HAVANA TIMES – Yunior Smith didn’t write a mea culpa – at least not the one many wanted to see. In his last post, which was extensive and bordered on melodrama, he didn’t take any responsibility, nor did he acknowledge the existence of anyone he’d harmed. His past diatribes against opposition leader Jose Daniel Ferrer, and his support for the Cuban government inspired violence exercised against those who demonstrated on July 11th weigh on his words, but he never lands there directly – his reflections are more circular. At the doorway to the United States, nearing the end of his “road to freedom”, Yunior Smith offers excuses, not apologies. In his story, he seems to indicate, he’s the only victim.
The only fault that the former anchor of the Cuban Television Information System openly recognizes seems also to be his self-justification. Nonetheless, no “error” can absolve itself. This contradiction stems from the lack of logic in his allegation, which seems based on the cliché of the “convinced, romantic participant in a system”; the person with “clouded vision”, who – late in the game – discovers eyeglasses.
If there’s one particular that disappoints us in Yunior Smith, it’s the ease with which he clings to this overworn tale. Up until a few years ago, the former TV anchor was studying in Havana University’s Department of Communication, along with many of the journalists who not long afterwards became victims of harassment and violently repression by the Cuban political police. Some of those young people with whom he crossed paths in the university hallways, or common areas, or perhaps knew to be friends of friends, would later be detained, subjected to police interrogations, besieged in their homes and forced to emigrate. Those youth were also part of the “unworthy Cubans” who the news anchor in his suit and tie would rant about on national television.
In his long post, Yunior shines a light on the fact that his brother, Kesell Rodriguez, is a dissident who was jailed in 2016 and only freed after a 50-day hunger strike. That revelation, inevitably, recalls the final scene of the 1986 film “A Successful Man”, when in the early morning of January 1, 1959, social climber Javier Arguelles removes the portrait of Fulgencio Batista from his office wall, in order to hang that of his brother, a martyr of the July 26 movement. In contrast to Arguelles, though, Yunior Smith doesn’t use his family member as a pass to redemption, but as justification for his fears.
If we pay attention to his confession, Kesell Rodriguez exemplified for him what can happen to those who oppose the dictatorship. But here I find another contradiction: was Yunior Smith acting out of conviction and loyalty to the regime, or out of fear? By simple logic, I’d place my bets on the side of fear – unless, of course, he really believed that his brother was a “lackey of imperialism” who well deserved jail.
The explanations of yesterday’s spokesperson for the dictatorship leave many contradictions floating in the air, plus a few questions: What does Yunior Smith regret? What’s the real sense of his “mea culpa”?
I don’t believe that Yunior Smith should be either lynched, or redeemed. We don’t need to transform him into a model case used to measure how much rancor or mercy we should extend to those who call themselves exiles. What I would defend is the need to understand him, which in no way means justifying him. The reasons for the former anchor’s change of discourse could well serve us to better understand today’s Cuba, as well as ourselves.
Let’s return to the question: What does he regret? What’ the real sense of his mea culpa? To answer these questions, we must begin with a reality: Yunior Smith is the moral prototype of the average Cuban, except for one small error he committed.
Yunior knows he’s not very different from the majority of those who, feeling their authority as immigration officials for example, demand he be deported; nor from those who demand he be received tenderly as one more victim of the dictatorship. He also knows that nearly all those Cubans who are today outside the country, at one time survived in the same way as those who are still in Cuba: by obeying, not questioning, staying under the radar, keeping silence in order not to “seek out problems”. The only thing that differs him – and the only fault he really accepts – is one small error of calculation: wanting to stand out.
In the university, he became aware of his potential as an announcer, and for that reason he worked to get into the Cuban Television Information System, perhaps that most sought-after position that the journalism students compete for. In his text, he alludes to this several times, especially when he speaks of his “desire to be different” and of how he strove to “be the best”.
While making this point, Yunior Smith recalls author Stendhal’s character Julian Sorel [from the 1830 novel The Red and the Black]. Sorel lets himself be led by ambition, without calculating the risks of rising in the ranks. When his downfall comes, he seizes the idea that, in reality, he’s always been a rebel moved by the desire to point out the system’s failings. In the same way that the now-proud Sorel refuses a pardon for his crime, the television announcer refuses to clear his head in Miami to “speak about the regime and dictatorship”, or to receive the pardons or accusations of others. His desertion, he wants to make us believe, is pure.
Morally, Yunior isn’t very different from the majority of Cubans, except that his lack of principles combined with his ambition to make him more visible. To judge him without taking this into account is to continue believing that Cuba is a country composed of millions of people with no autonomous wills, completely dominated by a reduced squadron of toadies who order them around but don’t want to do the dirty work. That’s not at all true, although maybe we sleep better thinking it is.
We should all be saying: “Thank you Yunior, for once again holding up a mirror for us.”
It’s a good time to wonder how a person with ambition ends up abandoning it, going off in a totally different direction and throwing overboard what he’s achieved. I have no idea. However, ambitions aren’t usually abandoned – they’re cut off. Sometimes It’s enough just to be practical and note that there’s an insurmountable barrier up ahead, a roof that others have erected for you, much lower than you thought, in order to give up.
Yunior Smith wasn’t a repressor in the full sense of the word, or not that we know of. Those who are made uncomfortable by his possible presence in the United States should realize that there are those worse than he is. There are those who didn’t lend their face and their voice to the regime, but lent their fists and their small quotas of power, who took care to disguise their identities with false names, and who only needed a whisper to destroy the lives of many. Today, one of them may be the pleasant fellow Cuban behind us in the supermarket checkout line.
What will happen to the Yunior Smith’s who stay in Cuba, once the regime has fallen to those who didn’t learn to obey and stay unnoticed?
There are those who fantasize about a humiliating rendering of accounts. Others, more moderate, dream about a Caribbean version of Nuremburg. The most likely thing, though, is that both groups will be left with their yearnings, but will have to put up with seeing many former spokespersons of the regime change their pasts, to the point of convincing themselves that they were never accomplices of a dictatorship. In the worst cases, they’ll be the ones to cast the first stone, knowing, with complete cynicism that nearly all are sinners. The best and most probable scenario is that there are only a handful of guilty parties, and that all the rest of us see ourselves as victims.
A few years ago, I was able to speak with a veteran Latin American journalist, who didn’t disguise the details of what she went through in prison when she was still young and her country was governed by a bloody dictatorship. I had read about the thousands of dead and disappeared under that military regime, but none of those books impacted me as much as the testimony of a survivor. I asked her how it was possible that, following the fall of the dictatorship, the aggrieved didn’t flock onto the streets to wreak vengeance: to burn the houses of the former repressors, with them in it. “We had very few options: a settling of scores and chaos; or, resentment and progress,” she said. Until I stopped seeing her, I had the sensation that she spoke with the resentment of someone who never got her desired revenge, nor saw the promised progress.