Cuba: Interview with Reinaldo Escobar, An Independent Citizen

By Yusimi Rodriguez

Macho-2
Reynaldo Escobar

HAVANA TIMES — For months I had wanted to interview Reinaldo Escobar – the blogger and moderator of an audiovisual panel discussion project called Razones Ciudadanas. He’s also the husband of blogger Yoani Sanchez, who is currently on an international tour.

We met up at a cafe in the upscale Miramar district and before I could pose the first question, he summarized his life.

Reinaldo Escobar: I was born in Camaguey in 1947, I graduated in journalism and I took five post-graduate courses in Marxism.

HT: Marxist?

RE: Marxologist.

At the end of my studies they wanted to kick me out of school for being smug, hyper-critical, immature, and having literary tendencies. The punishment was to send me to the Centennial Youth Column in Camagüey – not as a cane cutter though, but as a journalist. I stayed there for eighteen months.

Later I worked for the magazine Cuba Internacional, and afterwards at the Juventud Rebelde newspaper. After a year and a half, on December 18, 1988, I was told in a meeting that I couldn’t continue there or work in the field of journalism any more in Cuba. I was transferred to the National Library, where, along with others, I requested a meeting to discuss the agreements of the Fourth Party Congress. We were met with a “repudiation meeting” and I decided to leave.

Then I was an elevator mechanic and a librarian at a technological institute until 1994. That was my last government job. Then I taught Spanish to foreigners. In 2004, I founded, with other friends, the magazine Consenso, which evolved into the digital portal Desdecuba. There I learned digital journalism with Yoani, and I started my blog.

This man, who as a child recited complete speeches of Fidel Castro, in dreams, and can still recite several by memory, is proud of writings such as “Que fue el fidelismo?” (What was Fidelismo), “Es muy facil prohibir,” (It’s easy to forbid) “El argumento secreto” (The secret argument) and ideas about the need to decriminalize political dissent.

HT: Are you and your wife on the voter registration list?   

RE: Yes, our son Teo too. In the vote [last October] for the delegates at the constituency level, we attended the polls to support a campaign by Pedro Campos, which consisted of writing “D” (for democracy) on the ballot. We didn’t participate in the recent election of members of parliament.

Independent journalism is not a homogeneous group or a political party. Everyone writes what they want. There’s no editorial policy. I’ve written about the US blockade, as has Yoani Sanchez and others.

I believe in institutions and that Cuba should have a parliament in which people are represented in their diversity. In Cuba there’s diversity by race, age, occupation and gender, but not by politics. Therefore it’s a false diversity.

The proof is that the votes, the vast majority, are unanimous. In over thirty years, they haven’t turned down any proposed law. The parliament is selected by a nomination committee consisting of the mass organizations, which are pulleys for the transmission of power.

Most of the top leaders of these organizations are members of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. You can bet that the statutes of these organizations require them to be faithful to the Party, the revolution and Fidel.

What’s worse is that voters don’t know the thinking of the local candidates or the parliamentary candidates because the Electoral Act prohibits campaigning. They don’t know how that person will vote in parliament on issues like gay marriage, the expansion of self-employment, etc. I’m not talking about socialism or capitalism.

The voter doesn’t know how the person who represents them in parliament thinks. That’s why I didn’t vote. Teo also decided not to go.

HT: Has being your son and the son of Yoani Sanchez brought any negative impacts on the life of Teo?

RE: Not at all. He’s a good student and I attend all parent meetings. Once, some anonymous messages were sent in his classroom for Valentine’s Day. The teacher received the papers and read them aloud. There was one for Teo that she didn’t want to read, because it was this question: Why is your mother a “Lady in White”? Teo regretted that she had’t read it aloud, to clarify that his mother wasn’t a Lady in White – though if she were, he would have been proud.

A good friend, a member of the Party, asked me once if I wasn’t scared about anything happening to my son. I replied that she must think worse of the country’s leaders than I did.

HT: In your blog, you describe your firing from Juventud Rebelde as the event that made you a free person. What happened?

RE: Like I mentioned, I worked at the Cuba Internacional magazine, for many years. It was devoted to sweetening the situation in Cuba, but I got bored with that. What’s more, the process of perestroika and glasnost in the Soviet Union made me excited about the idea of something similar happening in Cuba. I left that magazine and went to Juventud Rebelde to practice journalism that was more critical and freer.

Reynaldo Escobar
Reynaldo Escobar

I managed to publish some highly critical articles, of which I’m proud, especially “Es muy facil prohibir” (It’s very easy to forbid) about dress codes against boys from wearing long hair at school. They had assigned me to do an article about the start of school year, so I went to the parking lot at Ciudad Deportiva, where the buses assembled that carried students to their high schools in the countryside.

I saw that the principal didn’t let the kids with long hair on the bus. I identified myself as a journalist from Juventud Rebelde and I questioned the director about his policy. He said the prohibition was in the school rules. That afternoon I checked in the library of the Ministry of Education, and to my horror I discovered that the word “hair” didn’t appear anywhere. I wrote an article that exposed this, and it created a scandal.

At Ciudad Libertad high school, the students put the article up on the bulletin board, but the principal took it down told them they couldn’t put it up again – so the students wrote excerpts from my article on the street with chalk. That was the nicest thing that ever happened in my career as a journalist. The Ministry of Education sent a letter to the newspaper saying that journalists like me were conspiring, etc.

The editor asked me to write an article about the 30th anniversary of the Revolution, to help me “clean up my act.” I know he wanted to help me, and I appreciated it. I wrote an article entitled “Treinta años despues, ¿de que se quejan los jovenes en Cuba?” (Thirty years on, What do young people in Cuba complain about?). It wasn’t published, of course.

A few days later I was called into the meeting I mentioned earlier. They accused me of writing articles with hidden meanings and that instigated young people. I wrote an appeal but it didn’t work.

For a long time I was depressed. A lot of people [at the newspaper] gave me moral support, but all of them raised their hands at the meeting to expel me – except for Jose Antonio Evora, who lost his UJC membership card for supporting me. Now he’s in Miami.

Over time I realized that they had effectively freed me. Had I continued there, I would have ended up like many former colleagues who I run into on the street and think they are doing something great by writing that the potato harvest is insufficient, or mentioning Fidel Castro without saying “commander-in-chief.” I would feel ridiculous if I was doing that.

HT: A college student who has been able to read some “independent journalism” told me that they couldn’t accuse you bloggers of lying. But they could point to you for showing solely the worse parts of Cuban life. Do you think that “independent journalism” is as ideological as official journalism?

RE: If it’s true that official journalism is ideologically based, it’s fully justifiable for there to be a counterpart. If we try to be balanced, to reflect the bad and the good, we wouldn’t be doing our duty to balance national journalism. In a division of labor that no one has ordered, official journalism sweetens reality and the alternative exposes it.

HT: A few months ago I was talking with a friend who’s physically handicapped and can’t get an essential medicine because of the US blockade. Cuba’s government uses the blockade to explain everything, but I feel that “independent journalism” ignores it or downplays its effect on the country’s situation.

RE: Independent journalism is not a homogeneous group or a political party. Everyone writes what they want. There’s no editorial policy. I’ve written about the blockade, as has Yoani Sanchez and others.

I believe in institutions and that Cuba should have a parliament in which people are represented in their diversity. In Cuba there’s diversity by race, age, occupation and gender, but not by politics. Therefore it’s a false diversity.

The actual weight of the problem is another matter. I’ve discussed it with US officials and have said that the blockade is an aberration that should disappear. I do this not just because your friend doesn’t have the medicine she needs, but because it gives the government the real justification that we’re a place that’s under siege and therefore dissent is treason.

When I was a teenager, Fidel Castro said we would achieve a bright future despite the blockade. This [the blockade] was enacted [by the US government] because it seemed right to the revolutionary government to confiscate property held by some Americans. I understand that this wasn’t to harm the American owners, but to benefit the Cuban people. That’s not what happened though. Instead we were blockaded. And the consequences are what we know.

It’s said here that with I don’t know how many hours of blockade one could buy I don’t know how many violin strings. They have done these calculations that I don’t understand, but somehow these are true. The only country that produces violin strings is the United States. Neither China nor Russia produces them. I suppose that the medicine your friend needs isn’t produced by another country.

I believe this government should assume the blockade with dignity, because it was earned with its revolutionary attitude. Did they think that Washington would applaud the confiscation of Americans property? The Cuban government bet on the horse that lost, which was the socialist camp, and history proved that that was a mistake. I don’t blame them for not being fortunetellers, but for not being consistent with their attitudes.

I was in that plaza where Fidel Castro lost his voice reading the list of Cuban properties owned by US interests and people shouted “se llamaba” (they were). I was hoarse too. I was willing to take the consequences. I joined the literacy campaign and I voluntarily joined the military — before the draft existed — because Fidel called for anti-aircraft troops. They told me that a bright future was coming and I believed it. What came was a failure, because it was the result of voluntarism and the lust for power.

I hate the blockade, though I understand why it was enacted.

HT: I have problems defining you. Should I say dissident or opposition member?

RE: I’m an independent citizen.

(To be continued…)

 

 

  • Tyrone Lumpkins

    Other than a couple valid critiques of the obvious, what a tremendous exercise in absurdity!

    If this is the best the opposition can come up with, the hardliners have little to worry about.

    (Let’s see what our boys under contract with the USAID have to add)

    • Moses Patterson

      How many ‘valid critiques of the obvious’ should he have highlighted to gain your approval. Have you not been paying attention lately? The hardliners have plenty to worry about.

  • marie

    Reinaldo Escobar es una de las mentes mas inteligentes en la Cuba de hoy. Gracias por hacer esta entrevista que da a conocer el personaje.

  • Moses Patterson

    It is estimated that only one out of 25 African-Americans actively participated in public protest activities during the civil rights movement. Dramatically fewer non-blacks took to the streets. If only one out of 25 Cubans had the set of cojones that Reinalo Escobar has, the Castros would already be living on the beach in Venezuela.

  • Griffin

    This is a side-issue, but Reinaldo is misinformed. Violin strings are manufactured in many countries around the world: France, Italy, Austria, Germany, Russia, China as well as the US. Why he said that the USA is the only country that produces violin strings is odd.

    • Julio de la Yncera

      Griffin I think he is just trying to make an example. For the sake of clarity what I think he means is a product X that it is only produced by the USA.

  • Luis

    He’s certainly *not* independent from the USINT in Havana.

    http://wikileaks.org/cable/2008/01/08HAVANA94.html

    This is just a sample. Everybody knows the couple visits the USINT on a regular basis.

  • Tyrone Lumpkins

    Misinformed about violin strings? Violin strings!?!

    What about HUGE part of betting on the wrong horse.

    What? They should have stuck with Batista?

    —-

    Democracy – Absolutely!

    Just be careful of who tries to stick their foot in the door “in the name of democracy”

    (Talking to an empty room at this point though.)

    • Moses Patterson

      I believe that you misread this point. The wrong horse he is referring to is betting on the USSR and not on the USA.

  • dani

    “I believe this government should assume the
    blockade with dignity, because it was earned with its revolutionary attitude.
    Did they think that Washington would applaud the confiscation of Americans
    property?”

    This is absurd. The government was perfectly entitled to nationalize American property. They offered the compensation on the normal internationally recognized basis ie payment over 25 years and better terms than America did in Japan. Five other countries were in the same boat and accepted the deal without hesitation and got paid in full. What does that say?

    • Moses Patterson

      Perfectly entitled? Sort of like the US is perfectly entitled to Guantanamo? There are things which are legal but nonetheless immoral.

      • Griffin

        To clarify, the US does not claim ownership of Guantanamo. The US is leasing the land from Cuba. Pre-revolution, the Cuban gov’t (under pressure and influence from the US gov’t) agreed to lease the land out to the US.

        After the Revolution, the US gov’t continued to pay the rent stipulated in the treaty. The new gov’t accepted one payment, which Castro later said was done in confusion. The new Cuban gov’t demanded the US leave, but the US insist they have a legal lease to the land and that the Cuban gov’t validated this lease by accepting payment. The US continues to deliver rent cheques to Cuba, but the Cuban gov’t does not cash them.

        So as you point out, the presence of the base is legal in a narrow sense, even if it is diplomatically and politically unacceptable to Cuba.