October 2003

Final Chorus: Inside Looks at Cuban Society

The series of ads by JazzTimes Travel—"Discover Cuba. It's a Trip"—are inviting. I was there a couple of years after the Revolution and was impressed by the universal health-care system—and not surprised by Castro's filling of his gulags, including some former supporters who had realized too late that freedom ofexpression can be a high crime in a dictatorship.

I have interviewed a number of Castro's opponents over the years and know the split inside the dissenters' movement, here and in Cuba. Some want to keep the embargo, but others feel that exchanges, particularly cultural exchanges between Americans and Cubans, can help grow more seeds for a nonviolent democratic future in that land. So, I offer a guide to those readers likely to partake in JazzTimes' "Music and Cultural Trips to Cuba" where, the ads say, "You'll get an inside look at Cuban society by interacting with the local people."

One distinguished Cuban poet and journalist you will not be able to interact with is Raúl Rivero, an internationally respected journalist and board member of the Inter-American Press Association. In April, in a one-day trial in a Castro courtroom from which foreign journalists were barred, Rivero was sentenced to 20 years for violating Law 88, which, as Amnesty International notes, imposes "unacceptable limits on freedom of expression." Like being an independent journalist.

Rivero's wife, Blanca Reyes, whom you may find it hard to get permission to interact with, told the New York Times: "This is so arbitrary for a man whose only crime is to write what he thinks. What they found on him was a tape recorder, not a grenade." Her husband was one of 75 busted and sent away in this most recent Castro crackdown. Each of them has now been designated by Amnesty International as "a prisoner of conscience"—which may or may not be of some comfort to those in their prison cells.

When Jimmy Carter visited Cuba earlier this year, he spoke encouragingly on Cuban television of the Varela Project, named after a 19th-century Cuban patriot. The project collects signatures from Cubans brave enough to sign a petition to Castro calling for such elemental recognitions in Cuba as the right to have human rights and free political expression. According to the Cuban constitution, if 10,000 Cubans put their names on such a petition, there must be a national referendum for all Cubans to vote on these issues. To Castro's fury, 20,000 Cubans enrolled in the Varela Project, and accordingly, that section of the Cuban constitution is no longer in effect.

Hector Palacios, an organizer and leader of the Varela Project, has been sentenced to 25 years in prison. A number of the prisoners of conscience suffer from illnesses that are not likely to be treated behind bars. Raúl Rivero, for example, among other ailments, is afflicted with phlebitis. Among the independent librarians put away during the crackdown is Julio Antonio Valdes Guevara, suffering from high blood pressure and renal insufficiency. Amnesty International reports that he "is not receiving any medication." Guevara is in for 20 years.

I do not expect these JazzTimes ads to include any of the non-festive information about Cuba provided in this column. And it's also reasonable to believe that anyone hip enough to read JazzTimes has some knowledge of the grim fact that Fidel Castro has an exceedingly limited view of freedom of expression. But it's useful, I believe, for a tourist to have more than a cursory knowledge of a country he or she is visiting.

When I was there, I enjoyed the Afro-Cuban music insofar as I could, considering the obbligato of what I found out about the occasional torture in some of the prisons. If you go on one of these JazzTimes trips, some of the jazz people you meet may be dissenters, and they may tell you so. During the Stalin years, I was in contact with people in Russia who covertly listened to Willis Conover on the Voice of America, and one of them told me he translated and secretly distributed some of my John Coltrane liner notes. Jazz does inspire respect for freedom.

But if you do interact with any of the nonviolent Cuban freedom fighters, be careful with their names and addresses if they want to correspond with you. Other Cubans, including journalists for the state, may ask you if you have met any dissenters during your visit so they can counter their arguments. Or some of these questioners about dissenters you've met may actually be sympathizers. But don't take a chance. Keep the names to yourself. Remember that part of the culture in Cuba involves schoolteachers being required to inform the authorities if any of the kids in their classes show signs of having been indoctrinated at home with disloyal notions about the country's Supreme Leader.

So, bon voyage! And I'd like to hear your reactions to the trip.

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