When I say “Cuba,” what goes through your mind? Is it Fidel? Che? Communism? Or revolution? Maybe visions of old cars against a backdrop of colorful but decaying buildings, or the scent of cigars with the sounds of salsa music wafting through the streets. Or maybe you think “enemy of the state” or “standing up to an imperialistic power,” or perhaps “gee, I haven’t thought about Cuba in a while?”
Chances are your reaction will depend greatly on who you are: your age, ethnicity, background and knowledge of history and political affairs. Even Cuban-Americans will present varying opinions depending on their age and geography.
I’m no expert on history or world affairs and certainly not on Cuban & U.S. relations, but what I do know is that what was once perceived as a potential dangerous threat to the U.S. has slowly over the years — especially after fall of the former Soviet Union — become more of a mild political irritant. A buzzing, relentless fly on the ass of an elephant, or as the band Rise Against might sing, “the insect in our ears,” but that’s political.
What about in terms “of flesh and blood”? What about the people who actually live in Cuba? What does Cuba mean to them? A beloved homeland where they are proud of their small country’s ability to stand up to an enormous world power just 90 miles or so north of their shores? Or do they view their country as a backwards, backwater held hostage by the stubborn ideology of an old man and his circle of cronies who insist on imposing their version of what they think is right on 11 million hostages who have little choice or say in the matter?
In late 2009, I visited Havana, Cuba to help a friend who was working on a documentary film called AfroLatinos. I would have lots of free time and I possessed just enough mastery of the Spanish language that I felt I could have at least some cursory conversations on the subject with Cubans themselves. I brought along a small video camera, a “pro-sumer,” meaning it looked like just a regular personal camcorder any tourist might have but it actually can shoot professionally.
I was questioned at the airport, but no more than anyone else (and no, my passport was not stamped). The first thing I noticed on the way from the airport to my “Casa Particular” (a kind of hotel where you stay with a Cuban family), was the lack of advertising. There were only billboards proclaiming propaganda about the government, and Che’s image was pimped out everywhere.
After settling in a couple of days, I soon discovered it might be more challenging to get everyday Cubans to open up about politics than I had hoped, especially on camera. While I was at dinner with my documentary filmmaker friend and with a local Cuban, I asked a very innocent question about Fidel Castro. I can’t remember the question exactly, but nothing remotely controversial or political, something along the lines of, “How old is Fidel anyway?” Both of my dinner companions quickly shushed me while looking around nervously to see who overheard and then asking I not speak his name in public. Needless to say, this took me aback.
THERE ARE PUNKS IN CUBA?
My other purpose for bringing along the camera was that I was also planning on interviewing people for my own documentary project, Punktology… The Worldwide Influence of Punk. Now this was assuming there was some kind of punk scene in Cuba in the first place, of course.
I had researched and concluded there must be some kind of scene there, because the band Porno Para Ricardo had been making recent headlines. Lead member, Gorki Augila had been exiled to Mexico after numerous arrests and harassments by the Cuban government for “social dangerousness” which, according to the PunkNews.Org, is behavior that runs contrary to “communist morality” and allows authorities to detain offenders before they commit an actual crime. Essentially, in Cuba you can be arrested for thinking a crime.
I knew that if I found any punks indeed willing to speak on camera, I’d have to be cautious. I was not registered with Cuba as a journalist. If I were to get in any trouble the U.S. embassy could not bail me out. I didn’t want to get in any legal trouble, but I also didn’t want to get sick or hurt.
Indeed, just a few years earlier, I had a brief friendship with a young, charismatic U.S. filmmaker, Albert Carvajal, who had been looking forward to premiering his short film Capicu at the Havana Film Festival but instead had been robbed (no ATM machines or credit cards for U.S. citizens, so you must bring large amounts of cash) and beaten, perhaps even drugged by some shady locals. He later slipped into a coma and died in a Havana Hospital.
Like many things, there are two types of healthcare in Cuba. The first kind is the kind Michael Moore covered for his documentary Sicko. This one features floors in hospitals with cream of the crop medical technicians working in crisp, white lab coats and modern conditions. This is the one that the Cuban government showcases to the media and filmmakers like Michael Moore, who typically emphasizes on one side of the story that fits their agenda. This hospital is for “wealthy” (and usually light skinned Cubans) in the government and of course foreigners and Fidel’s amigo, cancer stricken Venezuelan leader, Hugo Chávez.
Then there is the other healthcare in Havana, the kind Albert Carvajal and most Cubans receive. According to Albert’s friend and actress in his film, Elena Adames, who was at his side most of the time (and whom I subsequently interviewed later), the Cuban hospital Albert was taken to is the one that the majority of poor Cubans (and typically dark skinned) get sent to when they inevitably fall ill; the overcrowded ones without sheets on the beds and enough staff or lights in the hallway. After he was found bloody and incoherent in the street, robbed of his coat, shoes, money and U.S. passport, Albert, a dark skinned Dominican-American, could have easily been pegged as a poor local. No amount of pleading on Elena’s part could get through the red tape and political mess that is Cuba and U.S. relations to get Albert airlifted to a hospital in Miami that could have saved his life.
LAND OF LOS FREAKIES
With this as my backdrop, I was excited but more than a bit nervous. I packed my hand sanitizing gel and washed my hands more times in those few days than Howard Hughes.
After asking around, I located an area where the Cuban punks hung out. Punks are part of a larger group called “Los Freakies” (or the freaks) who hang out on Calle G (G Street) pretty much on a nightly basis. My bilingual buddy Camilo, a Colombian-American filmmaker, went with me and agreed to run camera and translate while I ran the interviews. We headed off to Calle G to see if we could find some Cuban punks.
We arrived and the Los Freakies were easy to spot. Los Freakies were basically the misfits of Havana, a crowd of hundreds of teens and young adults consisting of goth and metal heads, skateboard kids, emos and yes, a handful of hardcore punks, some sporting mohawks and tattoos. It was a surreal scene.
The police were close by keeping a watchful eye, but they didn’t seem to be paying much attention and frankly, looked a little bored. In the U.S., bored cops might mean grabbing some coffee & donuts or busting a jaywalker. In Cuba, as I was to find out, it was a recipe for trouble.
Camilo and I began pre-interviewing a couple of punks who seemed eager to tell their story on camera. However, just before the camera started rolling, the police headed our way. I thought for sure my camera was going to be confiscated and that I was in big trouble. I was prepared to argue my “I’m just a tourist” claim but that wouldn’t explain the microphone. I was racking my brain for a microphone explanation before I realized that instead of questioning Camilo and I, the police were focusing all their attention on the punks.
After some very brief questioning, they took one of our potential interviewees away in handcuffs to jail. What was the charge? We weren’t told, “Social Dangerousness” perhaps. There was no charge or lists of rights read to this poor guy. How long would he remain in jail? What would happen to him there? None of his friends were sure, but their enthusiasm had visibly vanished and their gusto had quickly changed to gloom. We began to realize this may be a far more serious matter than an overnight stay in the pokey.
During my time in Cuba, I was personally in contact with no less than 3 Cubans (one being the punk) who were arrested while I was there for very different offenses, ranging from not having their “papers in order” to “tourist harassment.” In Cuba, it appears the police have free reign to arrest first and make charges later. Eventually we learned to be more covert in our operations and amazingly, even after the arrest of one of their own, I had a little problem finding other punks among the Los Freakies who were willing and even eager to speak on camera.
We moved to an area less frequented by the police and began some interviews. They told us how it is “illegal” to even be a punk in Cuba and they were often harassed by the police. With internet tightly censored and controlled, and with radio, TV and newspapers consisting almost exclusively of the “official” state backed by Cuban media, how does punk even exist in a place like Cuba? How did they hear about this music in the first place? The answer: wherever they could.
Despite government efforts blocking most international media, some radio and TV signals from the U.S. do bleed in. At night many Cubans watched their nightly novelas or local news from WLTV, the Miami Univision affiliate. But they had to keep the volume low in case a policeman or nosy neighbor informant strolls by eavesdropping. And even though internet access was rare, limited and tightly controlled, Cubans have become very resourceful at find ways around the government’s restrictions. Let’s face it they have had plenty of practice. But as a punk scene goes, the one in Cuba is not so clearly defined, probably in part due to the limited access to information.
Many of the Los Freakies and punks wore their favorite band shirts, which had largely been donated or imported from North America and Europe (Canada and Europe trade with Cuba). Los Freakies, somewhat all stick together regardless of their particular musical tastes.
Bands like Slipknot, My Chemical Romance and others were mentioned in the same breath as the Ramones, NOFX, Off-Spring, Misfits, etc. I don’t think Cuban punks had the luxury of debating whether “Green Day” was indeed punk anymore or not, they just like their music and call it punk. Most of their music is downloaded off of websites on illegal internet connections (and then burned on CDs and traded with each other).
Below is the video the punk youth I interviewed before they were taken by the police.
My trip, and that particular evening in Havana at Calle G, has bugged me ever since. I’ve never forgotten the shock of seeing someone hauled away in handcuffs, simply for having a conversation or the despair on the faces of his friends. I felt somewhat responsible for that poor guy’s arrest. Had I not had my camera and been nosing around Calle G he most likely would not have been taken to jail that night.
Most of the Cuban people are poor, even by Latin America’s standards. Most subsist on a sub-par diet of rice, beans and potatoes with occasional meat. Even as a tourist with plenty of money “eating well,” I lost a few pounds in just 8 days (I called it the Cuba diet, it’s the latest trend).
The tourists in Havana are extremely important to the very limited economy there. As a result, tourists are usually protected (my filmmaker friend Albert, God rest his soul, notwithstanding). The joke around Havana was that if a tourist were to stab a Cuban, the police would promptly arrest the Cuban for “running into the knife” of a tourist and the tourist would go free.
Good, nutritious food and justice are not the only things missing in Cuba. It’s obvious that freedom of expression is in short supply as well and this, I gathered from our interviews, was the one of the most frustrating parts for Cubans. The Cubans who did open up (mostly young people) felt their leaders were old, backwards, out of touch and possibly crazy and that the Cuban people were paying the price. When I looked out into the Cuban harbor, I noticed none of the boats I spotted had motors. So, only rowboats are allowed for Cubans? Cuba is such a paradise that the government feels the need to keep people prisoners? Are there worse offenders of human rights than Cuba? Probably. Perhaps the Middle East (Iran, Syria, etc.) or China (where the U.S. doesn’t dare impose an embargo) and North Korea, but for a relatively small island country just a few miles off the coast of Florida, it amazes me that this cold war relic of a place can still cause so much misery.
With all that’s going on in the world today, it would be pretty easy for U.S. citizens and other parts of the developed world to forget that Cuba even exists. But having visited the island, I can’t help but wonder if the people on camera who told us so candidly how they felt about living in Cuba might also have joined their punk amigo in jail… or worse. I certainly hope not but you never know.
Since my trip to Cuba, I have traveled to most of Latin America and wanted to showcase music from the many excellent punk bands I had come in contact with while filming my documentary “Punktology”. We put together a compilation and named it Punktology: Volume 1 – Free Cuba Now! in honor of the arrested and harassed punk comrades. Realizing that the most we’d probably raise would be a little awareness, we further pledged support of 25% of any profits we make going to our buddies at Cuba Skate, a small but passionate U.S. charity that travels to Cuba to donate skate boarding equipment, build skate parks and help offer better opportunities to Cuban youth.
After the Punktology Compilation was released on , a press release sent, etc., I was a little shocked by some comments I received from people. Most were supportive but more than a couple bristled at the words “Free Cuba Now!,” which originally was meant to have a dual meaning aimed at the both the Cuban government (allow freedom of expression & human rights) and U.S. government (stop an embargo that obviously doesn’t work).
A few people from Latin America and Australia and even the U.S. (this was the height of the Occupy Wall Street mania) commented on our blog and facebook pages that Cuba was fighting the good fight against the evil capitalist oppressors and to have the word “Free” in the title was somehow offensive. One poor, misguided soul from Australia suggested we try working with the Cuban government instead of criticizing them and produce “non political” punk music. This guy’s heart may have been in the right place but he lost intellectual credibility with me when he stated that Cuba was “more free” than Australia. Somehow I don’t think the hundreds of political prisoners in Cuba or even the average citizen would agree (assuming they could even grasp how free Australia is comparatively).
Of course, none of these critics actually lived in Cuba and some had never even visited. To all of these very confused folks, I simply state that freedom of expression and indeed all human rights transcend politics, be you a Capitalist, Communist, Socialist, Republican, Democrat, Anarchist or Wall Street Protestor.
I do feel somewhat heartened about Cuba’s future because punk is alive and well despite, and perhaps because of, the government’s repeated attempts to stamp it out. And while I repeat that I certainly don’t have expert answers when it comes to Cuba & U.S. relations, I do hope we can change a policy that has been around for over half a century and is quite obviously not working, if for no other reason than Einstein’s theory on insanity; doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Regardless of what you think of when you hear the name “Cuba” or what your political beliefs, if you are reading this article then chances are you live in a much more free society than Cubans. If you get a chance today, go out and say something controversial or unflattering about your government to a group of people in public and enjoy the feeling of walking away free without being thrown in jail. It sure feels good doesn’t it?