“El que calla, otorga”

Facebook’s “Like” thumb on display in Havana’s waterfront. Photo credit: Edu Bayer. Source: El País (Spain)

To Pablo Medina Sr. and Jr. – two generations of Cuban creative talent.

A couple of days ago, I ran into an op-ed published on Spanish daily El País related to the world-famous Havana Art Biennale, recently celebrated. Its author, Antonio José Ponte, is a writer and the deputy director of Diario de Cuba, an online newspaper very critical of the Cuban government. The premise of his op-ed is that there are Cuban artists who have the opportunity to present their work in Cuba but are conspicuously silent when their fellow artists are victimized by the government. They, says Ponte, do not depend on any government largesse that may compromise their position, but nevertheless are so intent on cultivating a beneficial relationship with the Cuban government that they would sacrifice their scruples and, basically, throw a fellow artist under the bus of the Revolution. That artist is Tania Bruguera, of whom I spoke about in one occasion. In this Biennale, as Ponte tells us, Bruguera did a public reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism in her home. Only an art critic and one of her fellow artists attended the event; the rest were State Security officers and a group of people that assembled in her street for a spontaneous rally against her. She is still a marked person but, seemingly undeterred, has gone up to research on the subject of political repression in Cuba for future performance artworks.

Cuba’s version of the Rousseauian paradox of being forced to be free, seen in Bruguera’s ongoing story but not exclusively by it, has been ignored all of a sudden in Latin America. In speaking unanimously against the embargo (and rightly so) and welcoming Cuba with open arms to CELAC and the Summits of the Americas, the region has done like those artists who have forsaken Bruguera for the sake of political accommodation with the revolutionary powers-that-be. The apparent justification is that Latin American countries, unlike the US, respect the sovereignty of other states and would not do or say anything that could violate it. That is not an unfounded claim – not in a region where that ground-breaking lesson of the Peace of Westphalia was repeatedly ignored by global powers (including the USSR in its day). The problem is when insisting that the Cuban state has sovereign rights means that everybody else has to turn a blind eye to whenever there is abuse and unfairness. And that is seemingly what Latin America has agreed to, much to the chagrin of people who, like Bruguera, have committed the sin of not sharing the ideological herd mentality still dominating Cuban society.

Furthermore, I find it even more irritating that leftist forces and voices ignore cases like Burguera’s. My assumption is that their explanation would be that it is all propaganda elucubrated by CNN en Español. With that, they fall into an obvious double standard: it is imperative to say something against, say, how the “genocidal” Peña Nieto and his government treat dissenters in Ayotzinapa, Atenco, and everywhere else in Mexico, but not so when it comes to how the Cuban Revolution treats Bruguera, Damas de Blanco or Yoani Sánchez. As far as those leftist voices are concerned, they are on the CIA’s payroll. At the very least, they are miscreants who dare to disagree with the will of the Cuban people channeled by their government. Taking Revolution Square as Bruguera did, as a stage for a performance art that would allow people to say whatever they wanted (even if it is against the government) is sacrilege in Revolutionary Cuba. For that reason, she has to wear the scarlet letter of counterrevolution. Ponte mentions that Bruguera has been banned from museums and art galleries, without any word of protest from her fellow artists.

Which brings me to this statement: it is unreasonable for any government to expect all the people to agree with it all the time. Any government that does otherwise, by whatever means and under any ideology, is a dictatorship. Pure and simple. And that is why the double standard of leftist movements, in Latin America and outside of it, is so irritating to me. The Latin American left wants us to take the whole point of dissenting with the current Mexican government (notwithstanding the sense it does make) really to heart and American progressives constantly complain about their voices of dissent being shushed by the US government; the point is that dissent with authority should never be silenced. I get it, but why should we treat Cuba any differently? Because it is the beacon of anti-imperialism? How is it that dissenting with authority in Cuba does not have the same justification as dissenting with authority in Mexico or the US? Because Cuban dissenters belong to a squalid oligarchy, as the late Hugo Chávez used to call his opponents? Is this about defending the right to dissent or that some people have more right to dissent than others? And by the way, the whole point about the beauty of dissenting with authority comes all the way from the same philosophical current that brought us… wait for it… that scourge of worldwide progressivism known as neoliberal economics.

Of course, old-fashioned sovereignty still matters (to the extent that globalization allows), so the point is also to avoid the other extreme of really getting in the way of other governments’ decisions to drive home the point that dissenting with authority is a human right. There is no need for wetworks; sabotage is not the right approach (the US tried the former against Fidel Castro and did the latter in Cuba many times during the 1960s). No military occupation like Panama’s in the late 1980s is required as well. And it is not necessary for the US to raise these issues at this point in the normalization of relations – not before it becomes irreversible. But at the end of the day socioeconomic equality is not an excuse to disrespect the political rights of anyone who thinks differently.

There is a Spanish saying for stories like Tania Bruguera’s: “el que calla otorga,” which translates roughly into “silence speaks volumes.” In Cuba, it speaks a whole library.

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