Sunday, April 11, 2010

Media Wars, Musical Protests and Martí’s Cuba Libre

The newspapers and TV news has been non-stop decrying the “media war” against Cuba that the Cuban government argues has been launched by the international press led by the imperialist yanquis. What they are referring to is the coverage of the Damas en Blanco who a few weeks ago were daily protesting in the streets of Havana, and who were surrounded by mobs of “citizens” who shouted at them “the streets are Fidel’s.” This “media war” also includes coverage of the death of the prisoner Orlando Zapata who died after a long hunger strike, and the on-going hunger strike of another dissident Guillermo Fariñas.

According to the Cuban official line, echoed on the TV, in Granma, and on stage by countless artists, musicians and intellectuals, such coverage is unfair and distorted because the same media ignores human rights abuses in other countries. This line of reasoning makes some sense, but it is a weak argument because they are not saying that the news being reported is untrue, just that it is out of proportion to the weight it should be given.

But then who decides what should be covered and what should not be covered. If one has freedom of expression, then all points of view have a right to be aired. The Cuban media can present its version of events to counteract the other stories. But the Cuban government seems disingenuous when it refuses to allow multiple and opposing viewpoints in its own media. In fact, the death of Zapata was only reported days after the fact, and only in response to international coverage of the event.

Yes, Cubans have sent hundreds of doctors to Haiti, and the world should recognize that. Yes, journalists are killed every year in Mexico and in Honduras, and that should receive more coverage. And yes, the US is one of the worst offenders of human rights on bases from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib. None of this seems to negate the stories that have appeared in the international press about hunger strikers in Cuba and peaceful protestors being mobbed in the streets of Havana.

In response to this “media war” the Cuban government orchestrated a major concert at the Tribuna Anti-Imperialista. The concert scheduled for 4 pm on Saturday included major musicians like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo FG, and intellectuals like Nancy Morejón and Miguel Barnet. The TV publicized the concert non-stop for several days, urging everyone to go to the Tribuna to protest the media war. On a sunny Saturday afternoon, with so much publicity, and a free concert with the most popular Cuban bands, I expected to see a sea of people on the Malecon. Some of my students even arrived a few hours early to get a spot close to the stage.

When I arrived there at 4:30 there were barely three hundred people in the audience, barely ten deep. This scant crowd was a striking contrast to the 20,000 who showed up to see the Puerto Rican Reggaeton group Calle 13 just two weeks earlier. In that concert, there were people packed in all the way to the Hotel Nacional, with all of the side streets teeming with an excited crowd. Despite the incentive of seeing the most popular Cuban bands, including reggaeton and rock groups, the tribuna was barely half filled even by 7:30 pm for this political concert. Silvio came out and played guitar for one song, singing “Soy Cuba.” The TV news that evening reported thousands of Cubans who came out to the tribuna to protest the unjust attacks on Cuba.

Cuban filmmaker Fernando Pérez just released his new film about the life of young José Martí. The film entitled José Martí: Ojo del Canario is an intimate portrait of the young independence leader before he was a major political and literary figure. It shows Martí as a shy, effeminate young boy who learns about social injustice by seeing first-hand the barbarous illegal slave trade that his father, an officer in the Spanish military, was charged with preventing. The young Pepe slowly begins to develop character and speak out against social injustice, eventually publishing his Patria Libre newspaper after the Spanish government issued a declaration allowing free press. It was ironic to watch the Spanish colonial government decreeing free press in the 1860s in the Chaplin theater in Vedado. One of the most emotional scenes in the film occurs when Martí and his classmates discuss the meaning of democracy and liberty in their classroom. But, the one that left me with chills was when Martí was arrested for writing a letter that indicated his sympathies for the cause of Cuba Libre. In court, Martí begins to defend himself, and the judges tell him to be quiet that he doesn’t have the right to speak yet. Martí explodes saying that he has seen people living in poverty and misery, and he has never been given the right to speak freely. Martí is dragged out of the courtroom shouting “viva Cuba libre.” Indeed!

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