By Monica Baro (El Estornudo)
HAVANA TIMES – I have said many a time that I’m against the embargo the US government has imposed on Cuba. I supported the policy of normalizing bilateral relations that the Obama Administration promoted, because I believed – and still believe – that it could contribute to normalizing everyday life here in this country. In fact, this is what I hope for deep down in my heart for Cuba, when I’m overcome by extreme exhaustion: some normalcy.
When the conservative business mogul Donald Trump was elected president, I felt like most of my hopes came crashing down. To tell you the truth, my hopes had begun to be crushed in March 2016, after Barack Obama finished his speech addressed to Cuban society at the Grand Theater in Havana. State-controlled media gave it a radical spin when covering the rapprochement process and they went from “civilized relations” and similarities between the Cuban and US people, to highlighting the historic conflicts between their governments, yet again.
That’s when I saw the first sign of all of this hitting the fan. Then, Trump threw more wood onto the fire and somebody celebrated his election in some somber office of Cuba’s repressive apparatus.
I personally believe that the US’ hostile policy towards Cuba hasn’t been the reason for repression, nor poverty, nor the lack of medicines we suffer here in Cuba. There are plenty of analyses to prove it. There are many measures that could be implemented here, without the embargo being lifted, which would generate prosperity, social justice and democracy.
This face-off with the US has been the Castros’ totalitarian system’s comfort zone, ever since the 1960s. It has served them to stay in power, keeping the same family, military, and generational group at the helm.
I’m sure that Fidel Castro enjoyed having the West’s main empire as his enemy. It fed his ego, his virility, his delusions of grandeur. You just have to read his speeches from the beginning of the Revolution. And I am one does read his speeches. This is why I’d like to see how the Cuban system reacts if it were to lose its endearing enemy, for five years at least.
Now saying this, there is something else I believe is important to bear in mind. In the catalogue of just causes that we can defend here in Cuba, some are more fitting than others. There are causes which the Cuban government applauds, and other causes that the Cuban government represses.
You don’t have to study a great deal to know that the standing up to the embargo is the fastest and most effective way to win the Cuban government’s graces, especially if your opposition to the embargo doesn’t go hand-in-hand with opposition to the human rights violations committed by the Cuban government under the excuse of the embargo.
Attention: I’m not questioning anybody’s right to express themselves freely. I’m a journalist and this means that I totally defend the exercise of this right, as well as other things. If there are people who are outraged by the embargo, or the election of Guillermo Lasso as the President of Ecuador, but they aren’t outraged by a new police raid of artist Luis Manuel Otero’s home, by his violent arrest and the destruction of his work, then you have to just accept that’s the way it is and that’s that.
Nobody can impose their feelings on anyone. Are you a Cuban and only concerned about the US embargo and nothing else? How about the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest? Or the death of Prince Phillip of Edinburgh at 99 years old? Well, a pat on the back for you! It’s your right to grieve Phillip’s death if you want to and post a photo of you wearing a “God Save the Queen” shirt. However, don’t get annoyed when people pick apart your discourse.
Exercising freedom of speech implies accepting that whatever we express, can be called into question and the subject of debate. People questioning what we say doesn’t mean they are questioning our right to say it.
There are people who do question our right to speak freely, but I’m not talking about these people. Also, when I talk about freedom of speech, I’m not talking about the “right” to discriminate, to promote hate speech, bully, or defame anyone, because this “right” doesn’t exist.
I’m rather talking about successful Cuban artist Wilfredo Prieto, the founder and coordinator of the cultural project “Taller Chullima”, and his Facebook photo in which he holds a sign that reads: “PRESIDENT BIDEN, THE 60-YEAR-OLD TRADE EMBARGO ON CUBA IS NOT A JOKE. WE MUST END IT NOW.”
In fact, it’s something I agree with deep down. But, for better or worse, this post appears in a context that transforms Prieto’s demand into a joke, in awfully bad taste too.
Three days before this post, different independent Cuban media platforms reported that political prisoner Luis Robles (who has been imprisoned since December 2020) had finally been convicted for the crimes of “enemy propaganda and disobedience) and that the Attorney-General’s Office was asking for a sentence for up to 7 years in jail.
Just like Prieto, Robles also protested with a sign, but Robles wasn’t a successful artist, and the message on his sign was different: “FREEDOM! NO MORE REPRESSION #FREE-DENIS”.
Plus, unlike Prieto, Robles didn’t post this protest on his Facebook page, but went to San Rafael Boulevard instead, one of Havana’s busiest pedestrian streets. He was arrested by police in a matter of minutes. Some people who were nearby came to his defense and tried to stop the police from taking him away, but the police ultimately had their way.
The video of his arrest went viral on social media and Luis Robles’ name became a constant source of news every now and again. The Government sought to send a message to Cuban citizens and make an example of Robles with his imprisonment: zero tolerance for protests in public spaces.
You could think that it was pure coincidence that Wilfredo Prieto decided to speak out against the embargo, following an aesthetic similar to Luis Robles, just three days after Luis Robles’ charges were announced. You could try really hard not to think the worst and believe that the successful artist was completely unaware of the political prisoner’s case.
But you end up asking yourself whether it really was a coincidence, or whether there is no coincidence in any of this and the intention is to cast doubt on Luis Robles’ cause, in a passive-aggressive way.
You wonder whether Wilfredo Prieto, who hasn’t shared any complaint about repression in Cuba on his Facebook page in the past three years, is not also calling into question the cause of Luis Manuel Otero, Tania Bruguera and the cause of all those artists who have been subjected to more intense violence than usual recently, supposedly linked to the VIII Communist Party Congress.
Of course, there are many people who ask the same questions, because this whole Wilfredo Prieto business seems something like being at Aunt Francisca’s wake and then somebody comes to celebrate Aunt Lola’s birthday.
Plus, who coexists with Wilfredo Prieto on his social media? It’s the same artists who are now facing serious harassment from Cuban authorities while he lifts a sign in favor of a cause that can put him in the Government’s good graces? Again: yes, it’s his right. He could even be more explicit with his stance and I would continue to recognize it’s his right.
But recognizing his right to express himself doesn’t stop me from also recognizing that his sign is disrespectful, at the very least, to the Cuban artist world he is a member of. Why is it that somebody who doesn’t normally express himself on Facebook about anything political, decides to do so now, in favor of official propaganda’s favorite causes, when reports of human rights violations continue to appear? Wilfredo Prieto is the only one who knows. However, it’s not the most important thing for me.
The most important thing is the difference between an artist who protests on social media against the US blockade on Cuba, and a regular citizen who protested in a public space against State repression.
Both of them exercised their right, but Prieto now enjoys his freedom, he can leave his home and go back as he pleases without State Security stepping in his way. Likewise, travel to and from Cuba. He also has a cultural workshop in a magnificent space to hold different activities.
Meanwhile, Robles is in prison, and has suffered abuse since December 2020, and his destiny could be seven years behind bars. Prieto didn’t lose anything when exercising his right; on the contrary, he could gain a lot. Robles lost his freedom.
So, we can’t say that Wilfredo Prieto’s and Luis Robles’ signs are the same. The difference doesn’t lie in their messages, but in the consequences of their protest. Standing up to the embargo, without taking a critical stand of Cuba’s political power, gives you privileges. Taking a critical stand against this political power, even when you still oppose the embargo, puts your own rights at risk. Let’s say that Wilfredo Prieto’s sign is just a bad joke.