In Cuba the government throws people in jail for daring to speak their minds
A Danish cartoonist from a Cuban’s perspective
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My encounter with Kurt Westergaard was an unforgettable experience. Shaking his hand and spending over 3 hours with the man, was one of the greatest honors I have ever experienced.
But for me, as a Cuban exile, it represented much more than meeting Westergaard. Through the man, I had the opportunity to materialize a 6-year-old friendship with a whole country. This affair started in the streets of Toronto, Canada, with the “rally for Denmark”.
Back in 2006 hell broke loose for this quiet nation when the core of liberty, freedom of speech, was duly exercised by depicting the prophet Mohammed. As Danish flags and embassies were being torched by mobs, and “Made in Denmark” products boycotted all around the Islamic world, for me and my friends at the Cuban Canadian Foundation, silence was not an option. All of a sudden Denmark was no longer that uneventful Scandinavian country, better known for its high taxes and the great storyteller Hans Christian Andersen. Denmark became the new Israel, targeted by many, supported by just a few and falling rapidly into the category of pariah state. Therefore we joined the downtown Toronto rally organized by the Canadian Coalition for Democracies to show Canada’s support.
For weeks and up that point in time at the rally, the only way I found to contribute in counteracting the hit taken by Danish exports was by drinking exclusively Tuborg beer. So there we were a bunch of quixotic Cubans in downtown Toronto, brandishing Cuban, Canadian and Danish flags, while listening to the short speeches by the rally organizers. In hindsight, we should have looked more than colourful to the TV crew covering the event, especially that news lady who approached me with a microphone and a camera. I was a bit frightened by her point-blank question:”Why is this important for you Cubans?” I was speechless and a bit paranoid at first. Was she a Cuban intelligence agent sent to track us down? Funny as it is, we Cubans have a Pavlov like reflex developed after decades of repression, and we all carry a dose of paranoia. So after a few seconds all I could basically answer was that since humanity is only one, there is only one freedom in the world. We are all less free every time an individual is coerced to make silence. That for me was so obvious and self-explanatory that I was puzzled by the simplicity of her question.
And here I was now, 6 years after those events, having passed the rigorous security screening to meet the guy that triggered it all. Sporting a typical Cuban shirt (guayabera) and communicating impressively well in Spanish, Westergaard was showing us not just the kindness of Danish hospitality but also the great human being behind the cartoons. We talked about his past, his difficult present, the impact the cartoons had on the world and especially to the Danish society. But we also exchanged a few jokes. After all, jokes are all what is left for Cubans in Cuba to exert their freedom of speech and we are indeed good at making fun of ourselves. That is one of our favourite means of releasing the tension in an oppressive existence while asserting our humanity.
Here is the irony: in Cuba the government throws people in jail for daring to speak their minds while most of the world either ignore it, or contributes to it by propping up the regime. Thousands have purged decades in Cuban prisons (some up to 30 years, many of whom in solitary confinement), even executed for challenging the status quo. Meanwhile, this brave citizen of Denmark is protected by the law of his country and the government ensures his safety by all means.
And that I guess explains the instant connection established with Denmark by many Cubans.