Interview: The Spanish Son of the Dear Leader

Creating a novel character based on his profile would be relatively simple. His birth name is Alejandro Cao de Benós, his adopted name is Cho Son-il (Korean for “Korea is one”), and he boasts the disconcerting title of Honorary Special Delegate of North Korea, which means that this Catalan with aristocratic roots is the official spokesman of North Korea abroad.

But his duties extend a little further.

His defense at all costs of the Kim dynasty since the beginning of the nineties and his solid and imperturbable activism outside the peninsula have earned Alejandro Cao de Benós the absolute confidence of the recently deceased dictator Kim Jong-il, such that he has ended up setting himself up as a kind of supreme national censor, to the point of deciding what information is transmitted from North Korea out to the world, and vice versa.

We are talking — as he himself has said in his own words — about the only Westerner to belong to the all-powerful inner circle of the most isolated and ferocious country in the world today.

This telephone interview, agreed to after the death of the “Dear Leader” (as all North Korea is obliged to call the late Kim Jong-il), hardly lasted twenty minutes. Mr Alejandro Cao de Benós answered my questions with a great deal of aptitude, although sometimes I wondered if he was responding to mine or someone else’s. At times his words did not even touch on the caustic issues which I was trying to investigate.

In any event it was, without a doubt, one of the most delightful interviews I have done to date. The martial tone of the dedicated Communist enamored of an ideology, his astonishing arguments explaining concisely why North Korea needs the atomic bomb more than food, provided me with twenty minutes of true journalistic surrealism with the man who, when he learned of the death of Kim Jong-il, confessed that it was like losing a father.

Hours after North Korean television announced the “terrible and irreparable” loss of the Dear Leader, a new leader appeared on the horizon. A 28-year-old leader baptized shortly earlier as “Brilliant Comrade”, unfamiliar even to many members of the innermost elite. I am speaking of Kim Jong-un, youngest child of Kim Jong-il. 

Ernesto Morales: Mr Cao de Benós, how is it possible that Kim Jong-un, a young man of 28 years of age whom not even you know, as you have hinted in other interviews, is henceforth the leader of 24 million people who did not elect him?

Alejandro Cao de Benós: It’s not quite like that. Comrade Kim Jong-un has a military position, is currently vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and has not been named leader. What’s happening is that he has received military instruction and is well loved by the Army, and there are many among the Korean people who are lending him their support and gathering around him.

That doesn’t mean that he will have absolute power over the Army or the country. That has never happened in North Korea. At present the leader depends on Mr Kim Yong-nam*, who is the President of the Supreme People’s Assembly. So we say: it is the hope of the Korean people that General Kim Jong-un continues the legacy of his father, General Kim Jong-il, but this doesn’t mean that he will make all the decisions or that he is in charge of the country right now.

In May 2001 the Dear Leader’s first-born son, and until then the clear heir of the dynasty, Kim Jong-nam, was arrested at Narita International Airport, in Tokyo. He was traveling on a false passport from the Dominican Republic, using a Chinese alias, and planning to visit Tokyo Disneyland. After spending a few days under arrest he was deported to China. The incident caused a diplomatic earthquake among North Korea, China, and Japan, and forced a shamed Kim Jong-il to cancel a trip to Beijing.

EM: Mr Cao de Benós, we understood that the first-born son, Kim Jong-nam, who you tell me will get the title of president, had lost the favor of Kim Jong-il, due to an attempt to illegally enter Japan in order to visit Disneyland…

ACB: Well, I am telling you that that information is totally false. What’s more, the Western press is creating a so-called Kim Jong-nam who doesn’t exist, who is this fat gentleman who appears on television, and who is in fact an actor paid by Japan. This man has nothing to do with North Korea.

Domestic and international tourism do not exist in North Korea. Nobody enters the country freely, and nobody freely leaves it. Not for any reason. In South Africa in 2010, North Korea took part in the FIFA World Cup for the first time. During the game against Brazil, attention was drawn to a large group of fans euphorically cheering on the North Korean team. Later it was discovered that they were Chinese volunteers hired by China Sports Management on the request of the North Korean Sports Committee. 

EM: So as it seems, Mr Cao de Benós, there is a very important factor in all of this, and it is the disinformation factor. I have read interviews in which you expressly state that one of the critiques the North Korean government could make of itself is that it doesn’t pay due attention to international relations, and especially with regard to the media. Now, you decide to a large extent what information comes out of and into North Korea.

Why can’t North Koreans leave freely to do what you do, to defend their great country from Western slander, and why can’t the rest of the world freely enter North Korea, and in that way get rid of the disinformation?

ACB: That’s the part of the self-critique which I try to resolve from my point of view. Bear in mind that I am a sort of bridge between the Western mentality and the North Korean mentality. I may be the only person who has the perspective of both worlds and what I try to do is bring them together.

But basically what goes on is that Korea has been continuously subjected to periodic slander and insults. For Koreans, respect, politeness, is something typical of their culture and is instrumental in society. While for example in America or Europe there are other types of characters, an individualistic society, where everyone says what he likes and on many occasions simply insults other people, this is unacceptable in Korea.

So since so much of the media has published so much false news, what North Korea has done is close itself off completely from the outside world. And that may be debatable but it’s understandable. When a person is unfairly injured, what he does is not allow anyone else to come into his house.

EM: It’s very important to be precise: a government is not the owner of a country. A government should simply administer a country according to the interests of its citizens, just to highlight the distinction with respect to your metaphor about access or lack of access to a house.

Now, there is an interesting point: International organizations like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, defectors from the North Korean government itself, regular citizens who have escaped through China, they have all persistently denounced the concentration camps and human experimentation, the elimination of almost half a million political opponents in the last four decades, the torture, the disappearances.

The question most basic to common sense is: How is it possible that all these people are lying, how is it possible that hundreds of testimonies agree, while you do not allow the world to come into the country to check what are simple falsehoods?

ACB: Well, look, speaking specifically to allowing someone to enter your house or not, first I state explicitly to you that the government of North Korea is a government of the people, which is originates from the people and serves their interests, it is not a government of oligarchs or multimillionaires, OK?

As in other nations, the people feel united, otherwise this system would not continue. Bear in mind that the other socialist countries have increased the level of capitalism, as in the case of China, but North Korea and its 24 million inhabitants follow the same destiny even now and will continue along the socialist path. If the North Koreans decided to do the same as other socialist countries and turn toward capitalism, it would be a decision of the people itself which could materialize through democracy.

And responding briefly to your question, it’s because of false and malicious propaganda such as what you mention that every day Korea hardens itself more in its position of distance from a slanderous and aggressive West.

On 30 November of this year, Amnesty International reported the existence of at least six concentration camps in North Korea which hold more than 200,000 political prisoners. The largest of them, Yodok, imprisons around 50,000 people, including women and children. A report from 2006, commissioned by among others recently deceased former Czech president Václav Havel and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel, revealed chilling statistics: more than 400,000 people dead in North Korean prisons in the last 30 years. 

EM: So according to you there exists the concrete possibility of exercising a democratic opposition inside North Korea. Let’s suppose that I am a North Korean and I don’t approve of what’s happening in my country. Is there a viable possibility that I can express this publicly without anything bad happening to me?

ACB: Of course, just as in any other country in the world.

But really what I mean is that if anyone goes and sets foot in North Korea and meets North Koreans, he will realize that the government’s ideology springs from a popular basis. And what’s more, those organizations which have so much to say about North Korea, many of them have never set foot in the country, and if they continue to defame it, well, Korea will be much less inclined to invite them, because all they’re doing is attacking the country before getting to know it.

If I go into a country with prejudices, thinking I’m only going to encounter what I have read or the lies I have been told, then of course I won’t be able to understand that country.

EM: Mr Cao de Benós, we have seen reports, documentaries, even ones in which you appear, in which visitors and journalists are not allowed to freely ask questions of people in the street, to film North Koreans or talk with them, without your directing and dictating what segment of the population can be visited, which areas can be filmed and which ones not. And I have seen you specifically saying with all your authority: “You can’t film that.” How is this explained from a democratic perspective? Under what precept do you think that is appropriate for a country with freedoms?

ACB: Well, look, it’s very simple. That happened because the people whom I myself have brought (I deal with hundreds of journalists from every country in the world) sometimes come to inform but others come to make trouble. They come to defame.

So if a person who comes with a camera, and has entered the country thanks to my arrangements, and for whom I have arranged the visa, then arrives in the country and what he does is make trouble, break the law, logically I am not going to give him more leeway or more opportunities to keep causing damage, especially since I am responsible because that person has entered due to the confidence of our government in me.

There are other journalists who have had more access to the country, and it depends on the level of trust I have with them. Depending on how they behave, Korea responds to them accordingly.

EM: So filming an area which is not a military zone, filming a park or a town which you or the North Korean authorities don’t want filmed, is breaking the law…

ACB: It’s not quite like that. I’ll give you an example. I have lived and worked in the United States. In fact I was in the part of California, in one of the places with one of the highest costs of living. I was working there because in my original profession I was an I.T. consultant. When I was in Palo Alto, with, of course, the mansions and millionaires who live there, I realized that after 7 p.m., when the sun goes down, all the people who lived on the street came out, the homeless, the war veterans, the impoverished masses and the drug addicts. 

So, if I take a camera and film San Francisco during that time and only shoot those types of people, and I say that “this is San Francisco”, obviously that’s a distortion intended to give a poor image of that area…

EM: That’s true, but there’s a difference, Mr Cao de Benós: in San Francisco nobody is going to stop you from filming in complete freedom. And if anyone does, you can sue that person because he would be breaking the law. The law in this country is not “you can film here, but not there”. The law in a democracy is that there cannot exist someone with your authority, to determine what can be asked, photographed, or filmed, and what can’t.

ACB: That’s not the case. Every country has guidelines with respect to the media, and besides you can’t produce any show, either in the U.S. or in Spain, without a press authorization, and without press credentials.

First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

EM: No, that’s not true. Nobody in the United States needs press credentials for those purposes.

ACB: Look, it even happens here in Spain. I’m telling you because I know all the journalists here. You can’t be filming the Ramblas in Barcelona with a camera without the needed authorization.

But look, all the same I’m not going to go into, I don’t have to go into such concrete details and talk about my very long experience with the media or the press, but I’ll just tell you that although you’re completely free to go all over the U.S., most people don’t go out into the street after 7:30 at night for fear of being assaulted. And besides if you don’t have a car, poor you, because it happened to me, not having a car in the U.S., having to resort to public transportation, and truly feeling afraid due to the urban insecurity you live through where you are.

Natural disasters and insane economic management destroyed the North Korean economy in the middle of the 1990s. According to estimates, the famine which then ravaged the country caused around two million deaths. In 1998 Doctors Without Borders reported cases of cannibalism among North Korean peasants, as the only way to overcome their hunger. Nevertheless, North Korea is one of just nine countries in the world which possess atomic weapons and boasts the fourth largest army in the world with 1.2 million men under arms.

EM: One last question, Mr Cao de Benós. It is well known in the world — I don’t know if you’re going to deny this too — that North Korea has a sizeable food shortage. In the past you have explained that this is simply the result of natural disasters which have ruined the fields.

All right, how is it possible that this can happen in a country which has nuclear weapons, which directs uncommon amounts of money to sustain the fourth largest army in the world, while people don’t have anything to eat?

ACB: Well look, it is explained in the following way: the main problem in North Korea is that if we don’t defend it from an empire like the United States, which has already destroyed several countries, Iraq, Afghanistan, and recently Libya, if we don’t truly defend the country, it would lose all its museums, all its culture, and would end up basically being a wasteland.

In other words, if there’s no way to defend the country, its schools, its hospitals, its education, and any advances that have been made in the last fifty years would all be lost.

North Korea knew perfectly well that Bush reserved the right to launch a preemptive attack. We also knew that since 1994 Clinton had plans to attack North Korea, and if in fact that empire held back it was because we demonstrated that we had nuclear capacity.

So I tell you that since 1994 the United States has clearly wished to launch preemptive attacks, and if we didn’t have a large army it wouldn’t matter if we built hospitals, it wouldn’t matter if we had better tractors for farming, because they would all be annihilated by American bombers.

Therefore, now that we have ensured the strength of the country, now that we know the United States won’t attack us because we have a nuclear guarantee, we can develop the economy and develop the standard of living of the people to the needed extent.

(Special thanks to Dr Vilma Petrash for arranging this interview.)

Translated by: Adam Cooper

[*Translator’s note: The blogger spelled the name of Kim Yong-nam, President of the Supreme People’s Assembly, as Kim Jong-nam, the name of the eldest son of Kim Jong-il; this has been corrected.]

December 27 2011


Man Convicted in Bayamo Child Prostitution Ring is on Hunger Strike

One of those sentenced to prison following the prostitution scandal revealed in Bayamo, Cuba, in May 2010, after the death of a 12-year-old girl, has declared a hunger strike and as of today and has gone 16 days without eating.

Ramón Enrique Álvarez Sánchez owned a rental house for foreigners in Bayamo, and was arrested on August 4, 2010, allegedly involved in a child prostitution ring discovered after the death of the child Lilian Ramirez Sanchez, whose body was found in May 2010 on the outskirts of the city.

Alvarez Sanchez, 51, was sentenced in October 2011 to 14 years imprisonment for the crime of “complicity in the corruption of minors.” As part of the sentence, Alvarez Sanchez’s property was confiscated, including his home with his belongings, and the car inherited by his family.

According to Alvarez Sanchez’s daughters, Rosa Nelvia Alvarez and Maria Isabel Alvarez, he needed to be hospitalized last December 17 in the provincial prison “Las Mangas” due to low blood pressure problems after two weeks without food.

Both of Ramón Enrique Álvarez’s daughters say that he had been transferred to an isolation cell in the days before his hospitalization, to force him to eat.

Ramón Enrique Álvarez Sánchez y su nieta recién nacidaRamón Enrique Álvarez Sánchez and his newborn granddaughter

The fundamental demand of Alvarez Sanchez is to have his case reviewed by Havana military prosecutors, as, according to him “this case has unacceptable irregularities, lies and manipulations” on which investigators/prosecutors in Granma province relied for their reports.

In a “manifesto” sent by Alvarez Sanchez from Las Mangas Provincial Prison in Granma, a central point of his complaint that the girls questioned after the death of Lilian Ramirez claimed to have participated in sexual orgies in a rented room on the second floor of his house, when the rooms available for rental were all in the first floor.

On the second floor of his house, he said, his daughter Maria Isabel Alvarez lives with her husband and young daughter.

In addition, Ramón Enrique Álvarez Sánchez reports that another of those involved in the case, Yaina Cosett Pardo Munoz (condemned to 22 years for murder and corruption of minors) testified against him under pressure and psychological torture, as he himself admitted publicly during the trial.

In his “Manifesto”, Ramon Enrique Alvarez alleges torture, beatings, being put in cold rooms, isolation cells, and other methods to force him and others involved to confess to crimes he did commit.

In his account, Alvarez Sanchez states that another man convicted in the case, Leonel Gamboa Milan, aka “Spike” (sentenced to 25 years for murder and corruption of minors) was put in the same cell with an alleged inmate who assaulted him with a sharp object, and told him to confess or he would kill him himself because he was the uncle of the dead child. According to Alvarez Sanchez, Milan Gamboa needed to be hospitalized for a kick in the testicles given to him by the interrogators.

Jeep decomisado a Álvarez SánchezJeep seized from Alvarez Sanchez

Another of Ramon Enrique Álvarez’s demands is that they return all assets to his family, especially the Jeep, for which, according to him, there is nothing to justify their seizure.

The trial of the nine involved in the case (three Italians and six Cubans), was held behind closed doors between 26 and 30 September this year at the Manuel Muñoz Cedeño Professional School of Arts, located on the outskirts of the City of Bayamo.

The decomposing body of 12-year-old Lilian Ramirez Espinosa, was found on May 19, 2010 in a rural area on the outskirts of Bayamo. The death of the child in a sexual orgy with foreigners and Cubans caused a local and international scandal. Many arrests followed as part of an investigative process that has been denounced for numerous irregularities and inconsistencies.

All those arrested in the case were found guilty, sentenced to terms of between 10 and 30 years in prison, and their homes and belongings were confiscated immediately.

Following is the unabridged manifesto of Ramón Enrique Álvarez Sánchez.

Unabridged Manifesto of Ramón Enrique Álvarez Sánchez

Bayamo, November 10, 2011

Name: Ramón Enrique Álvarez Sánchez

Date of Birth: 29 / March / 1961

Case Number: 364/11

Alleged Crime: Accomplice to Corruption of Minors

On August 4, 2010 I was arrested and taken to the Granma Criminal Investigation Unit by the Official Instructor Luis Medina.

In a raid on my house they seized a computer, external hard drive, a flash memory and mobile phone, all clean, with nothing of child pornography, or anything relevant. Read the rest of this entry »

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Posted by on December 21, 2011 in Ernesto Morales Licea


Welcome to the Past

If somehow I managed the unthinkable — five minutes with president Barack Obama — I think I would use the time to convey a clear message: “Do not veto the provision that restricts travel and remittances to Cuba, Mr. President.”

I don’t know if I would say to him what I have to my friends and family in Cuba, and which in my year in the United States I’ve never stopped repeating, with impertinent insistence, that to alienate Cubans on and off the island from each other is more than an injustice, it is a serious mistake.

But I would advise the President not to veto, in the case of Cuba, the budget bill that will be approved or rejected by Congress on the 16th, where the Republican Representative Mario Diaz-Balart cleverly slipped in a return to the Cuban travel and remittances policies from the time of George W. Bush.

Why? Because just as every people has the leader it deserves, each sector of a democracy has the measures it deserves, promulgated by the legislators it elects and deserves.

And while Obama’s veto would avoid the catastrophe of severing the ties between exiles and Cuba’s nascent civil society, and would prevent more than a little suffering among mothers who would not be able to see their children more than once every three years, I don’t believe it should be Obama, an American born in Hawaii, who should protect us from whomever we Cubans ourselves elect, or allow others to elect, and who eventually adopt laws against us.

Only those who cannot exercise their right to vote because they do not possess citizenship in this country are excluded (temporarily) from the blame. The rest of those in South Florida have signed on so that those with positions like those of Mario Diaz Balart seem representative of this community, and those who prefer to go shopping on election day will receive what they appear to have asked for, whether or not they exercised their rights.

The truly unfortunate are the almost two million Cubans living in the United States today, and the 1.2 million living in South Florida, an ever smaller percentage of whom sustain these alienating postures and restrictions that in more than half a century have not hurt so much as a hair on the head of the Castro brothers.

But it so happens that the true majority now has its hands tied because of one of two reasons: either legal impossibility or apathy toward the exercise of its rights, incorrigibly inherited from its days on an Island where the word “elections” has no mental resonance.

So who is left? Those who because of stubbornness, ignorance, lack of re-programming or opportunism insist on supporting a clearly failed policy, based more on the absence of ideas than on the dialectic of thought and societies.

That explains why it is not imperative to have an intelligent and bold platform in the south of Florida in order to have a rising political career; if you repeat the same chants, the same anti-Castro formulas, the same methods that have proved ineffective decade after decade, you’re more than halfway along the path to success.

It doesn’t matter that every day the facts prove that without the people who travel to the Island the cellphones don’t bring themselves and, in consequence, the images of repression cannot be shown to the world. It doesn’t matter that those like me who are newcomers shout ourselves hoarse saying that every Cuban who receives financial support outside the State is a much more independent and honest citizen than those who depend on the government to fill their stomachs. It’s not important to remember the basis on which this great country is founded: respect for diversity and individual decisions.

Therefore I, who advocate for all those who want to visit their family and friends being able to do so whenever they and their wallets decide (not the amendment of some congressman born in Fort Lauderdale, lucky for him), would applaud the president’s veto in the name of the consequences it would avoid, but if the man elected to decide the fate of this nation asked my humble opinion, I would repeat the same sentence: “Don’t veto the clause that restricts travel and remittances to Cuba.”

As long as there is no accountability and good sense on the part of Cubans in the exercise of their rights; as long as there is no awareness of what it means to elect those who promote policies respectable in their quest for freedom but that should be dismissed as outdated, there will be draconian laws governing the destiny of this community, and we say: welcome to the past.

I don’t believe it should be the president of the United States who, like a wise adult, makes the right decision in the name of the children.  Rights come with responsibility, they are not received as an indulgence.

(Originally in Martí Noticias)

December 14 2011

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Posted by on December 14, 2011 in Ernesto Morales Licea


Christmas 2.0

With just one click from his holy finger, he lit the most colossal Christmas tree in the holy world 220 kilometers from his holy dwelling. So says the Guinness Book of World Records: the tree rises 750 meters up the side of a mountain in Gubbio, Italty, and is a record And this tree was lit by Benedict XVI from Rome using a $500 Sony Tablet.

Thousand of my readers who are engineers could explain the mystery to me: how to implement a mechanism that, via satellite, lights far off bulbs with the single touch of a button on an electronic tablet. But one thing I do know from my own common sense: This mechanism is expensive. In spades.

His Holiness saw the result of his click on a modern LCD wide-screen TV. Perhaps he saw the image and thought to himself: “At this point, making miracles is a little bit easier.”

If he changed the channel and put some of the cameras in the Vatican, he could also see the Christmas tree that he ordered for the House of God, which will be lit this coming December 16th: it is a fir tree 5.6 meters high brought from the Ukrainian region of Zarkapattie and ornamented with 2,500 figurines in gold and silver.

This is not the most fascinating thing. That is what happened three days earlier, on December 4th, from his balcony facing the Plaza of St. Peter: the Holy Father exhorted his faithful to practice austerity this Christmas.

During the recitation of the Angelus, Joseph Ratzinger said that the Lord, “of riches he became poor for your sakes and he will make you rich through your poverty,” and he remembered the humble John the Baptist, whom Jesus himself admired above all those who “lived in the palaces of kings and wore luxurious clothes.”

When the absurd is too grotesque, there is only one reaction: silence. Perhaps a little introspection. For my part, I would dare to ask something of the advisors — or whatever one calls them — of Benedict XVI in these days of prayer and rejoicing: that they tell the Pope, if he ultimately goes to Cuba in March of this coming year, it would be a good idea to sell the Sony Tablet beforehand.

I know that the tithes only go from the faithful to the Church, never the reverse, but with $500 he could feed a lot of the mouths of my people, and by this date Christmas 2.0 will have already passed.

December 8 2011

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Posted by on December 12, 2011 in Ernesto Morales Licea


The Circus is in Town! CELAC is Born

That the first summit of the “Community of Latin American and Caribbean States,” the newly born CELAC, would be a quaint circus where some of the worst habits of our part of Latin America would be on display was well-known. We didn’t know the dimensions of the tent, the variety of numbers that its protagonists would perform, and the rare specimens that would make up the circus acts.

Who didn’t count on the star of the cartel being the bloated Venezuelan president, whom not even the terrible cancer cells can bring to his senses?

Hugo Chavez has managed to establish himself as the official harlequin of all attending the conclave. Suffice to recall that the Iberoamerican Summit of 2007, where he was ordered to shut up by King Juan Carlos I who’d had enough of the leader’s verbal incontinence; or the Trinidad and Tobago Summit of 2009 where, in one of those act supposedly symbolic but in fact ridiculous, he presented Barack Obama with a copy of “The Open Veins of Latin America.”

(It was never clear if the gesture had a symbolic purpose or if was just a boost to the economy of his comrade Galeano, the book’s author; after the git to Obama “The Open Veins of Latin America” moved up on Amazon’s bestseller list from position 60,280 to position 10. A commercial miracle.)

Now, a Chavez of inexhaustible rusticity is one-man band: he described with hand movements and delightful onomatopoeia (“Rrrrrrrrrrr”) how he had looked inside the Cuban scanners; he presented Argentine president Cristina Fernandez with a gigantic painting of her deceased husband and former president Nestor Kirchner, (that he himself painted), which even without the triple squint represented by the artist was, per se, in bad taste; and to put the icing in the cake: he named as provisional leader of CELAC a Chilean president who had arrived in Caracas with Sebastian for a name, and sent him back to Santiago rebaptized (again, by he himself) as Samuel.

Sebastian “Samuel” Pinera is, in my judgment, a figure of major importance this time. And not because of his heroic and Hollywoodesque rescue of the miners. But I will leave that for X paragraphs below.

Does anyone doubt other proved comic incidents would season the meeting that, according to figures from the always nebulous government in Caracas, cost Venezuela some 25 million dollars?

Appearing there was the sullen president of Uruguay, Jose Mujica, in a Venezuelan army jacket that more than an attack on the morale of the Uruguayan army was a crime against aesthetics. Under the most pleasant acts of Mujica, with his everlasting affect of a friendly armadillo, we can include the words of the Uruguayan senator Ope Pasquet in a radio broadcast on El Espectador: “The image of the president is the image of the country, and the image of the president dressed liked this is the image of a backwater.”

Among the endemic species impossible to ignore at such a Summit was Fidel Castro. The old guy was there. Through the mouth of his brother.

As an apology for being such a teeny thing, such a tiny little President, Raul Castro stepped foot in Venezuela and excused himself, “He who should really be here is Fidel. He is the one who deserves it.” and of course he said it with that voice of his, in the higher octaves.

During his speech at the summit, a speech that was written badly and read worse, Raul Castro had to interrupt his words and ask if the gunshots he heard were Chavez’s war against the mosquitoes. A very refined sense of humor. No, the General has no one to tell him that those cannonades silenced by Chavez’s acolytes were the Venezuelan people banging on pots and pans demanding food.

And someone for whom food is a first priority, is the graceful Evo with whom I share a last name. Morales swore that the new community, without the presence of the perturbing United States, would be able to debate “how to deal with the energy crisis, the economy and the hunger ravaging the countries of the region.”

Yes, Evo is concerned about feeding his people. So to do this he has taken chicken off the Bolivian menu; he knows, he knows very well that chicken hormones create baldness and homosexuality, as immortalized in another little speech, and this cannot be allowed among his comrades of the coca and the poncho.

However, perhaps the least visible and at the same time most scandalous act, a number subtly presented, without the spotlights of the spectacle, was another. It was that starred in by the democratic presidents, decidedly distant from the populists and their totalitarian derivatives, those such as Sebastián Piñera, Felipe Calderón, Juan Manuel Santos, and Ricardo Martinelli, reunited with the repulsive ruling class of Daniel Ortega, Raul Castro, Evo Morales Rafael Correa and the host, Hugo Chavez.

I definitely cannot find a sensible explanation.

What Latin American Unity are they talking to me about, that functions as a framework for cooperation that can exist between countries led by impresarios of the center-right such as Piñera and the Panamanian Martinelli, and those run by individuals from the fierce left with authoritarian mentalities such as Raul Castro and Daniel Ortega?

Still worse: I can’t believe that none of these statesmen gathered at the 1st CELAC Summit ignored that this organization, conceived in minute detail by the Chavez brain, is not pursuing, even from afar, an economic purpose. Before, long before, it has a political objective: distancing itself from the only two countries in the Americas that were invited to join the group The United States and Canada.

If, as is an open secret, the principal directive of CELAC was to dilute the Organization of American States (OAS); if only to supplant the OAS by another community with more respect and credibility were its essence, I think that I myself would have signed on to create it. It would be about burying once and for all an organization dull and useless like few others, whose death throes would not trouble me too much.

But, to give shape to a CELAC whose economic and strategic framework is that of Chavez and Castro, establishing a distance from the United States that frankly could be defined as hypocritical (even the Phoenix capsules that rescued the 33 miners were made by the Chilean Army working with the United States’ NASA), seems to me to be an ethical and moral disaster unparalleled in recent history.

Ugly history begins to demarcate the entrepreneur Piñera, one of the politicians with the most democratic vocation and liberal thinking in the whole region, if he has no qualms in leading a ruling troika of CELAC whose other two members are none other than Hugo Chávez and Raúl Castro. From the time I was small I learned what happens to someone who sidles up to a bad seed: tell me who your friends are and I’ll tell you who you are.

CELAC’s Big Top rose in Caracas, amusing many, surprising others with its bizarre actions. But having dropped the colorful mantle and started up the ruckus, a strange sensation of Latin American farce, of the populism of some interwoven with the opportunism of others, left the too attentive audience with a frozen smile.

Contextualizing and broadening the spectrum of the most famous phrase of the disenchanted Peruvian, it seems that for too long we’ve continued to ask ourselves, like that delicious character of Vargas Llosa, at what moment in time did we fuck over the region.

(Originally written for Martí Noticias)

December 7 2011


The Rebellion of the Righteous

He’s brought Raul Castro an excellent opportunity to demonstrate the possible honesty of his words. In the handful of years during which he’s been the regent of this feudal family that is the whole Island, the younger of the Castros has never stopped repeating a maxim in his sharp voice and as if it were revolutionary: “Let everyone say what he thinks, let everyone criticize with sincerity, and their disagreements will be heard.”

Now that Eliécer Ávila, a young man of 25 from the countryside, without international awards to worry him nor family abroad to mitigate his unemployment, has returned to the news, Raul Castro, were he interested, could give proof as an example of his attention, showing that when he speaks, he means it.

How? An infinite number of possibilities come to mind: a five-minute phone call ordering a certain pockmarked vassal: “The next guest on the Roundtable TV show will be the young man Eliécer Ávila. The program will be the same length as his interview on Estado de SATS, two hours, so you will have equal time to analyze the critiques of a young revolutionary.”

I recognize, with an insolent itch, that my imagination can be unfortunately fertile. Because not even Raul Castro is interested in demonstrating some truth, nor does he have to in a country that only obeys, never demands: nor are the claims of its weary citizens of interest to him, much less those of a boy from Puerto Padre, a village almost adjacent to his native Birán, which he wouldn’t know how to find on a map of his country.

After listening to the two hours of dialogue where the now unemployed computer engineer and ex ice cream vendor, giving vent to his catharsis of nonconformity and undisguised rage, I thought again of the same thing that happened three years ago when Eliécer Ávila became an underground celebrity: the most beautifully sad thing being that he doesn’t speak for himself alone. In the throat of Eliécer Ávila are the voices of millions of the enslaved, whom biology hasn’t given the balls to make them worthy of licking his boots.

As during that questioning of Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada, Eliécer has exploited again, without even knowing it, a factor which determines the impact of his words: he is an exponent of the rebellion of the most humble, the lowly, those just now coming to life (he’s 25) who refuse to accept the destiny of their parents, of their grandparents; this destiny in which they grew up, came to awareness, and which they are no longer afraid to begin to face: the tragedy of living in a country without dreams or aspirations.

Leaving aside the obvious historic references in which he rests his ideals, ignoring the reading and study that this computer scientist with a humanistic vocation displays in spades, the best of all is that the discourse of Eliécer Ávila is not a political discourse. This, I believe, is the heart of his enormous reach.

Even to those in politics in its pure state it seems to us a lamentable but essential matter, without which a social entity is incomplete, the tone in which some of the discordant voices on the Island confront the establishment weighs on us at times. It sounds to me like hollow discourse, shouting, an archetypal method with its valid reasons but not defensible ones.

The beauty of Eliécer’s exposition, which provokes this turning of heads, nodding while listening to his complaints, his sentences, his questions, is that he is not someone who portrays the disillusionment; he is someone who incarnates the disillusionment.

Disillusionment with a failed promise of happiness, a failed promise of equality and progress. Disillusionment with an electoral system that rather than serves to choose, serves to perpetuate the inept and tyrannical. Disillusionment with a timid press that he doesn’t categorize as good or bad, simply as nonexistent. Disillusionment with the neglect of his leaders, with the chaos that is his country, with its poverty, its hunger. Disillusionment with the mountain of feces that the Revolutionary Project turns out to be that he, as I two years earlier, was taught in high school history class was perfect.

And the great thing in the personal history of this computer engineer, is that the disillusionment didn’t come at birth. It came from his own learning.

Eliécer Ávila was president of the Federación de Estudiantes de la Enseñanza Media (FEEM), Federation of High School Students, during his pre-university years. Those of us not that removed from the Cuban school year can attest to the atrocious indoctrination, the machinery of manipulation that young “cadres” are exposed to convert them into what the Argentine Guevara promulgated: the basic clay of the Revolution.

After those three years of high school, Eliécer Ávila led an Information Security project at the University of Information Sciences (UCI) where he studied. Needless to say that in the school pampered by el Comandante, the school that is the apple of his eyes, the doses of ideological injections are doubled.

So then what happened to this young man, shaped like all of our generation in the iron-scheme, among the bars of Marxist-Leninism that island philosophy that is the most idolatrous cult of the Castro regime? What happened to this young man they educated to extract from him a docile Paul, that he became an ungovernable Saul? What happens to all the honest, the free-thinkers, the uncastrated is what happened to him: All the lies were too big, they could not fit in his brain anymore.

Because of this he had to challenge with his native words and his (our) eastern accent the member of the Island Olympiad whose title is President of the Parliament and who is only worried about the fates of the five members of Cuba’s Wasp Network, imprisoned in the U.S. Because of this Eliécer Ávila couldn’t escape this opportunity of the gods, the ultimate circumstance; that moment in which he held in his nervous hands a notebook with precise points, and freed a part, barely a portion of the questions that millions of Cubans have choked one without ever finding the courage to express them.

And also because of this, facing the questions of the moderator Antonia Rodiles at Estado de SATS, three years after having come to the attention of the country and the world, Eliécer Ávila returned to the headlines: it is not usual for a Cuban “in Cuba,” and even more a Cuban not linked to any formal opposition group, to express with such naturalness (and so much oratory talent) his distance from the official doctrine under which he was raised biologically and cerebrally.

Cubans now replay this interview in their homes. They comment on this talk show with relief, they quote it, talk about it. They heard him say that he feels cheated by a system that allowed him to study information science but then left him hopelessly unemployed. In Puerto Padre, Eliécer Ávila receives the social payment for daring so much: a lemon vendor doesn’t charge him (he tells us from his Twitter account), a woman takes off her sunglasses to confirm that it is him, and gives him a wink of complicity and admiration.

Today, relying on the telephone as the only solution, I spoke for some minutes with this guajiro from Puerto Padre to whom, as I said myself three years ago in another text, every worthy Cuban owes a handshake.

Precisely in the name of those, those who admire and celebrate the rebellion of the righteous; those who yearn for a country of hope and promise, where their children don’t need to flee like ruffians in search of fortune and freedom; in the name even of the readers of this writing; of those who died waiting for sovereign voices like Eliécer’s to sing out of tune with the official choir; and those millions of his compatriots who find in his courage the only reason not to lose faith, from afar I offer him gratitude impossible to quantify, and a subtle warning: your country will not forget you.

(Published originally in Martí Noticias)

November 30 2011

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Posted by on November 30, 2011 in Ernesto Morales Licea


My Article about Eliecer Avila… Three Years Later

On November 6, 2008, published my first digital article on the site Kaosenlared (Chaos on the Web). Three months earlier I had graduated in journalist at the University of the Oriente, did not have this blog, and was about to begin working at the radio station where I would be located during my Social Service. It wouldn’t be too long before Kaosenlared would censor the articles I submitted to their “Area of Free Publication,” and that I would be fired from Radio Bayamo… among other reasons, for articles like this one.

That first text on the web was titled, “We Too, Cubans Under 35,” (a title that today — it makes me smile to say so — I wouldn’t use even under torture). Its content, however, is still pleasing to me. And its fundamental protagonist, my compatriot Eliécer, still awakens the same admiration in me as when I sent these words into cyberspace.

Very soon I will write about the fabulous interview Eliécer Ávila gave to Estado de SATS. Today I want to introduce the theme with this extensive article (perhaps longer than it should have been: it was a cry of relief) which, at a distance of three years, I still subscribe to from beginning to end.


We Too, Cubans Under 35…

(6 November 2008)

It has been some time since I read a text titled “We Too, Cubans Over 35” published on the site, Kaosenlared.

I venture to re-contextualize its title every time someone writes, opines, and debates the events surrounding the young Eliécer Avila, a 5th year student at the University of Informatics Sciences (UCI), who has become a kind of daily sport for those who follow the Cuban reality, whether from within or from outside the country, whether they are a militant within the Cuban Revolution or against it, and know a lot or nothing about what it means to live today, in 2008, on this Island.

For my part, I would I would like to start laying some foundation on which I base my opinions.

Eliécer Avila and I have a lot in common. I would dare to assert that without knowing each other in the flesh, it wouldn’t take five minutes of dialog for each of us to recognize the other as someone close, a brotherhood as if we’d been friends since childhood. The reasons I can explain are more or less as follows:

We are both from what is euphemistically known in the Cuban capital as “the interior,” and hence known in traditional and at times burlesque slang as the guajiros of this country — the peasants. For more details, we live in provinces located in the eastern part of the country: he in Puerto Padre, a town in Las Tunas, and I in Baymao, the capital of Granma province. The distance between our towns is about a three-hour journey.

Within a few months, Eliécer will probably graduate as an Information Engineer, while I, also in a few months, will get my degree in Journalism from the University of the Oriente, Santiago de Cuba.

But more important still, we both form a part of the same generation: he is 22, I am 24. Despite what he seems now, Eliécer has grown up literally in the countryside, developing a good physique and ideas pragmatic enough for the hard work of agriculture, and I have grown up in the semi-urban life of a provincial capital, involved more with artistic-intellectual tasks, but I can affirm that we are both products of the exact same educational system, the same social canons, and above all: we have both grown up under the influence of everything that has happened on this Island for the last 25 years.

Which means: we have suffered, while still children, the horrible economic crisis that came upon us in the early years of the ’90s, and although we weren’t as acutely aware of it, because of our young age, we knew that it wasn’t “good” that we didn’t have milk for breakfast, or toys, that we bathed without soap, and brushed our teeth without toothpaste. We knew that the bad moods, the irritability, that our parents exhibited most of the time wasn’t normal; we knew we had to sit at the table every night, eating what little had been cooked, under the light of candles because electricity was an unimaginable luxury.

Eliécer and I “came of age” as teenagers, students, at the time of the Battle of Ideas in this country, with the complex political process unleashed by the case of Elian Gonzalez. I can’t speak for Eliécer, but I venture to say that it is quite probable that he, as in my case, studying in the 10th grade in my High School of Exact Sciences, had to sit for hours on the floor of the hallways, along with 700 of my classmates, barely able to hear the speeches and interventions aired by Cuban televisions during the Open Forums. I repeat: not seeing it, barely able to hear it. We were so many for one television that to distinguish anything on the tiny screen was virtually impossible.

Worse still: when we ourselves had to form part of the public at these Forums we were taken from our schools to the town in question a day ahead of time. They took us there, at times, in falling-apart and poorly lit trains which, if they didn’t exude melancholy and sadness, it was only because they were transporting a mass of teenagers overflowing in adrenaline.

Once we arrived, we were “housed,” also on the floor, of schools, or institutions without rooms or bedrooms, huddled against each other, most of the time without water but with a symbolic snack in the morning, facing the endless speech of some fresh and well-fed leaders who harangued us about effort and dedication.

If, from our posts, we couldn’t smell the fresh lavender above, if we couldn’t take in the aroma of those who had recently bathed and lived with air conditioning, it was because we were so far from them in our plaza, there where the sun made our eyes water and exhaustion filled our vistas with images of grey.

And we grew up in these school with horrible food, horrible living conditions (mattresses, showers, bathrooms), destitute, studying difficult materials on empty stomachs with the tropical heat soaking our uniform shirts, worn and translucent from years of continued wearing.

I have heard Eliécer Avila, speaking boldly, referring to himself as “we who have studied, we who did everything right,” and I have felt the same sadness, the same excitement that he probably felt at the time. Why? Precisely for that reason: because we are “those who did everything right.”

We are the ones who endured the difficult conditions of the Cuban educational system, the standard of living of our population and, in consequence, the hardships of our parents barely able to support us in our education which is free only in theory; we are the ones who have chosen to be useful to society (he as an engineer, I as a journalist), instead of the so-called easy money, easy and sometimes dirty.

But then we come upon a paradox that is an open secret in Cuba: very little, if anything, helps us to be professionals. It’s useless, as in the case of Eliécer, a country boy who comes to a brand new school like UCI — The University of Information Sciences. If he wants to go to the university, prepare himself academically, have an objective for some possibility of bettering his quality of life in the near future, if he wants to prosper not just as a person but economically, and be useful to his society and be able to support himself and his family, then the best thing he can do in Cuba is to forget those studies and dedicate himself to thinking about how to subsist working for himself, which, by the way, faces him with another dilemma: how to gain an honest living, how to live comfortably without violating any law in this Socialist Country, is a utopia of the highest nature.

In the case of Eliécer, I think about the raising of animals that he insinuated in some comment. He knows, we all know well: the irony of our situation is that he can study, the doors of that and any Cuban university are open to him and to everyone who wants to hang a title on their wall, but his income would be notoriously greater selling pork at the local market, than serving his country as a licensed engineer.

Here, then, we see those who “have not done everything right.” And we see ourselves, young people like Eliecer, like me; those who populate the universities of this country. We see our “misguided friends” who choose to abandon their studies and dedicate themselves to the day-to-day, living from some shameful business or simply wearing a white apron and selling fritters from some corner of our town.

What is painful is that those friends greet us with respect, with admiration for our intelligence and intellectual level, and those friends are the same ones who pay for us to go to some nightclub, who give gifts to our family, who enjoy the many beauties of a country that we barely know.

We are the rising generation in this country, and it turns out that we are full of doubts. Of dissatisfaction. We are full of questions that no one takes the trouble to answer, and we know the reason is obvious, because they don’t have answers to them.

We are a generation that grew up just as our parents began to stop believing in words like Conscience and Selflessness because, in the 30 years under these slogans, they achieved little or nothing for themselves or their families

Needless to say, then, for us that fervor that flooded the plazas in the 1970s awakens only an anecdotal and distant interest. Young people like Eliecer and like me, and like so many thousands of Cubans — because we are “those who do things well” — have respected those who have faith in good intentions, but not because we are captive to the same effervescent rhetoric that filled our parents, and for which they broke their backs (or, as Eliecer says, “lost their teeth”) in voluntary work which, they thought, would create for us, their children, a more comfortable country.

That has been the development of our consciousness. So we have been shaped by this socialist Cuba. Thus, we have matured as thinking beings, who are offered all the possibilities in the world to excel, to develop our intellect, but who are then required not to use that intelligence to question the course our country has taken.

So, I was one of the countless who was surprised by the footage of what happened in that meeting at UCI. And to clarify: I am talking about the entire footage, which contained the intervention of Eliécer along with various others of his classmates, and the full answers of the President of the National Assembly of Cuba, Ricardo Alarcón de Quesada.

I must confess something: my feeling after seeing the intervention of this guajiro, of this neighbor of my territory, was basically envy. Although during his discourse I experienced various sensations (I laughed out loud several times, for sure), what I was left with at the end was a healthy envy, my only thought being to write an email to the student himself, saying what I had felt, as a Cuban like him, as a young man like him, and thanking him on behalf of those of us not in that room for what, in “good Cuban,” is called having the balls to be worthy of the ideals of Marti, to say what he really thought. That email was never answered. Today, after learning of the days of stress and analysis to which he was subjected, I understand that his silence was the result of strict orders.

But I speak of envy for one simple reason: Eliécer had the opportunity that thousands of us, thousands of young Cubans, have long desired, and what’s more, he took maximum advantage of it. He had the perfect opportunity not only to put on the record the many dissatisfactions we’ve held within, the many things we think are wrong with the society we live in and that we want to improve, but also to say it to Ricardo Alarcón, one of the respected figures in Cuban politics.

Apart from the countless interpretations and pros and cons that this event has given rise to, I dare to say something: “participatory socialist democracy” cannot be working very well in a country where there is such an uproar because some young person questions its leaders, and their decisions.

A people’s civil rights can’t be working very well if they are suddenly shaken from all sides, just because one voice suddenly arises in a meeting and “dares” to say “I don’t understand this, nor this, and I would like you, as president of the National Assembly of my country, to explain it to me.” We can be unsatisfied with the answers from Alarcón, but although significant they don’t seem to me to be the core of this issue: the reaction to this event that comes, not from “the enemy” this time, but from the Cuban people themselves, is the principal denunciation that something is not going well here.

Let’s say we put on the Internet a video of a French person questioning the government of Sarkozy; let’s say we publish material referring to the words of an Argentinian, or a Chilean, disagreeing with what happens in their nation. I would like to know how many inhabitants of those countries would go from house to house copying this material on the sly, reproducing it in their homes behind closed doors, and debating it in their family circles as the most important news of the day.

I don’t pretend to analyze in detail the responses that Ricardo Alarcón offered to that expectant student body. Everyone saw them, everyone heard them. They are, I believe, part of History. If I had to choose a fragment of his discourse as “the icing on the cake,” as an elixir of the unusual, I would pick the moment in which he argued that if the six billion inhabitants of the earth all decided to travel, “the aerial traffic jam would be enormous…” Let me quote a recurring phrase of Holden Caulfield, the character from Salinger’s novel “The Catcher in the Rye“: “That killed me.”

So it’s not about the nonconformist Eliécer. It’s not about creating a leader, nor manipulating his words to take greater advantage of them. The even more important fact is that at least one of the millions of Cubans who ever attended a meeting with a senior leader decided to express, at the most unexpected moment, all of what many of us just like him think, but that no one ever deigned to listen to.

We, Cubans under 25 who believe in the love of our country, who give thanks (as Rafael Sanzio did for having been born in the same century as Michelangelo) for having been born in the land of Martí, Céspedes, Agramonte, but also of Felix Varela, Capablanca, Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera, we owe a hand to this son of peasants and to the peasant that he is himself, to this well-built guy with rough manners and the jocular ways of a native Cuban, for having fired the discordant starting pistol of those of us who do not think everything is fine, at a time and place where they only expected to hear the uniform music of the usual concert.

November 29 2011

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Posted by on November 29, 2011 in Ernesto Morales Licea