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Another Cuba for Our Man in Havana

During the filiming of "I Am The Other Cuba": Pierantonio Maria Micciarelli with the cameraman Luca Acerno. Photo: Leopoldo Caggiano.

After touching up his work in his Italian homeland, our man in Havana landed in Miami. He was preceded by a great omen: censorship. The best antecedent to arouse interest. A filmmaker whose latest work has been rejected by each and every European festival where he tried to show it.

He entered it in small events: it wasn’t admitted. He entered it in a large events: The Venice Film Festival looked the other way. “I am the other Cuba” didn’t find a single crack to be shown to the European public.

Another lesson for the quixotic Director Pierantonio Maria Micciarelli and his two producers, Leopoldo Caggiano and Luca Acerno, after making a four thousand mile circuit of the Cuban geography: the Island shown in his 84-minute work, is not what too many eyes on the Old Continent wanted to see.

Pierantonio Maria Micciarelli: a flamboyant character in another Cuba he never dreamed of. Photo: Leopoldo Caggiano.

Pierantonio Maria Micciarelli: a flamboyant character in another Cuba he never dreamed of. Photo: Leopoldo Caggiano.

Cuba, according to the outdated and influential leftists, should taste like coconut icing, sound like gambling, be viewed with swaying hips, and inspire happiness. The disenchanted panorama that “I Am The Other Cuba” throws in their faces was a bucket of cold water for the show.

Pierantonio Maria Micciarelli, with his extravagant image as a surrealistic character, his incisive and loving look at a dream country, with a team of kamikaze filmmakers who, perhaps, had no idea of the risks they would face, managed with their documentary something definitely dramatic: reminding us that this Cuba of broken dreams, betrayed utopias, is by necessity painful.

What did this Italian entrepreneur of the angular shoulders and easy smile want to film? Revolutionary Cuba, unique in its social project which, since he was young, had seduced him with manic intensity. What did he end up filming over those 59 days? A grotesque grimace. An inexact, badly executed drawing; an incorrigible sketch of what should be a revolutionary country, and what is, in reality, a paralyzed country. Contextualizing a terrible phrase of another utopian, the Venezuelan Don Simon Rodriguez, Pierantonio wanted to film a paradise in that land, and ended up finding hell itself.

Micciarelli let his beard grow and went into the Sierra Maestra. He played baseball with happy kids, took photos of families in the complex mountain scenery. He ate with them. He talked with veterans. He listened to their voices swelled with pride from that era, and found them living their lives of abundant misery. Returning to reality, from the oasis of idyllic ignorance in which rural Cuba lives, those Italians led by the bearded Micciarelli discovered another truth.

Not only what two Sanchezes (Elizardo and Yoani) said for his extensive interviews for the documentary. Not only what Father Jose Conrado from Santiago related, suffocated by the temperature, the poverty and the violence; or what the dissidents released from prison trying to live again among the pain. “I Am The Other Cuba” shows the extended face of social despair, where young people do not understand why they are condemned, like their parents or grandparents, to eternal scarcities, and where they do understand the only way out: emigration. At any cost.

Father Jose Conrado in “I Am The Other Cuba.” Photo: Leopoldo Caggiano

“I Am the Other Cuba” reveals the testimonies of the unknown, people without names but with voices that say: “Only a miracle could save this.” Testimonies that say, with barely concealed pain: “What I miss is true freedom.” Women who ask why Fidel Castro hates his people so much, or who wonder if some day they will march with gladioli in their hands without fear of being kicked or stoned.

Pierantonio was privileged, as well: he was able to capture singular scenes. For example, a shameless interview with one of the most repulsive beings of the fauna recently brought to light by the national intelligentsia: Carlos Serpa Maceira, State Security’s “agent Emilio,” when he was still cloaked in the skin of an opponent. To record a man, with his jacket off, who at the same time denounces Article 88 of the Cuban Penal Code — the Gag Law — while violating human rights, who shortly afterwards shouted “Vivas!” for Fidel and Raul, is a stroke of extraordinary luck for the documentary. The Universal History of Infamy will be forever grateful to Micciarelli for his recording. Serpa Maciera? Maybe not so much.

Also a hit (strictly speaking) of some luck, was the suspicious crash the whole crew suffered while talking in a moving car with Laura Pollan — the leader of the Ladies of White. The testimony of the terror, of all that can happen, that it’s best to stay away or to come to Cuba only for cheap hot sex, was caught by chance by a filmmaker who has no doubt in affirming: his documentary was a work of love and miracles.

So he found out after meetings with State Security, where they showed him their photos of him in every province in the county, perhaps with the subtle insinuation of, “Give us the footage or you won’t leave this airport.” Fortunately the hours of filming were already safe in far away Italy, thanks to friends with plenty of inner adrenaline. Pierantonio was only left wondering how photogenic he looked in the snapshots of those paid to watch him.

Pierantonio Maria Micciarelli assures that this precious work is not his gift to the Cuba he loves: according to him, “I Am The Other Cuba” is his offering to what that Homeland where he was not born but that he feels as his own has done to him.

I have no doubt: “I Am The Other Cuba,” filmed with love, will find an opening to be exhibited in the United States, a nation without disguised censorship; and we Cubans owe an affectionate respect to this dreamer Micciarelli, our Italian in Havana, who will not be able to visit it again for a long time to come.

(Originally published in Martí Noticias)


September 26 2011


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Posted by on September 26, 2011 in Ernesto Morales Licea


From Glory to Villainy

The first time I was close to Agustin Bejarano it was in 2004, during a couple of hours of the night literary circle,and I had never seen his work. His name began to sound familiar, as a well-treated artist, but his surprising and meteoric rise that would begin a little latter was still unknown, for this man considered one of the untouchables of Cuban painting today.

My first impression of Bejarano, during that meeting at the home of the writer Eduardo Heras León, was inconsequential: jovial, shrewd, a good conversationalist, these are roughly the adjectives that would have described him at the time.

The second meeting with him, just a year ago in my native Bayamo, would have a slight difference: Agustín Bejarano came to town as the guest of honor of an event about art, preceded by his status, and then I unreservedly included myself among those who regarded him as a marvel of contemporary art from Cuba.

His works, bold and refreshing in the pictorial language of the island, seemed to me to have an irresistible authenticity.

Agustín Bejarano in his appearance before the Court.

So now that this Camagueyan appears in the Miami news without his admirable aura, his status shredded, wearing the orange uniform and a face with the typical expression of the common prisoner, I put the two concepts together and tell myself, “The Agustín Bejarano whose works fascinated from the very first time, and the one who is now behind bars in the Pre Trial Detention Center, facing charges of sexual abuse of a minor, are the same person.”

A sad way to make himself known to the American public: today, even those who knew nothing of his contributions in prints, or his highly prized paintings in the international market, know him from the news of the Cuban pedophile who came, invited by the Pan American Art Projects, and molested a five-year-old boy–Good God–the son of his friends in their own house.

Formally, this is the accusation against Agustín Bejarano. Carl Zogby, a spokesman for police in Hialeah and in charge of the arrest, said in essence: “The defendant confessed to the crime, is very sorry and claims he felt an inexplicable weakness that led him to commit this act.”

According to the official version, the boy told his parents five days after the alleged incident: the distinguished visitor and friend of the couple had placed his erect penis between his little hands, and kissed him on the mouth when the adults were not present.

Terrible. Maddening. I think in the Cuban cultural universe, a story as amazing as this one had never featured, starring one of those who, when they appeared in news, it was always to inspire admiration. Never disdain.

It’s worthwhile to steal away a hurried analysis of the incident, on some points in particular.

First, the conspiracy theory.

Agustín Bejarano, after being arrested by police in Hialeah

After a telephone conversation I had yesterday with another talented artist on the island, I knew one of the theories circulating about this case in Cuba: Could it be a Machiavellian trick, or a manipulated exaggeration  to discredit Bejarano, to end his career, or to get a lot of money out of him?

Some, pragmatic, merchants of the art world point in Miami. Others, detectives, look toward bad politicians.

I personally do not see the point of either motive, but still, I confess: I would love to hear that it is a mistake, a deplorable stunt, and if that were the case, I would defend the artist with the same vehemence with which I will applaud his hard sentence if he is indeed guilty.

Nor do I understand how they could make money, the supposed art ruffians, with Bejarano behind bars for 20 years or for life (it could be either if he is convicted), nor do I understand what political interest could raise a man who, unlike actors or musicians, has no media presence outside his guild, and does not represent any discord or discomfort for the establishment of this country.

Worse, the argument that would weigh against him, most of all, is the powerful story of a boy of five. Why? Well because psychologists and those in charge of questioning the little boy say, without exception, that  is almost impossible to invent a story like this at that age, when even the concept of lying is not part of consciousness. In conclusion, the experts say, five-year-old children never lie. Much less with such complexity.

The second vital aspect in this dramatic case, is to clear the political implications that may arise from it, and that could affect the damaged bilateral relations in the field of cultural exchange.

If we take into account the existing malaise in the Cuban exile community, which claims, with justice, that this is euphemistic exchange is only in one direction, and if we take into account also the incidents of Silvio Rodríguez advocating in New York for the Five Heroes or Spies (the reader can click on the nickname he prefers: interactive reading); the disastrous concert of “Gente de Zona” in Las Vegas, with brawl included; and now with a Cuban artist accused of committing such a heinous crime, I suspect it could revive the discontent among some sectors, and could become dangerous with little reason.

As this case has only just started, and how much–I am sure–we’ll find out in the coming days as to the veracity of these disturbing allegations, to establish an accurate view about the morals of this painter, yesterday glory, today villain, is unwise and unnecessary.

But about something I have no doubt: from now on we will attend the Olympic ascent of an already memorable career, if Agustín Bejarano emerges unscathed from this unforgettable case with the reputation that would earn him a name in the media; or, terrible reality: we will know the tragic end of a Cuban artist who lost in the United States not only his vast career, but his status as human being deserving of the most elementary respect.

March 31 2011

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Posted by on March 31, 2011 in Ernesto Morales Licea


Padre Jose Conrado: The Enormous Importance of Our Not Remaining Silent

Sacerdote José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría

In July of this year, a humble Cuban priest received a prize of international scope which, although it never appeared in the national press, became known to us with suspicious speed. Father José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría, pastor of the church “Saint Therese of the Child Jesus,” in Santiago de Cuba, was awarded the Prize of the Community of Democracies, in Poland, for his enormous efforts in the service of freedom and human rights in Cuba.

Up until then I knew little of Father Conrad. I am not Catholic nor do I practice any particular religion, but I try to surround myself with the most varied and different things possible. Getting to know the life and work of this man with a brilliant attitude is a priceless gift to me.

A priest whom the Cuban church had to exile almost by force in the mid-’90s, because they feared for his life. A priest who suffered, on December 4, 2007, a horrible act of repudiation at his parish, which led to pure violence, and had wide international repercussions.

What I am publishing here now is just a snippet of the interview of at least 4 hours that Father Conrado and I enjoyed in Santiago de Cuba, just a month ago. The full text will appear in my book of interviews with prominent personalities in the alternative cultural and public life in Cuba, which will soon be completed.

I must confess to my readers that it was a real exercise of journalistic contortion to summarize an interview of nearly 30 pages, with a rather lengthy introduction, which I offer you here. When an interview subject is so brilliant, it is painful and complex to select some answers and leave the others for later.

In any event, I believe that few interviews published in this blog have so much depth and relevance as this one that the priest José Conrado Rodríguez Alegría was kind enough to grant me from his church.


For those who know of his priestly office, one of the hallmarks of Father José Conrado is his concern for creating awareness among his people about the reality of our country. This is not someone who surreptitiously, when the opportunity arises, refers in his oratory to related aspects of Cuban politics and life. Rather, José Conrado has shown a particular interest in raising awareness among his followers; giving them arguments to assess in full measure the reality in which they are immersed.

– Father, do you remember when you first became conscious of this? Or do you remember when was the first time you began to define yourself as a religious official with very defined positions on politics?

– From the Seminary I was very clear about the role of the word, in my case the Word of God, implying a serious commitment in this sense. In fact that is the definition of a homily, it is preaching the Word of God and the reality that is before you.

I fully agree with the Protestant theologian Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, when he said that a homily was delivered with the newspaper in one hand and Bible in the other.

Therefore, the very essence of the work of the Church is to refer to this reality that must change itself in light of the Word of God …

– But while some priests in their masses avoid direct references to the plight of Cuba, you do the opposite …

I question the claim that other priests do not. What I think is that everyone has their own style and their own way of approaching issues.

Look, I always make reference, for example, to the fact that if there had not been a person with a video camera the day I read the letter to Fidel Castro in 1994, it wouldn’t have been known that I read it before 700 people one day in Caridad. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have read it just the same. But the fact that it had the repercussions it did was coincidental.

That is to say, what isn’t known at the social level, or not known by those who don’t attend Church, doesn’t meant that Cuban priests don’t have the same principle.

Especially during the hardest time of the Special Period, I think all the priests and bishops had the same feeling. Maybe not always as directly, but there was always a serious reflection on the reality that the people were living through..

We must also take into account one thing: we all feel fear. The essence of the totalitarian system is precisely to provoke this response of paralyzing fear. It would not be honest to say that we are not afraid. We all are. The problem is when you have to overcome fear in the name of a responsibility. That responsibility is what leads you to express yourself and, what you believe, in reality. And that is the result of an ethical awareness of what concerns us all.

My insistence on the political issue in homilies stands out because the totalitarian system always tries to silence the critic, to make disagreement impossible, and this makes it rare for a person to express something which, in the background, is likely shared by the vast majority of his listeners. But not all dare to say it.

However, I think that is precisely the responsibility of a priest in a country like ours. The fact that people are not able to raise their voices for fear of reprisals, or because of the habit of silence (as Eliseo Alberto Diego says: “In silence we became so dumb.”) is one of the challenges a priest faces under a system like this.

I was thinking about the number of letters that still circulate online, signed by him. The letter to Raul Castro, in 2009, his farewell speech when he had to go into involuntary exile in 1996, the text he wrote on the occasion of the retirement of Archbishop Pedro Meurice. I remember the impression his highly narrative prose gave me every time: an absolute fascination.

– I have felt with your words something unique: the vibration of truth. You feel deeply what you say, and whoever hears it or reads it, it is a very vivid warning. When you condemn totalitarianism, not only in Cuba but universally, you do so with a passion that makes an impact. Where does that this strong aversion to totalitarianism come from?

– I would say it was the experience that led me to a very critical position. The experience of the reality I was living every day. This was exacerbated specifically with the Special Period.

No doubt this was a situation that all the people suffered, and it was the humble people who paid a high price for it. I’m talking about people suffering from polyneuritis, the agony of a country that was expressed by those who threw themselves into the sea at the risk of losing their lives. The terrible tragedy of families separated by distance or death.

I saw in the parishes where I was at that time, in Palma Soriano and Contramaestre, how people grew thinner from week to week, how they steadily lost weight. It was an awful thing. There was this horrible despair, and suffering. And that there was no response from those who had the authority, and all the power in totalitarian systems is with those in power, was perhaps what bothered me most.

The essence of this system is to take away people’s responsibility for their lives and give it to the powers-that-be, those who rule. That makes them more powerful and more responsible before History: obviously, there is no possibility for people decide for themselves, to assume that share of power that is the responsibility of each person, and the centralization of all the decisions in every facet of life — economic, political, social, cultural — makes them responsible for everything that can happen in a country.

But I cannot give up my own responsibility, the share that falls to me, and that is why I have taken a clear position and am critical with respect to the form of this country and how it is governed.


– The Community of Democracies gave you the “Bronislaw Geremek” Prize this year in Krakow, Poland, for your well-known and undoubted efforts with regards to freedom of expression and respect for human rights in Cuba. Your speech, entitled “Every generation has the right to dream its own dreams,” should be studied in all universities, should be read before all the good people of this world as a beautiful testament to the commitment of a priest to the full freedom of man.

You also said in your speech that you received the award “on behalf of the Church that suffers, fights, prays and waits in Cuba.” Do these words really describe the feelings of the Cuban Church?

– Of course. I think the Catholic Church in Cuba has made an effort to serve and is dedicated to the cause of man.

Santa Teresita church in Santiago de Cuba

When you look at the communities that make up our parishes you see this: people fighting, suffering, waiting, praying from the fact that he lives. These communities are composed for the most part of very simple people who have withstood the difficulties, have resisted even persecution. For over 50 years the Church has not been seen as a good thing Cuba, and Christians have never been “first class” citizens. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but the suspicion has always been political: they are not people who can be trusted. But they are the faithful and it is the Church.

Many believers and even priests have left the country. They saw no way out. Others abandoned the Church. I remember times when the parishes were virtually empty because of the persecution of Christians. But always there were those who stood their ground.

In fact I believe that if today the Church is present and alive in the hearts of this people it is the result of the faithfulness of the institution towards those in need.

– It is impossible not to ask you your views on the current process of releasing the political prisoners, in which the Catholic Church had a role. The controversy was centered primarily on two aspects: 1. Was if right for the church to ignore the opposition in its dialog with the Government, and 2. Was it ethical and humane that those who were released were immediately exiled. What is your position on this?

– We must start from a known fact: the rules of this game were not defined by the Church. It had a mediation role only between the persons directly affected, the Ladies in White, the families of the prisoners, and the Government, which finally ceded to solve the problem.

I think that the Church is not civil society, nor can it supplant the opposition. Nor did it try to do so. Simply, there was a specific problem, a really serious situation with these prisoners of conscience, and the opportunity to reach an agreement was there.

In itself, by definition, it was a very serious thing that these people were arrested for their opinions or for exercising their right to free opinion. There was never any guilt in this sense. On the contrary, the exercise of freedom for every person is the guarantee of justice and the proper exercise of social life.

Then, that they were given long sentences for this reason can only be called an aberration.

That point is the problem that motivated the Government’s response, and among other factors influenced the church in this; it was, first, the serious criticism of the repressive acts against the Ladies in White, and, second, the expression of their disagreement with the existence of these prisoners of conscience, among whom were many Catholics as well. But whether or not they were Catholics, it was an unacceptable situation.

An interesting question would be why the Government chose the Church. In my opinion, it was because they knew that it is listened to by all parties, and this is undoubtedly a recognition of the seriousness of the institution and the church community.

What space did the Church have for this negotiation? That is assuming it was nothing more than a mediation. To get the parties to agree, to counsel them, and to lead them to a positive outcome for everyone.

I agree that unfortunately the prisoners did not get a real release, because what has happened is only a change of conviction: instead of prison, deportation. It’s obvious: in Cuba, where many people see the highest ideal of happiness as getting out of the country, and where it is so hard to do so, some see it as a prize. Like they won the jackpot. But that is a reading as it is seen from here; for the rest of the world it is not the same. Nor is it for those who understand how this process should have played out, since obviously there has not been compliance.


– First tell me about the letter sent to Fidel Castro in 1994. What was the essence and motivation of this letter?

– It was not really a letter but rather a letter that I read. As I said before, someone took a video and then spread it around the world.

It was, in fact, an act of desperation. I saw the agony of the people, heard the testimonies of those who came to tell me their tragedies, and it filled me with a feeling of impotence at not being able to solve their problems and I saw that, on the other hand, those who were responsible for it did not give them a hearing. That was truly the breeding ground that made this letter possible.

I remember that day, which was of Caridad, when I finished the homily in front of 700 people, I said: “I know that in all my masses there are crazy sheep who come hear what I say when I go to other places. I urge these crazy sheep to forward to its destination this letter which I am going to read now.” And I began to read.

Perhaps the most important phrase, which sums up the feelings of the full text, is where I say “Everyone is responsible, but nobody more so than you.” The reason for the letter was this: to address myself to the one most responsible, who had the largest share of power.

– Did you receive any response from the president, or any official spokesperson?

– No. The answer was silence.

– Then, 15 years later, in 2009, you sent another one to his brother, newly installed as President. This one was a letter, and it had a wide digital circulation throughout the country. Did you have any real hope this time for a response, or that your claims would influence Raul?

– Look, there are times when one acts as a way of asserting your own voice, because you have a commitment and a responsibility. But not because you know that this act will have the desired response.

What I cannot do is remain silent before the reality I see, that I suffer and that so many people suffer. What’s more, my voice represents nothing more than another Cuba, but it has value.

So I felt that it was my duty to let him know what I think, and also to hold him accountable for what happens in this country. And it is not that, as I clearly said in the letter to Fidel Castro, “It is not that you don’t know the reality of Cubans,” because it would be an insult to tell someone so well informed that he didn’t know what was going on in his own country. No. They know perfectly well what is happening. What is missing is the real political will to change it, especially because those who suffer most in this situation are not them.

Raul Castro could not be uninformed about what is happening in this country. But for me to publicly say it to him was a form of compromise, to say something like, “Hey, you know what’s going on, at least you can’t say that you didn’t, because I told you publicly.”

What’s more, when there are few possibilities to make decisions that won’t be final, it gives those who have all the power twice the obligation. Because under a system that puts everyone in a straitjacket, depending on the decisions of the bosses, they must be held accountable for everything they do or don’t do.

So I believe that we have to respect and acknowledge the work of all the bloggers, of the independent journalists, of the peaceful opponents, of people like Yoani Sánchez or the Ladies in White, who have raised their voices and are fighting against all odds. We would be in an even worse position without these people who run the risk that needs to be run to be faithful to a fundamental commitment to the truth.

Clearly, one of the foundations on which the system operates is what Soledad Cruz described as: “There is no one who can bring it down, but no one who change it.” That is: They put in your head the idea that no matter what you do, nothing will change. This concept is the basis of totalitarianism.

And basically, I do believe many things are changing. I think they, the rulers, are assuming their responsibilities. What is happening is that they are admitting it publicly. But if they change something, however minimal, it is because they are realizing the responsibility that they have.

Therefore it is very important that we not remain silent. When you raise your voice, you warn of danger, and that has power. A system with such an absolute power, if there are no restrictions, no compensations, it is a real monster. So, although we pay a heavy price, we must raise our voices.

As Father Varela said to those who accused him of imprudence, “It is imprudent to speak out and warn of the danger? That is the prudence of the weak. My heart does not know it.”


– Finally, father: in your own words you officiated at your first mass citing Marti’s credo: “I have faith in human betterment, the utility of virtue, and in you.” Still today, many years later, do you really believe in a future of reconciliation for our country, despite the great anthropological damage suffered by the Cuban people?

– Gandhi said, the tyranny and wickedness of men does not have the last word. The last word goes to the other side. It’s always a word of salvation, not condemnation.

And I think that when, a hundred years from now, someone writes the history of Cuba, and of this period, many will remember all those things with sadness. But many will also react. In the end the human being is made to be happy. Eventually people wake up to a better, more just, life.

It is real that in any country, under any system, criminal situations can occur, human aberrations, we can also have this evil within us. No one is immune from error or falsehood. But I also think that man is able to evolve and change, and I deeply believe in the possibility of conversion. And conversion for the better is the challenge of every age and every person.

The temptation to be discouraged, hopeless, it is somewhat logical. But for the Christian it has no place. Not that you can not go through stages of despair, what happens is that eventually you have to overcome it. Because life goes on and we all have a responsibility to keep fighting and to build a different future.

In addition, I repeat that we must distinguish between systems and people. Systems pass, but human beings, to the extent they open themselves to grace, the deep love and mercy of God that is capable of transformation, of breaking down barriers, it is capable of reversing any circumstances.

But above all, I believe in the possibility of overcoming, because basically man, by his nature, always wants the best. And the best is certainly not what we have. The best is not this.

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Posted by on October 6, 2010 in Ernesto Morales Licea