HAVANA TIMES, Feb 10 — The poet and performer Luis Eligio Perez Meriño has been a controversial figure even outside his most common center of action: The Omni Zona Franca Project, which has inspired opinions ranging from mythical to the scandalous. For twelve years the group has held an unprecedented poetry festival in Cuba.
Eligio was one of the three voices that made up my first novel, originally published only in French. Before that project was completed, every night he would send me what would be his part of a 30-day diary.
I remember the mixture of sadness and awe, evoked in me by those immersions into his childhood: the sharp eyes of a boy growing up with an awareness of his marginalization.
“All Cubans are albatrosses,” he wrote, evoking Baudelaire’s poem in which a bird flaps its wings against the deck of a ship to resist death.
HT: Tell me a little about your childhood, about when you came to Havana and what you remember before that…
Luis Eligio: My family comes from the Sierra Maestra, from Guise, in Granma province. I was the first one in my family to be born here in the capital. I experienced a childhood of poverty. In my house there wasn’t a television or a refrigerator… I remember the house being in such bad condition that the second floor collapsed down to the floor below. It was a small space that had been a Santeria shop.
I remember going to bed lots of times without having eaten. My mother earned the lowest wage that could be earned in Cuba, despite the fact that she taught people how to read and write in very isolated places, and though she was a person who took part in all the political mobilizations and rallies.
I had to live in the system of government boarding schools, and those dorms were like prisons. You’d be separated from your family and live in a very violent environment.
HT: Where were you housed?
Luis Eligio: I went to several boarding schools. All of those American movies about children who are held in juvenile prisons, and about children who are raped — I’m talking about the more serious films— I suffered those experiences because I saw those kinds of things in the dormitories, scenes of unspeakable violence.
I returned home desperate and crying. I asked my mother not to send me back but she told me that I had to return because she couldn’t support me otherwise. Now, mind you, my father was a high-level official and my half-brothers’ father was a senior housing official on the Isle of Youth, though he was later removed from his position in the ‘90s for corruption.
HT: Did you have any relationship with your father?
Luis Eligio: As a child I never knew him. I was about 33 when one day my mother ran into him on the street and grabbed him by the arm to bring him to the house. That was my first encounter with my father. In that conversation, almost without listening to me, he told me that everything I was standing up for — art, Omni, the idea that this country needs to change — all of that was absolutely wrong. He told me, “Starting tomorrow you’re not going to live like this anymore; let me see what job I can get for you.” Then I thought, “God took my father away from me because I didn’t need him.”
HT: Can you tell me about the experience when you were threatened with removal from your home?
Luis Eligio: This is the house I live in, at 264 Escobar Street. My mother obtained it almost at the risk of her life because she had to take care of the owner, who was an old woman dying of cancer. That woman was like a fetus in a bed.
My mother had to take complete care of her, in addition to keeping the house clean, though my mother’s health wasn’t good either. As you can see it’s a huge place. The owner, with the agreement of her family, put my mother in her will, but the head of neighborhood surveillance and a few neighbors alerted the Housing Office; there were even threats that the police would come.
One day our eviction was announced, so my mother armed herself inside with a few tanks of alcohol and said that if anyone were to set foot inside the house she was going to set the place on fire. Then she added, with us present, that she was going to burn up all of us children and then herself.
I can tell you that at that moment I saw my mother as a civic example, and I realized that ordinary citizens didn’t have a civic will. I understood how politics — which is only one part of the body of a nation — had stolen everything in this society.
HT: I remember an experience you talked about in those writings that you sent me for the novel. It was one of those acts of repudiation* that you saw in the ‘80s…
Luis Eligio: The year 1980 was one that left a deep impression on me. Though I was only eight years old, I remember certain events as if I were witnessing them right now. One of those involved a certain figure in the neighborhood. All of us kids used to call him “Agamemnon,” referring to that very serious and dignified butler from the TV show “San Nicolas del Peladero,” the guy who almost didn’t speak.
This man, who lived in front of us there on Neptuno Street, was loved by all the kids because he was identical to the character on the program. We would follow along behind him shouting, “Agamemnon!” And he, usually very serious, would turn and smile for a moment, and then continue on his way.”
But in 1980, a large crowd gathered in front of his house. I could see almost everything from our stairs because it had windows and they were broken. So I saw how he fell down beneath a torrent of blows delivered by the crowd, which was shocking and had a strong impact on me.
I saw how they painted on his door and opened a broken window to shout more insults inside, while also throwing tomatoes, potatoes, eggs at the house. It was so sad, it was overwhelming.
I felt such pain watching all of that. Much later, I wrote a poem in my book about it called “Song for Centro Habana:” … “like poster children / with flies in their faces / this is a city where faces thirst for justice…”
HT: So all of this was because he was leaving the country?
Luis Eligio: Yes, because he was leaving the country.
HT: And no one defended him?
Luis Eligio: No. At that time there was no defense, ever. But from the ‘80s I also remember my cousin was leaving and he gave us all his old clothes, American clothes, which were expensive back then. But all of a sudden he had doubts about whether he would be able to leave, so he asked us to give him back the clothes.
Therefore my mother, my brothers and I filled up that old suitcase of ours, an enormous Russian one, and suddenly — I remember this was somewhere around 26th Avenue, though I can’t say the exact spot — there were a few military vans and some soldiers wearing helmets and hitting people on their heads.
I remember them hitting one guy who then fell down, so they put him in the van. I was just 8 years old, so I don’t know whether this was a riot or why it was happening. I just remember my mother sending us running down the street, the suitcase opening and the clothes falling out. You can imagine the terror we felt as we ran away.
HT: You were also there at the riot on the Malecon seawall in 1994, right?
Luis Eligio: Yes, I experienced it, although at the time I didn’t understand what was happening. Despite having a high degree of social consciousness, and a lot of direct experience with the injustices and corruption that took place behind the scenes, I felt deep admiration for Fidel.
But at the Maleconazo (the Malecon uprising) I found myself suddenly agreeing with everything behind that revolt. It was because all of that had accumulated, because that was what I had always lived, a total absence of freedom of expression.
So the Maleconazo was like freedom of expression – it was joy. I didn’t see when Fidel came, but I think that what happened was that he appeared before the people who were turning everything upside down but who at the same time still loved and admired him enough to stop.
But I also remember the trucks coming with workers from the Blas Roca Contingent. They cordoned off the area from the “La Punta” (where Havana Harbor meets the sea) down along Avenida del Puerto (fronting the harbor) armed with poles and overtly repressive attitudes.
On the opposite side were the people looking at those construction workers who were acting like plain thugs, and everybody was talking about this angrily. And there I saw and could almost touch those feelings as I pleaded with all my might that this not escalate.
Then I saw the possibility of a bloody showdown between Cubans. Both those who were acting at that time as repressors and those of us who were on the other side were Cuban – like the ones who scream in Miami. Cubans engaged in that same mechanism of bitterness and pain.
HT: I recently read a quote from Artaud, who said, “No one has ever written, painted, sculpted, modeled, built, invented, except to get out of hell.” Is that what art is for you too?
Luis Eligio: For me, it never was. Life is art and that’s what makes you an artist, not precisely the writing, painting, sculpting or acting… My life is art, and it’s something that has no argument around it, even though there are people who conceptualize and try to decide what is and what isn’t art.
But you’re talking about Artaud, who was the one who began to denote life as theater, everyday acts as theatrical events, adding new elements to the stage, the spectacle. He saw his own drama as art and the world as the stage. For me he’s an essential precursor of the performance.
HT: What was your encounter with poetry?
Luis Eligio: I started reading really actively at the age of eleven. At fifteen I wrote a horror novel, though with a poor vocabulary; and at sixteen I wrote my first poems. I had a first encounter with the Neo-Romantic poets, but my deep encounter with poetry came about through Jose Marti, with his civic poems. When I was seventeen my aunt threw out all of my poems, which at the time it was very painful.
I spent some time away from poetry. I had already done my military service and was working in a cigar factory. I was beginning to develop a rebellious streak because I witnessed abuses of power, how workers were only pawns that followed the orders of the administration.
The union never stood up for the interests of workers, it always sides with the administration and the party. And the party is always part of the administration…
But I had been irreverent, even in my technical school. One time I stood up to my teacher and protested the abuses I had seen him commit against the students. At that time I was writing a kind of patriotic poetry but it didn’t satisfy me because my poems had that feel of the official line, and that wasn’t what I wanted to write. I wanted to write about my friends who left on rafts, about the concerns of youth.
HT: Is that when you moved to the Alamar housing projects?
Luis Eligio: The poet Leonardo Guevara, the founder of Zona Franca, was the one who took me to Alamar, and it was there that I saw Juan Carlos Flores, who was causing such a great uproar, provoking tremendous emotions with his readings. I had never seen anything like this done with poetry, which is why I said to myself, “This is what I want to do!”
Other poetry readings back then were totally hierarchized in an environment that had little to do with freedom of expression. There were no live events; but at 26 and 27 years of age, we wanted to transform the world. We had concerns that were not just about poetry. They were existential concerns, ones concerning knowledge, civic and political roles… We wanted to mobilize poetry; we wanted poetry to turn into action. We wanted poetry to be news, to be a scandal.
HT: But the institutions weren’t interested in supporting that?
Luis Eligio: No. I think the institutions had the opportunity to open themselves up, to see and channel the most important of what was happening. But what they did was to assume positions of apparent acceptance of this art so as to bureaucratize it, split it up and paralyze it.
I’m aware of how Cuban society is supposed to function. But alternative projects shouldn’t be seen as enemies. Institutions should appreciate and acknowledge the presence of these projects. They should be happy that projects with new ideas appear – ones with solutions to social problems!
There should be a relationship and the institutions should support these kinds of projects. But the existing institutions aren’t interested in culture; what they’re promoting, what they’re spreading is the worst of our culture.
I believe the reason certain projects are being censored right now is because they’re truly revolutionary projects. And Omni is just a tiny drop of all these groups that are emerging in Cuba and giving dynamism to the country.
HT: How is censorship manifested? Are you prohibited from access to certain places, and do they tell you this?
Luis Eligio: No. In the case of Omni, censorship isn’t like that. The municipal director of culture issued a letter accusing us of being a counter-revolutionary group. The minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, and the deputy minister, Fernando Rojas, told the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz that they shouldn’t support us because we work for the enemy.
HT: But did they give arguments as to why they consider your group counter-revolutionary?
Luis Eligio: To us, no.
HT: In your opinion, are there different standards for censoring an alternative project? What I’m saying is that the reasons the Ministry of Culture practically stole the Rotilla Festival are the same that prompted it to intervene in the annual rap festival, and the same reasons that Omni was banned from putting on the “Poesia sin Fin” (Poetry Without End Festival) in 2009?
Luis Eligio: I think this all has to do with what led to the UMAP’s** and so-called Quinquenio Gray *** – which hasn’t ceased. There have only been apparent openings. It’s clear that there’s no political will to develop culture, only the will to repress it.
If they had the idea that culture is vital for the development of Cuba, there wouldn’t be this whole record of repression. There are terrible examples of this; in fact, there has been devastation in politics and culture.
That’s why I said at a session of Estado de Sats that we as Cubans don’t have a nation. Nations are formed from all the components that have comprised it, from ideological diversity to the expression of their civil and artistic thinking.
When you’ve omitted part of that history, when important figures have been deleted from its development, then you can’t speak of a nation. For example, where are the people who built this city? Where is the continuity of those minds? Where is Jose Marti? Is Marti the same one mentioned in the books and speeches? Obviously there’s a gap in Cuba – and it’s an abysmal gap.
But censorship can only block a movement, not stop it. Those who censure don’t believe in freedom, they’re obsessed with power, with the Machiavellian concept of preservation of the state (or of a group of people entrenched in that power) at any price, through any means and justified by any argument. They’re even able to avail themselves of the noblest arguments.
HT: I see that in Cuba we complain that we have no freedom of expression, which obstructs projects, but in other countries where it’s possible to develop independent projects, freedom only seems to go that far. I see people trapped in the compulsion to maintain a standard of living, but is this freedom or is it just another means of entertainment?
Luis Eligio: Yes, I think it’s important for Cubans to wake up. It’s as if we’re all asleep and watching life and the opportunity to work and thrive in our own homeland pass us by. Everyone should have the ability to develop their projects, commercial activities, cultural, spiritual lives… I think that what’s needed is a revolution through culture and that everyone understands that they have to take control of their life, they have to be self-responsible.
But the whole world is also in a dream. That’s why we’re fighting for them to respect community freedoms. This means people deciding their own eating habits, relationships, education … and such communities exist in the world, and they’re growing. All this madness about development. We need to take a look at Europe to see the tremendous development they have and what it demands.
We take everything from nature but don’t return anything. But we are, before anything else, a part of nature. Someone may say that God doesn’t exist or whatever, but they can’t deny that this body will one day turn to dust. And that will happen all the same to the politician, the patriot and the millionaire. Even with nations, borders are man’s mental prison. We belong to the breath of the universe.
(*) “Acts of repudiation: Human rights groups including Amnesty International have long been critical of what the Cuban authorities have termed “Acts of repudiation” (actos de repudio). These acts occur when large groups of citizens verbally abuse, intimidate and sometimes physically assault and throw stones and other objects at homes of Cubans considered to be counter-revolutionary” (Source: Wikipedia)
(**) UMAP’s (Unidades Militares para la Ayuda de Produccion), or Military Units to Aid Production, “were allegedly established by the Cuban government in 1965 as a way to eliminate “bourgeois” and “counter-revolutionary” values in the Cuban population, in particular, among those who neglected taking part in the military service (like conscientious objectors) or who had been rejected from it (most especially, members of the Cuban LGBT community). (Source: Wikipedia)
(***) The so-called El Quinquenio Gris or Grey Period in Cuban culture, between 1970–1976, seriously undermined art and culture, and indeed experimentation in all areas of the arts in Cuba. Art was seen as a useful propaganda tool and whilst no artist was forbidden to work in a certain way, only those artists whose work conformed to what was considered acceptable were supported. Many artists left the country. (Source: Wikipedia)
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