HT interviews Yasmin Silvia Portales Machado
Dmitri Prieto Samsonov
HAVANA TIMES, August 15 — The readers of Havana Times probably know Yasmin Portales from her recent initiative in support of the LGBTI* community in Cuba: “The Rainbow Project” (Spanish: Proyecto Arcoiris). But the fact is that Yasmin a multifaceted activist and blogger, a defender of freedom of speech and of women’s rights and “peripheralized” groups (excuse me, a better epithet didn’t come to mind) – referring to people such as those of African descent or members of the LGBTI community.
A social activist who defines herself as a feminist and a Marxist, she signs her e-mails with a phrase by Carlo Frabetti: “Engels couldn’t have said it clearer: the first form of exploitation, the basis of all others, was the exploitation of woman by man; but not even Marx listened to him.”
HT: Yasmin, you begin one of your last posts with the brief and definitive sentence: “I’ve reached the saturation point. I have political rights, I have civic duties, I have a problem with the legal system of this country.” How do you generally assess the current situation in Cuba, particularly around the issue of people who are LGBTI?
YASMIN SILVIA: I can’t tell you how I “generally assess the current situation in Cuba,” because I don’t see it. Our “friends” of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union accustomed us to a lack of transparency, and our enemies from Washington prevent me/us from rightly knowing where we’re heading. For me this moment is, along with everything else, pregnant with hope. The president’s speeches refer to battles in his (our) hidden war with the bureaucracy and that it’s necessary to spell things out “slowly and carefully” to fix the government. But honestly, I don’t know where that combat is taking place or who’s winning. But judging by the newspapers Trabajadores from Bayamo, and Juventud Rebelde in the column “Acuse de Recibo,” the bureaucrats are racking up points.
In short, I don’t know where we’re going; I only know that I can’t stay still, because this is my government too, right?
In the specific case of politics among LGBTI people, diversity is flourishing, which is something good. In this way we’re struggling to learn how to respect ourselves in our sexual and political diversity. We are learning to debate with solid arguments in the face of a social norm that discriminates against us, while internally the LGBTI community has barely begun to think of itself as members of a citizenry with full and equal rights.
HT: How is all of that related to the “Project Rainbow” that you’ve just started? What do you think can be done?
YP: The Project Rainbow is precisely that: an initiative to unite LGBTI people around the idea that we should renovate resources so that our demands for recognition and protection before the Cuban government are heard. We are activists who, with differing educations and life experiences, have wound up assuming anti-capitalist, anti-patriarchal, anti-discriminatory and environmentalist positions. From that political profile we are assuming dialogue with the government and civil society, and that will mark the way in which we are organized, act and propose alternatives.
Basing oneself on the exercise of critical reading, I believe that one can do a lot to recover historical memory and spread understanding of the current laws that establish our rights. Moreover, such readings can promote solidary action in diverse types of professional networks. All these fields of action are open. They’re natural spaces for the work of fraternal community organizations. In this sense of “scope,” Project Rainbow is only a small droplet in a potentially fertile sea of diverse associations. It’s not only an initiative of people with the desire to act; it’s also an invitation to action from distinct socio-cultural perspectives.
HT: How does this initiative differ from other ones? For example, those sponsored by CENESEX, the government organization that works around all issues related to sexuality; or the recently begun Observatorio LGBT de Cuba, whose logic seems to be in tune with that promoted by some anti-government opposition groups.
YP: I said it synthetically in a blog post that touched all this off, but I’ll try to explain it better: HxD, Oremi, the TransCuba project (I’ve just discovered that they have a blog, great!) belong to CENESEX. They’re part of the strategy of social networks that the institution has been promoting for almost a year to increase the capacity of its activists to organize themselves and to have an impact on the LGBTI community. Although it would be interesting to find out how much CENESEX has been energized based on this relative autonomy of its activists, none of the three groups are independent. Let’s say that they’re in line with the government (which isn’t good or bad per se), and as such it’s fair that they respect the policies of CENESEX, the tacit and/or explicit limits that the center maintains as a state institution.
On the other side is the “Cuban Observatory for the Rights of the LGBT Community” (a long name, right?). I agree with the blogger “Paquito el de Cuba” in seeing that the problem isn’t that they promoted a very well publicized “Gay Pride Parade” and could convince just nine marchers to participate (because with few people major changes have occurred). The problem is the way Leannes Imbert and his colleague Ignacio Estrada query CENESEX, assuming the position of a frontal attack and negating its merits, which has nothing to do with my idea of an appropriate debate on the means and objectives for struggling against discrimination.
Outside of that, there’s no known concrete action proposal by the Cuban Observatory for the Rights of the LGBT Community in which they’re contributing something new. There’s nothing that legitimizes them as true activists with well-conceived actions.
HT: Speaking of CENESEX (which operates under the Ministry of Health, or MINSAP), do you think that it’s legitimate to treat the issue of LGBTIs and the issue of gender generally as a matter of “public health”? Do you have any alternative ideas in this respect?
YP: For me it’s not legitimate, in principle, that issues of discrimination on the basis of one’s sexual orientation or issues of gender identity are in the hands of a health agency, yet in its field CENESEX has won the right to express itself and make proposals. Here’s a little history:
The way in which CENESEX arose within the framework of MINSAP is related to its origin, which was the Commission for Attention to Transsexual People, and which was around in the 1970s. Currently, part of its work continues being public health-related because it’s true that people who are transsexual and intersexual need support and accompaniment in dealing with the health care system and because medical consultations for people or couples with sexual dysfunctions are the responsibility of MINSAP. I have no doubt that sexual and reproductive health are public health concerns.
However, the Center has gone from arguing over the relevancy of overcoming certain pseudoscientific visions about sexuality in the Cuban health care system to sparking social debate concerning the social and political rights of the victims of hetero-normality. It’s an enormous qualitative leap that it has assumed because no other institution in the country has been able to take on such a challenge. But that no one else could, or wanted to, assume the problem, doesn’t mean that CENESEX is the most suitable to address it. On the other hand, it does indicate that they have courage, ethics and a sense of duty. Those are merits that no one can deny the CENESEX collective.
The fact is that Cuba — its legal, institutional and political part — isn’t designed for the systematic exercise of social criticism from the position in which we LGBTI people find ourselves, the exercise we can label as “politics of identities.” Our institutional designs have to group you as a part of a government-dependent organization or atomize you to the extreme, because in the official logic there’s only one identity: the national one. So, without transforming the model that governs the policies of Cuban associations, we couldn’t break out of the CENESEX-MINSAP orbit relating to matters of hetero-normality, just as we were unable to escape the CITMA (Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment) – MINCULT (Ministry of Culture) orbit regarding race-related issues.
That is my proposal, which admits that people not only link up due to professional, spiritual or political, reasons, but also because they’re united as victims of discrimination, and that’s a reason to come together. It’s a legitimate method for emancipating ourselves.
HT: Yasmin, you identify yourself in your e-mails as a “Marxist, feminist blogger.” What does that triple identity mean to you? Is it perhaps a triple project of resistance?
YP: This is the first time I’ve stopped to look at it like that! Resistance? Yes – that’s one way to put it. When I conceived of it, it was more a matter of how to explain it to people that certain matters shouldn’t be played with in your presence. To me, one doesn’t play around with money, the class struggle, patriarchy or freedom of speech. You can talk but you don’t play. These are words that came to me years apart.
To believe in Marxism at the end of ‘90s, when I entered the university, was an “antiquated” position, unless you planned to pursue a political career. I began very successfully as a student leader, but I realized over time that I didn’t want to be a “leader,” but a “Marxist intellectual.” I was in an intense “Young Pioneer” phase, stuck in “We will be like Che” and without the capacity for negotiation.
Being a feminist in Cuba has never been “politically correct.” I took offense when Julio César Guanche called me that in 2002. To calm me down he told me, “You’re a feminist, you just don’t know it.” Only after reading certain writings, seldom recommended to marriageable young ladies sheltered in their homes, I had to agree with him. Up until then I didn’t know I was actually a feminist.
To be a blogger — defending my/the right to express personal reflections in a public space — generates a lack of understanding in a culture whose informational paradigm is based on a monopoly. Since 2005 I haven’t stopped running into people who ask me “So you put your thoughts there for everybody to read them?” To which I respond: “Of course. Isn’t that my right?”
This is connected with resistance, isn’t it?
HT: By the way, in your opinion, what’s the limitation of Cuban feminism?
YP: Cuban feminism? That’s the first news I’ve heard it exists. For me there are Cuban feminists and there’s a women’s movement in Cuba, but as for a specific line of explanation concerning the relations between the genders from a specific sociocultural perspective (like black feminism, Islamic feminism, one that’s different or radical feminism), it doesn’t seem that we have something like this on the island. Maybe you should adjust the question.
HT: Ok – what are the limitations of Cuban feminists?
YP: The logic of feminism is so revolutionary that it doesn’t fit into the structure of the Federation of Cuban Women. Like anti-racism and LGBTI activism, it remains in institutional limbo. And in Cuba, this is equal to political limbo and permanent suspicion. That’s why, though there’s a great team of women and men with excellent preparation in matters of gender whose actions barely go beyond the limits of academia. These people could do so much in social politics, public debates or managerial strategies!
HT: At the 2011 Social Forum of the Critical Observatory, you introduced the notion of a “personal political agenda.” What does this involve? Can there exist such “agendas” within the customary calls for revolutionary unity in Cuba? Also, I’d like you to talk a little about what your own participation in the Critical Observatory Network has meant to you.
YP: Tell me something, is that phrase going to continue sticking with me for long? Frankly, I’d hoped they would have keyed in on other parts of the presentation.
You have to realize that the phrase was used in a context of confrontation. I explained the confrontation between a paradigm of control over pre-Internet knowledge and the possibilities for exchanging experiences as well as the establishment of resistance with the resources of the Internet.
“Personal political agendas” are not things that emerged with the web; this refers to peoples’ identities, how much they’re willing to invest — materially, spiritually and temporally — in their dreams for public space. What the network facilitates is the search for peers who may help you in involving with issues such as changing the educational system, organizing an initiative around non-violence or repairing the neighborhood cultural center.
Of course such a thing can exist within a revolutionary unity; we’re people, not objects, therefore we have goals, opinions and perspectives. All of that makes up people’s “personal political agendas,” which is summed up through a process of constant negotiation with whoever accompanies us on the path to action. To me, a person without a “personal political agenda” has stopped dreaming.
That’s what I like about the Critical Observatory Network: it brings together people who dream. My experience with those who make it up, people from diverse fields of knowledge, is that they don’t give up trying to transform ways of doing things or the spirit of those who do. With more or less sophisticated languages, joining the Network implies a daily commitment from people to work for emancipation, transcending the cultural logic of the late capitalism in which we live and outlining of a new paradigm – one that I call communist.
I know that everything doesn’t work as well as I would like. There are external pressures, the social logic in which we live, as well as internal contradictions in which we members all fall into as we attempt to act, which slows down our advance. However the Critical Observatory Network isn’t above me, it’s within. That’s why it suits me.
HT: In that same Critical Observatory Social Forum, a brief video was filmed where you argue with great emphasis and emotion that “the revolution has to be taken to its final consequences.” What is a/the revolution for you? Is it commitment to a historic leadership, a government, a tradition of struggle? – or does it mean not giving into enemies “not even a little”? Or is it something more than that?
YP: Can you copy the video for me? The problem is that I don’t have access to YouTube…
HT: Me neither, Yasmin. We don’t have the bandwidth for that. But there’s a copy around here on a pin drive…
YP: Well, seriously: What is a Revolution? You saw me looking like Rosa Luxemburg or Alexandra Kollontai? How do I define revolution? More or less, I know that it’s a process, a sociopolitical one, that always brings with it a little bit of blood and a few decapitations – to make it clear that we’re talking about something serious. The idea is to change the whole economic system in a short period of time to satisfy the needs of a class, which up until then has been deprived but wants its part of the pie…its part of the means of production.
That’s how it is, revolutions are forward movement. The model can only call itself that if the class that takes power is wider and more democratic than the one beheaded. That’s what guillotines and firing squads are for. Revolution has to succeed at implanting a new logic, one that’s more flexible and more efficient in its mechanisms of satisfying the needs of society as a whole. The revolution has to be able to explain the world and justify itself in an almost coherent way. Do you like that?
Therefore, revolution involves the commitment to ideas, with models of the country and the society that you try to concretize. Commitment is not to a group of people, no matter how much you respect them, nor to the government’s model, because it can become obsolete.
Commitment is to a tradition of struggle for independence, sovereignty, the emancipation of people and everyone’s access to what humanity’s knowledge can offer so as to make life full – physical and mentally. The commitment is to social justice, not personal comfort.
Of course, what I’m describing is a process marked by the violence of classist confrontation. That’s why someone once said that we will leave prehistory behind when we supersede capitalism. There’s an enemy with as many faces as illusions of domination — capitalism is the first economic system that succeeded in making autophagy a virtue — and not giving it “even a little bit,” is complicated. This implies making ideas essential but practice very reflective. One of the few things that I’m sure of is that to stop in the process of forging change is to give them the advantage.
HT: How are you able to reconcile motherhood, marriage, family life and economic difficulties with that agenda? And, well, what’s the idea of family that you profess?
YP: That’s like asking the centipede which leg it uses first to dance. Every day, Roge (my husband, Rogelio) and I try to coordinate our work schedules with our son’s care. The rest we come up with as we go along.
What’s my idea of family? It’s supposed that the family is a genetic condition, but death, poverty or extreme intolerance can force you to have to build your family from scratch. In general terms, I believe that a family consists of those people with whom you have such an intense positive sentimental bond that you prefer to have them close to you with certain regularity. They are people who you know and accept as they are – even above ideology. They are people for whom you would run risks and who you consider when you make plans that affect life, such as bringing about a revolution or organizing a girl’s “Sweet ‘Fifteen’” party at the Hotel Nacional.
HT: Could you tell me about your experience as a blogger…about the Bloggers Cuba collective? What’s the profile of your blog and why does it have such an unusual name?
YP: I became a blogger in September 2005 because I wanted to have a place online for my demons, for the dirty stories that I compulsively wrote but didn’t have anywhere to publish. Gradually an explicit political practice emerged in the content of those posts, because just being a blogger is already a political gesture. Back then it was rather a solitary matter. I came to Bloggers Cuba through Boris Leonardo (who blogs at “Los rumores”), and starting from there the experience became rich thanks to an internal discussion about what it is to be a blogger in Cuba, and because I collided with comments and what other people “expected” to be written from Cuba. Anyway, I tried to function in a way so that the commentators wouldn’t put the screws on, because they accused me of being a “state security agent” and other nonsense.
As for the profile of my blog, to begin with, there are three of them.
I started up Palabras robadas (“Stolen words”) in September 2005. It’s dedicated to “fanfiction.” It’s basically homosexual erotic literature, but there’s something political in it because in those stories I often begin to speculate about what is a relationship between a couple, what is family and what is power or obsessions, all these being topics of feminist thinking, as you can imagine.
In 2006 Bubusopia emerged. At first it was a blog for gathering news, but later I convinced Roge to fire off his political diatribes in posts. At the moment I’m publishing very little on that site.
It wasn’t until 2007 that the third site arose. It was first called himself Solo mis palabras (Only My Words), until one day I thought it sounded like a teenager’s diary name, so I looked for something abstract. The title “En 2310 y 8225” refers to the geographical coordinates of our house. It’s a personal and reflective blog of my interests, opinions, sentimental jolts and academic readings. If we were to label it, it will be “Marxist and feminist,” like me.
HT: There’s talk in Cuba of (self-described) “revolutionary bloggers” and “alternative bloggers.” Similarly, there is “a merciless digital war” being waged, at least according to the sides in that conflict: the alternative and the official sides – or, inversely, between good Cubans and the enemy’s mercenaries. On which side of that dispute do you place yourself?
YP: On neither, of course. This war is invented and maintained by people who live off of war, whose goal is war, not peace. That’s why they’re determined to move Cuban blogs under the same dualist premise that marks our politics, along with the rhetoric of violence and threats they use in other older fields. These people choose to forget that the nature of blogs is diverse, like the people who generate them.
HT: You participated actively in the controversy unleased as a result of Ted Henken’s research on the Cuban blogsphere, which also involved Havana Times. Why such an emotional defense of an initiative that you don’t belong to? What are your desires for the Cuban blogosphere and for each of the groups that comprise it (according to Ted Henken)?
YP: You see, it’s like in the poem by Bertolt Brecht that ends, “And then…they came for me…And by that time there was no one left to speak up.” As part of Bloggers Cuba (BC), I share with HT the vocation to engage in civic journalism from platforms open to the public’s involvement, with the objective of diversifying the vision that we have of our society inside and outside of Cuba.
The people in the previous response (those on one side or the other living for war), they don’t want these alternatives. They know we’re putting their hegemony in danger. So defending HT from persecution and attacks on its credibility is a minimum common sense reaction. We are close as bloggers, claiming the right of the people with HT to exist – as long as it’s not proven that they’re agents of the CIA effectively involved in subversion acts against Cuba. This support is to defend the right of all of authentic civil society to exist, and that includes me. Did you think I did it as a do gooder?
Following this logic, the only things I want for the Cuban blogosphere is for its bandwidth to increase, the prices of spare parts to go down, the migration to open-source software to be generalized and that we learn how to respect bloggers’ and commentators’ opinions — sexual, political, economic and aesthetic…in short, their ideologies.
In terms of Ted Henken’s research, I’ve already solved that problem: I’ve done my own.
To me, the Cuban blogosphere has four parts: exiled, “insilio” (“in-xiled”), official and resistance.
The “exiled” are those who migrated and work against the government, therefore they extend their objectives and belligerency to the blogosphere.
I owe Isbel Alba Duarte for the term “insilio” (“in-xiled”), which refers to the blogs of those who reside in Cuba and oppose the government.
The blogs in exile and in insilio can be contrasted to the “Bloggers of the Revolution,” which can be called “official” for their hard line in defense of the identification of Cuba with the current government.
I’m adding to these terms the category of “in resistance,” referring to the small niche of people who work inside and outside of Cuba attempting to unmask the previous dualist tradition. This category operates for emigrants and residents, and it is expressed above all in thematic choices and focus. For more details, see my report: “Voces femeninas en la blogosfera cubana. ¿Cambió algo más que el soporte?” (Female voices in the Cuban blogosphere: Did more than just support change?)”, presented in June at the Universidad de Madeira.
HT: What will be the next actions of Project Rainbow and of Yasmin Silvia as a blogger?
YP: Project Rainbow is consolidating. We’ve already had a working meeting and now we have to come to a consensus on the founding document. Also, we’re thinking about initiatives to foment international and national LGBTI historical memory in Cuba. This is something we consider basic for our long term objectives. We’re in agreement that a community without consciousness of itself cannot act autonomously, nor can it affirm or deny its representatives. To be legitimate — politically speaking — we therefore need a community that is aware.
As a blogger, then…you know that even when I was little they told me that I was always quarrelsome. The thing is that I can’t just turn the other cheek, and the blog is one way for me to strike back.
* LGBTI: Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual or Intersexual