HAVANA TIMES — He was born in a town near the Antonio Maceo sugar mill in Guantanamo in 1967. The mill was modern. His town, two km away, wasn’t. Everything was made of wood, everything was empty. In Amir Valle’s home, poor people eat. His best friends eat. A black family. Seven brothers, he tells me, who still used to live in barracks in the 1970s.
“The baby that was born into a house was everyone’s baby and, a death in the family was a death that everyone would mourn,” the man from Guantanamo recalls. He rescues things from this time. Like when he convinced his friends to “borrow” a hammerhead shark that they had brought along to sell at the butcher’s one morning, to swim with it in the river. His buttcheeks are still hurting from when that happened.
Today, Amir lives in Berlin. And Vargas Llosa wanted to meet him. “I hope our destinies run into each other at some point, if only in dear Cuba and if not, anywhere else,” the Peruvian Nobel prize winner wrote. And well, they crossed paths in Bulgaria, four years ago.
I know that, thanks to your parents, you knew how to read and write at 4 years old. What are your first memories of you with a book, or with a pencil?
Amir Valle: One day, when I was 7 years old, I was moved when I had finished “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer” by Mark Twain and I told myself that this story was very similar to my own so I decided to write something similar with my own experiences: my escapes from doing the homework that my parents used to give me every day, a walk along the river with a friend looking for adventure, the love I had for Betty (my first simple girlfriend, who became a more serious girlfriend later, who unfortunately passed away when she was very young due to leukemia), the threats from someone who we used to think was dangerous (before the Revolution, he must have been the owner of nearly all the land there and he also had the bad reputation of being a “heartless capitalist”. My mother read this story, something which was a long novel for me and which, in my adolescence, I confirmed was only six pages long written on paper from my notebook in my terrible handwriting, something so sickly-sweet and corny that I tried to get my mother to destroy it, but I was unsuccessful, she has managed to keep it safe up to this present day.
As a teenager you were sent to boarding school like most other students. I guess you stopped being the innocent child who used to write stories.
Living in cramped conditions, forced to work in the fields, putting up with a lifestyle which is very close to that in a prison and having to be different to who you really are in some way, drove us to live with double standards that we then extended to our adult lives. Many of us still haven’t been able to cure ourselves of this defect. That’s where hate was instilled in us, where our mistrust of who stepped outside the margins established by political or “revolutionary” laws. We were taught to live divided, pretending to be united in an ideal which we were forced to recite like clumsy slogans.
This transformed me: there I learned the despicable value of lying out of convenience, of attacking so as not to be attacked, of looking for underground alternatives to the things that they forced you to live. Years later, when I put my all into defending my ideas, the freedoms that I always believed the system should respect and allow me, I experienced the most bitter things I had to swallow, the worst human disappointments possible when I was trying to bring my life closer to concepts that are normally excluded by these kinds of socialism that we have suffered here: ethics, integrity, coherence. Being ethical, acting with integrity and keeping a strict coherence in what you think, say and do still keeps bringing me bitterness.
Santiago de Cuba reached Amir when he was 11 years old. He doesn’t hesitate, answering this one he doesn’t hesitate at all. There wasn’t a lot left after stepping foot in Santiago.
If the town of Maceo awoke my values as a human being and if Havana was this infernal and idyllic place where I discovered that the only real value we have in our lives is to fight for the dreams that God put in the hearts of each and every one of us, Santiago was the forge where I forged the human being I think I am today,” he continued.
It was a warm city in all aspects, but especially in its human connotations; a special pace with a rare magic that combines the provincial and cosmopolitan, the most modern and the oldest, in an inexplicable way. As if that wasn’t enough, I got to live through this city’s most glorious times, culturally-speaking, at a time when I was fully developing my skills as a writer. Without wanting to offend later generations, I will go out on a limb and say that the ‘80s were the only time when Santiago de Cuba competed with the capital’s eternal protagonism in the national cultural scene, due to the quality of its artists and the impact of its social movements. All of this changed me.
Moving on, I wanted to go to University.
“I’m going to confess something that I have never told anyone: my dream was to be a petrochemical engineer.”
Humanity subjects seemed so easy to me and I would get bored yet, I was a genius in maths, chemistry and physics.
The writer Eduardo Heras Leon asked me to think about it: “Amir, you are a writer and that’s why I’m going to tell you that you need to ask yourself whether you are ready to spend the rest of your life living with cold numbers and chemical processes.”
I sat down and thought about it and the truth was that this future terrified me, so when I had the forms for applying to degrees, I asked for Psychology, Journalism and Law. Strangely enough, they called me to take an exam/go to an interview which they used to do with everyone who wanted to study journalism.
In the end, you studied Journalism. Did you already have an idea of what being a journalist in Cuba meant?
I used to see what you and I consider “implications” today as the Revolution’s natural defense mechanism. It wouldn’t take me long to discover how stupid and blind I had been in this sense, although now that I think about it, I know that it didn’t sound at all pleasant when one of the people interviewing me, who came from the UPEC (Cuban Journalists Association) in Havana asked me if I was ready to take an oath to be an “ideological soldier of the Revolution.” Maybe it was the way he said it, but I remember that it seemed like an invitation to join a sect to me. And ever since I was a kid, I’ve hated anything sectarian.
You started your studies in Santiago and you finished it in Havana. Did you feel that the teaching was any different? Do they practice a different journalism in one place to another?
Studying two and a half years at Oriente University and another two and a half years in the Journalism Faculty at Havana University was a privilege because I got to meet nearly everyone who would then go on to be involved and take a lead in official journalism, across the entire country. There was more than enough talent; there was the desire to do different things, to bury the journalism that prevailed at the time.
However, it wasn’t like it is today… these mechanisms were very well in place back then to convert even the most out-of-control journalist into a domesticated sheep. You didn’t have a choice back then either: you either joined in with the uniform bleating or you left, on the other side of the gate or to do something else. And in this regard, there was a strategic monolithic uniformity nationwide, plus the fact that it was easier to control the media because there were only these two options.
The other part of your question is something that has already been proven: journalism in Cuba, anywhere, except for when unofficial media platforms and journalists are able to write, is level, blind, stupid, riddled with records, triumphalism and manipulation.
The saddest thing for me has been to see people with so much talent whoring themselves out professionally-speaking by inflicting this garbage.
Did this vision about Cuban journalism evolve or change when you finished your degree?
What we call there “opening your eyes” happened to me just a few moths after I began studying my degree. A classmate, who we all considered to be a sick opportunist, was named the FEU (University Students Federation) leader of the Journalism Faculty just because his mother was a high-ranking official at the Education Ministry. Three third-year journalism students, offended, wrote a flyer denouncing such stupidity and were expelled. Later, during my internship at the Sierra Maestra newspaper in Santiago, I was shocked to see how a small list circulated among the journalists of things that we weren’t allowed to write about or do there if you didn’t want problems.
I still remember a conversation with Eliades Acosta Matos, who used to manage the provincial radio in Santiago (he would later become the greatest censor of culture, from the Revolutionary Orientation Department offices at the Central Committee). One of his pieces of advice was: “I always listen to what Balaguer (Jose Ramon Balaguer was the first secretary of the Communist Party in Santiago at that time) says a lot and I don’t write anything, nor do I allow anyone to write or transmit anything that diverts away from his view, because he represents the Revolution’s leaders here.”
Later, nearly a year after moving to Havana to study, I had the honor of being one of the protagonists at the famous meeting of journalism students with Fidel Castro, when the unpublished event of questioning his politics with respect to the media and journalism to his face took place, and we even questioned his absolute leadership as the head of the country.
What came crashing down on us after that meeting in 1987 was terrible, as well as shameful, and it determined the future of Cuban journalism. They used the strategy of fear and division which crushed us all, converting us into puppets of power, into fearful and frustrated professionals and, in cases such as my own, into black sheep that needed to be crushed.
That’s why I always tell these young journalists that they need to take advantage of the freedoms they have now, to come together in their differences and to create a wall that stands up to government hegemony. However, from what I’ve seen recently, after times of hope, enormous steps are being taken backwards.
To be continued…