Monthly Archives: October 2011

Guilty of Spreading the Word

The starving girl Kong Kyong in March 1993 in Sudan. Photographer Kevin Carter

A terrible phrase summarizes the maxim: “Within you, a voice exclaims: ‘My God!’. But its time to work.  Deal with the rest later.”  The phrase is from Kevin Carter, author of one of the most famous and controversial photographs in the history of the genre:  that in which a vulture stalks the agony of one who, it later became known, bore the name Kong Kyong, who was a boy, not a girl as was thought, and who despite the famine that ended thousands of lives in Sudan, survived.

The photograph got two things for Kevin Carter:  First, the Pulitzer Prize of 1994.  Second: the merciless vilification by those who went as far as to accuse him of being the second vulture, for capturing the image instead of helping the dying child.

Carter took his own life a year later.  His acquaintances affirm that it was not exclusively because of the media bombardment that he received as a result of his photo, the accusations of being evil and callow, but also emotional disorders that had always traveled with him

Kevin Carter’s case is the most notable case.  Unfortunately it is not unique.

La triste y célebre foto de Frank Fournier: la niña Omayra Sánchez mira a su lente poco antes de morir

The sad and celebrated photo by Frank Fournier: the girl Omayra Sanchez looks into his lens a short time before dying.

In 1985. the Colombian volcano Nevado del Ruiz erupted and took the lives of more than 25 thousand people.

The photojournalist Fran Fournier documented the disaster in Colombia with a meticulousness that chilled the bones.  But he did something more: he aimed his lens at the precise angle required to turn a scene into History: the girl Omayra Sanchez clinging for dear life, holding on to a tree branch, while she struggled to escape being swallowed by the tide of mud and quicksand.

The image is painful by itself.  To know that the attempt by rescue workers to save her did not bear fruit, and the girl died, transformed the photo into a heart-rending testimony.  And its author, for many, into an immoral character.

Fournier was not Kevin Carter: he did not take his life, and was able to struggle against the accusations of those who berated him as a cruel opportunist, even if, at the instant when he pressed the shutter, it still looked possible to save the valuable life of Omayra Sanchez.  But his snapshot placed him in the center of an ethical-moral debate that is not over to this day.

These examples by themselves would fill a volume with the names of the slandered, both of the photographers who filmed scenes that may have been avoidable if they had left their equipment sitting on the ground, and of the journalists who narrated live an execrable event of which they were the immediate witnesses.

Tough profession.  Tough inner conflict for those who, obeying the maxim to spread truths, realities, facts, keep at bay the screams of horror in their throats, and do their jobs.  They click the shutter. They hold the camera steady.  They narrate the facts for all to hear.  They remember that through their eyes, their voices, their lenses, the world will find out what is happening.   And they do not care what comes later.  “Deal with the rest later,” as one who could not do it would say.

True journalism, that which respects itself, that which responds to iron precepts, the same way that medicine bends to its Hippocratic oath; journalism that knows who it works for: those who otherwise wouldn’t know that things like this happen in far away places, is without a doubt one of the most necessary professions among all that exist, and honestly, one that receives one of the worst shares of gratitude in return.

When Kevin Carter was horrifying a well-fed world with that image, when he was improving the angle and the position of the light instead of waving the buzzard away, he was doing something more important than saving that life: he was saving, perhaps, tens of thousands.  There was no better way to denounce the Sudanese tragedy than to grate on the nerves and sensitivities of the world with such a scene.

Cuatro estudiantes asesinados por la Guardia Nacional de Ohio. Al menos una de estas muertes, fotografiada por John Paul Filo, sirvió para vengarlas a todas. Filo ganó el Pulitzer.

One of the four dead at the University of Ohio, photographed by John Paul Filo in 1970.

When John Paul Filo captured the choleric scream and pain of that young woman before one of the victims at Kent State, shot miserably by the National Guard while they protested the war in Vietnam, instead of succoring the bullet-ridden, he was doing something that perhaps no one else could have done: pinning the image on the historical memory of that country so that crimes such as these, violations of freedom of expression such as this, would not happen ever again.

There is a reason why dictatorial regimes, satraps the world over, those who love doing and undoing to their heart’s content, eject or jail authentic journalists.

There is a reason that some of the best exponents of this Fourth Power have paid with their lives for the arrogance of shouting with no limits about what was happening in Pinochet’s dungeons, what is happening in the narco-violence infected streets of Mexico or in the human experimentation laboratories in North Korea.

Too many responsible for not allowing crimes to exist with impunity, violations without denunciation, catastrophic events without aid, left this world not receiving in return the most deserved prize that humanity can bestow: gratitude.  It is not too late to think about them, those who, between bombs in Afghanistan, dangerous conflicts in Libya, Syria and Egypt; those who amid savage butchery in Mexico or cruel state repression Cuban, Venezuelan or Ecuadorian style, commit their lives to tell the facts, to spread the word.

Translated by: lapizcero

October 24 2011


Medical Policy, or Political Medicine?

A little less than a year ago I lived for two weeks thinking I had cancer in my lymph nodes. In November, 2010, a team of pathologists at the “Carlos Manuel de Cespedes” Provincial Hospital in Bayamo signed a yellowish paper, prepared on a typewriter with a number of typing errors, telling me I had a Hodgkin lymphoma of the nodular sclerosis type.

The news was soon running like wildfire in a city of two hundred thousand people where my name, due to journalist-politician confrontations, had gained unfortunate notoriety.

Fifteen days later, another team of pathologists, these belonging to the “Hermanos Ameijeiras” Hospital in Havana, would make my mother let loose a flood of withheld tears, by telling us that opinion was nothing but a monstrous error.

The tests repeated in Havana on my lymph nodes showed an alteration (hyperplasia) which may have been the product of an ancient virus, which did not contain any sign of malignancy.

The diagnostics that would save me from the clutches of chemotherapy came after procedures as tortuous as a bone biopsy of the hip, a medullogram, and another nasal tissue biopsy (only practicable by introducing a kind of fine scissors in my nose to the larynx, and cutting a piece of tissue), from which I suffered for several days.

On returning to my eastern city, with another paper telling me that at age 26 I was not facing any cancer, never let me know what the five pathologist from Bayamo did or did not see when they determined that I had Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

That’s right: literature searches and dozens of questions to other physicians  let me know that these kind of lymphoma cells have a clear structure, well-defined, classical, which make any confusion very difficult.

I will never assert that behind an opinion that destroyed the nerves of my family and my friends, was the dark and powerful hand of the State Security, as several of those close to me asserted, alarmed at the inconceivable error. It is not my specialty to found my opinions on subjective bases, without arguments in hand: that is the specialty of the slanderers.

However, now that after the incredibly sudden death of Laura Pollan some well-known Cuban dissidents (Elizardo Sanchez, Guillermo Fariñas, Jose Daniel Ferrer, among many others) have signed a declaration of refusal to be hospitalized for illness, I find it impossible not to recall my own experience.

The national tragedy reaches such extremes of justified paranoia: when apparatchiks of State intelligence have the power to expel students from the University, to decide who can and cannot travel outside the country, to block a person from purchasing food at a supermarket, or entering a public movie theater; when these apparatchiks are present even in the most anodyne and least important institutions of society, why not believe their interests would also prevail in a hospital?

This statement of the Cuban Democratic Alliance, saying that only in case of emergency surgery do they want to be transferred to a “hospital of the regime” (read: all Cuban hospitals), and only if a doctor they trust tells them so, I believe represents one of the most terrible statements that could be known for a long time: not even in the medical system do the disaffected feel they have full rights.

Not even in a quasi-sacred ground such as health care, where professionals swear the Hippocratic oath to defend the lives of their patients at all costs, an area that should not ever yield to pressures or influences of any kind, not even there can Cubans who oppose the government can feel safe.

Yoani Sanchez once told me how the emergency medical attention she received at a clinic in Havana, was reported later, in minute detail, by a reporter who aired a television report against her.

Just as I will never know how much was error and how much was intentional in a diagnosis that ripped away a large part of my youth, it’s likely we may never know to what extent two deadly viruses entered the body of Laura Pollan naturally, if she was already infected with them, and whether they were really the cause of death of the Lady in White. That’s one of the many consequences of the obscurantism with which everything moves at the official level in Cuba.

But we do know a hard truth: the values of a society are too riddled with rot if even the responsibility, the incorruptibility of medical ethics must be distrusted by  those who disagree with government policy. With or without reason.

(Originally published in Martí Noticias)

October 20 2011


The Blessed Who Mourn Like Ángel Santiesteban

How can an admired writer be turned into an alleged and persecuted anti-social? How can one pass from being a creator of stories, a prize-winner, read, respected, cited, to become part of the social evils which, according to the all-powerful authority, it is necessary to mercilessly eradicate?

The answer is very simple: Live in Cuba. And distance yourself from the powers-that-be.

When I met Ángel Santiesteban, some seven years ago, I still hadn’t read a single one of his stories. Later I would regret it, on looking over the most overwhelming volume of stories in recent Cuban literature: The Children Nobody Wanted, that kind of stinking garbage where a phenomenal narrator tells stories of convicts, cattle killers, prostitutes, rafters and crazed war veterans.

Even before the iron friendship that binds us both, a reality about his work seemed certain to me: with just two books of stories known to the Cuban public — published against the will of the publishing industry: The Children Nobody Wanted, winner of the Alego Carpentier Prize, and Blessed Are Those Who Mourn which brought home the Casa De Las Americas Prize, turned Angel Santiesteban into an author fiercely pursued by the Island’s readers.

While the works of the cadaverous National Literature Awards gather dust on the shelves, the books of Santiesteban are undetectable ghosts: there is not a single one in any bookstore. They have all been bought or stolen from the libraries.

I think of this now that the name of Angel Santiesteban has become a bad word in trembling Cuban literary circles, now that he has been stripped of the social status his voice once earned him. I think of this now that the anxieties of an author with so much to shout about found freedom in a personal blog, and who now has a 15-year prison sentence ever more dangerously hanging over him.

Did he imagine that one day it would come to this, that the unbridgeable distance between him and the dictatorial government that rules the fates of his Island would turn him into a cursed writer and citizen?

“Someone warned me, before I started the blog, that it could cause me a great deal of adversity,” he confessed to me. “I thought it would be on the order of censorship, relegated to the cultural media, which I was already familiar with. But I never thought they would manipulate people close to me, that they would invent such a long and perverse script to discredit me and leave me all alone.”

Feeding the grudges of an old marital relationship, State Security showed signs of an imagination almost as fertile as the writer’s: today Ángel Santiesteban is accused of rape, theft, and attempted murder of his ex-wife, charges that carry a penalty of more than 50 years in prison.

“They have been lenient with me,” Angel says sarcastically, “proposing that I accept nothing more than 15 years behind bars.”

They constructed the story without evidence, without witnesses, without definitive facts: that’s the least of it. In the same country where you can be shot for your beliefs; where 30-year sentences are handed out for writing on typewriters, today it is possible for a valuable writer to be accused of murder, rape and theft without proof. And the worst of it: to be made to pay for it.

“The last time I was invited to the Book Fair as a valued writer was in 2008,” Angel told me, and my memories surge, unavoidable: during those meetings he was in my city more than once. “When I spent three days in Moron, Ciego de Avila, on returning to my hotel at night from the literary activities, I was informed that my reservation had been cancelled by the organizers of the Fair. That night I slept at the house of the taxi driver who drove me, and in the morning I went back to Havana.”

The worst, however, isn’t this. The worst is not going from an idol to a pariah. The worst is not no longer being called by any institution in Cuba, interested in having you read your stories at their conferences about contemporary writing, in their chats with readers. The worst is not this.

How have they damaged his work? How is it possible to survive in a hostile country and still maintain a creative rhythm, maintain your healthy and coherent work?

“In some ways there has been a positive aspect,” Angel admits, “because they’ve helped me to change my style a little, I have written a book of stories of the absurd. But on the other hand, sometimes many days pass when I don’t create. They have succeeded, I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t affect me, and I accept that without shame. I’m not just constantly anxious about the defamation, nor even the beating where they broke my arm. This doesn’t even compare to the terrible reality that for two years they haven’t let me see my son. This is my true martyrdom. Although in the end, inevitably, I end up taking refuge in literature.”

Most of his friends have distanced themselves. Forgotten his telephone number, forgotten his apartment and his street. “They don’t want to commit suicide, culturally speaking,” says Angel, and without his knowing it something like guilt and remorse came over me because I know that I, like the writers Amir Valle, Alberto Garrido, Jorge Luis Arzola, like so many others we love and admire, we have also left him a bit alone, scattered to the United States, the Dominican Republic, Germany, and search of a happiness and peace that we know we can’t find.

I like to think of Ángel Santiesteban like our Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Too many similarities exist between this tropical Havanan and that Russian dissident who with a couple of books, (A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago) not only won the Nobel Prize and immortality, but also gained the eternal respect of those who worship freedom. 

The day when this grey storm comes to an end, and the meetings and reunions take place; the day when we can start from scratch to build a better country for our children, the blessed like Ángel Santiesteban who has written so much and mourned so much, will be our intellectual guides and our written memory so that we will never again make that mistake.

(Originally published in Martí Noticias)

October 12 2011


Obama, Cuba, and the Confederacy of Dunces

According to Jonathan Swift, when a true genius appears in the world we can recognize him by a sign: All fools conspire against him.

I believe we could easily adapt this maxim – taken from the stupendous novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole – to another context: When a sensible president appears in one of the world’s great nations, it is not long before fools join against him.

I think of this each time I hear Barack Obama uphold his policies in that singular case which has come to be called Cuba.  I think it each time I hear his thoughts consonant with the primary needs of Cubans in these times.

For my part, knowing that President Obama distanced himself from previous positions — unsustainable as they were within the current context of the Caribbean nation — as soon as he arrived at the White House, seemed to me a breath of fresh air.  A good omen that came to me in my remote provincial city in Cuba.

I was not alone.  I remember the endless debates among young people who in different ways, both more publicly and more surreptitiously, disapproved of the monolithic system under which we grew up, of the harmful policy promulgated by George W. Bush during the eight endless years of his government.

I risk a generalization: the vast majority, by far, of Cubans on the Island, the generations who undoubtedly will build a better country for their children and grandchildren; the huge majority of dissidents both notorious and unknown, Cubans detached from the indoctrination, tired of lies and bland politics, wholeheartedly approve the measures taken vis-a-vis Cuba by the current U.S. administration.

While not a few idiots conjure the accusation that Barack Obama has allied himself with the tropical regime in Havana, allowing Cuban-Americans to travel at will to the country of their birth, and ignoring how much money a waiter in Hialeah sends to his mother in Santa Clara.

Another tiny and poorly mounted campaign offers as evidence of this insensitivity of the Obama administration toward Cuba the cutting of funds to promote Democracy in Cuba to organizations such as the “Cuban Democratic Directorate,” or “Advocates for a Free Cuba,” intentionally ignoring the reallocation of these funds to other institutions more in sync with the current administration, such as the Human Rights Division of the Cuban American National Foundation.

Suspiciously, this class of anti-Castro fighters who call themselves “intransigents” and fiercely defend the asphyxiation of Cubans as a route to regime change, do not inhabit the country. I didn’t meet them in the Cuba I left behind nine months ago. They are outside of it, well-sheltered from the prevailing misery, and the asphyxiation of the official disinformation. In the overwhelming majority of cases, their families are. As a mountain song very popular in the Cuban sierras would say, “Yep, it’s easy, pal!”

The rationale for this is simple: restricting remittances from Miami to Cuba would have its effect in the stomachs of the Cubans, who would inevitably end up toppling the dictator. What none of these thinkers and architects of Cuban freedom has ever explained to me is what they themselves are doing outside Cuba. What are their families doing outside Cuba? Why should my mother, my grandmother, be the ones who rise up against the tyrant as a result of their policies while they are sitting safely by with a shot of Bacardi in hand.

What has been the policy focus of Barack Obama? Towards truth like a temple: the natural scenario, the preferred habitat of every dictator is isolation. It is at a distance, separated, in the prohibitions, where all the authoritarian regimes in History have found the best conditions to perpetuate themselves. This is their sauce, cooked there with skill.

When I hear Obama defend his positions on Cuba, defend the need for Cubans to demarcate themselves from the State and take advantage of new forms of communication with the exterior, I come to see only two possibilities with regards to his detractors:

1. Either their disconnect with that country is so insurmountable — even when they don’t sense it — that they do not understand the damage that has been done to the monolithic regime in Havana from the entry into its lands of inhabitants from the free world, the contacts between human beings and slaves.

2. Or blind Republicanism of the type, “do whatever you have to do to confront him” clouds their reason and distorts their attempted good intentions toward the Island.

There is no other way I can understand, for example, how these champions of the Cuban cause can praise George W. Bush as the most consistent, hard and admirable president of the last decades.

Setting aside the shame that surrounds the most unpopular president in American history, the most uneducated and the most notoriously incompetent, I believe that a single question collapses the myth: What did the “admirable” Bush policy achieve in Cuba, with his fiery little speeches and his limits on remittances and travel between both shores?

Did it, in fact, achieve anything? Yes, a lot: under his administration the regime of Fidel Castro dictated the most astronomical possible sentences against independent journalists; mobilized interminable forced marches in the country; suppressed with great effectiveness popular protests; sustains an absolute monopoly on information; and enjoyed silently the estrangement of families, this time imposed not by its own directives, but by the country that for many is the paradigm of a modern democracy.

In short: I would be willing to believe in the effectiveness of the Republican prohibitions if they showed me one, just one, of the accomplishments of these policies in the lives of Cubans on the Island.

All this discounts a fundamental factor: the Texan Bush was not only the most unpopular president among Americans. He was also so among Cubans on the Island: as if it’s not enough to have the iron fist of the family dictatorship shoved down the throats of 11 million people, now the president of a nation that should ally itself with the victims did exactly the opposite — it prevented our families from visiting us, from alleviating our hunger and longings. And meanwhile, Bush won applause in Miami’s Little Cuba for “doing what was really necessary.”

Making Cubans independent of the State; breaking the monopoly on information so often mentioned by Yoani Sanchez and directly promoted by Barack Obama; allowing contact between Cubans on both shores — not only as a political strategy but as a sacred right that belongs to them — seems to me not only defensible for those of us who know the tropical monster from within, but for all those who have a genuine interest in prosperity and democracy for Cuba, beyond the demagoguery disguised as patriotism.

The rest goes a long way to please the stiff ears of certain sectors that don’t live in Cuba and seem not to notice it. It serves to disguise the lack of serious and effective policy proposals, with the mantle of exhausted rhetoric. But at least to Cubans now, those on and off the Island, it definitely does not deceive us. Not by coming together will the voices of certain dunces be heard any louder.

October 10 2011