite the government, or suggest that they will follow up their purchase with a shooting spree, as rapped about in “Open Letter.”

He doesn’t know that just because our country applies a different, some say hypocritical policy to China, it doesn’t make either regime any less oppressive, or any more acceptable.

He doesn’t know that when people say “I’ve got to visit Cuba before it gets ruined,” I think to myself, “It’s already ruined. And by the way, ruined by what? freedom of speech? walls that don’t crumble? shoes? Do you mean ruin Cuba? Or ruin your fashionable vacation in Cuba?”

He doesn’t know that when I really start to think about all this, I get so mad I can’t sleep.

He doesn’t know that when he’s wearing that hat, smoking that coveted contraband cigar, he looks like a dupe.

He doesn’t know how much good he could be doing in Cuba, for Cubans, instead. Bearing witness, supporting artistic freedom, listening.

He doesn’t realize that as someone privileged to be born in a free society, one in which someone could come from nothing and become a celebrated music, sports, fashion, business and political mogul, it’s not only his good luck to be able to bring to light the needs of the less fortunate, it’s his obligation.

But then, Jay-Z, I heard your new song, and paid attention to the lyrics.

I heard you bragging about your “White House clearance.”

I heard you talk about how much you enjoy Cuban cigars.

And I heard you tell the President I voted for, “You don’t need this shit anyway, chill with me on the beach.”

You reject the responsibility to speak up for an oppressed people, even while you take up your own cause with gusto.

Then I figured it out.

You actually know all of this stuff, you just don’t care.

That’s not just being a bad citizen, or a bad neighbor.

It’s being a bad artist.

It’s Nihilism with a beat.

-Phil Lord.


3 thoughts on “Cuba/Travel: Opportunism and Meatballs

  • Michael Norman Landis !! Attacking the
    messenger (Phil Lord) and even worse, his parents??? Do you have anything
    concrete to comment of just chismes dear!!

  • Better stick to what you know, adapting children’s books to film, than making political commentary, which is plainly out of your deph, Phil! (Although coming from a family who immigrated in the early days of the Revolution, I would expect you to have the same dynosauric consciousness of your parent’s generation, rather than that of the more pragmatic Cubans, who migrated post-1980, for more pragmatic reasons).

  • Blah, blah, blah. US/Cuba relations is a lot like a bad marriage. Both sides lie about the other and want everyone outside the marriage to take their side. If you don’t, then you are just as bad as the other side. Worse, they spend a lot of time telling you their side of the story but when you dare to share your opinion, they accuse you of butting into their privacy. The Castros, not the Carters, are the problem.

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