Saturday, October 10, 2009

Learning Spanish, Make That Learning Cuban

I watch the scenery pass while riding on the Amistur bus. Green everywhere. Royal palm. Trees I can't identify, maybe because they only grow here. Surprising gardens in the middle of meadows and woods even right on the edge of cities, or sprouting in open land wherever someone chooses to plant. I see banana tree orchards, sugar cane fields, rice fields, garden plots. Everywhere are old buildings, good bones, waiting for paint, decorative metal grills, balconies, I see the ubiquitus living fences, some cacti, some made of trees which sprout from cuttings. Every other fence pole sprouts new leaves. Our eyes are drawn to red hibiscus, the aromatic butterfly flowers which hid the messages behind women's ears during all revolutions, the bougainvillea. I see parks and plazas. Everywhere I see beautiful people, walking with umbrellas, riding fast on bicycles, or shouting, waving greetings with both arms, crowded in the back of a passing truck, a full to the brim bus, and carts pulled by horses. I see people sitting in groups in the shade in front of an old stone church as if waiting for the camera to flash. They sit outside a community hall or out on the porches, fanning, watching us pass. I see mothers with babies along the road waiting for the bus to stop. Buses are fined if they do not stop for passengers.

I see signs by sides of the highway, in the middle of fields and pastures, at the entrance of schools, clinics, community centers. Knowing no Spanish, I struggle to pronounce the words saying then aloud, feeling them on my tongue and letting them go. I practice until it feels right.

Seguimos con su ejemplos (with Che's image) (We follow his examples)

Siempre revolucion (A revolution always)

50 años (Fifty Years)

Venceremos porque esta en nuestro lado justicia (We will win because justice is on our side)

Las armas mas poderosas son las ideas (Ideas are the most powerful weapons)

Hasta la Victoria siempre (Always toward victory)

Para defender la revolucion (To defend the revolution)

Ni ingenuos, ni debiles (Neither naive or weak)

Alertas, energicos y combativos (Alert, energetic, willing to fight)

Tenemos y tendremos Libertad (We have and we will have freedom)

Absurdo Primer Mundo! (Absurd First World! No one sells themselves out)
Nadie se vendera

Producir con calidad es eficencia (To produce with quality is efficiency)

Cinco razones
Para sequir luchando (pictures of the Cuban 5 heroes)
(Five reasons to continue struggling)

Por la Patria
(United for the homeland, we will win)

Decir ejemplo (pictures of local heroes)
Es decir revolucion
(To say example is to say revolution)

We stopped briefly on the way back from Batabano on the side of the road. Will wanted to film the rice fields flooded up to the ankles. After a moment, the farmer clambers up the steps of the bus bringing us coconuts cut open for us to drink and ripe guava. "Thank you! Thank you!" we said, passing them to one another. "Thank you!" "Gracias!" He nods,and gives a slight salute as he backs off the bus. Amanda tells us he has climbed tall coconut trees with his knife and brought down enough for us to drink and picked his fruit for us. Visitors resting by his field. Fifty Years!! Cubans will always be Cubans.

"Venceremos! " I say under my breath. The word slips easily off my tongue. I lift the coconut to my mouth and tip my head back for a deep drink of coconut. Viva to the revolution which entrusted the land to the man who works it, grows the fruit. It is he who harvests the fruit and seeing a bus of American Nikkei admiring his rice field can follow his generous nature and upbringing freely rather than labor hard under the rules of an absent landlord who counts his profits carefully in an office in another town.

The Five Heroes

On our first day in Cuba, sitting comfortably in our buses after the stressful experience of crossing borders, TK3 headed in great anticipation to Old Havana where we will be living for several days. On that very first bus ride, we heard Joe, our guide for the next 14 days, speak about the Cuban 5 who are incarcerated in US prisons. The Cuban 5 have not been forgotten by their country -- not in Havana, nor the small island, La Isla de Juventud. They have not been forgotten in Cienfuegos to the South or any town in between our destinations. Everywhere, there are their pictures and references to them. In Cuba they are called the Five Heroes: Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez, Fernando Gonzalez Llort, Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo, Ramon Labanino Salazar and Rene Gonzalez Sehweret.

In the Museum de la Revolucion, once inhabited by Batista and known as the Presidential Palace, on the top floor, the paintings of the nation's finest artists hang on marble walls, each piece inspired by the Cuban 5. When we visited schools, community centers, museums, restaurants, we would see posters of the Five. They stand in prison garb and around their photo are those of their families, especially their brave mothers and wives as well as their inspiring quotes. Young Gabriel and Antonio, sons of Antonio, and Luarita, Aili and Lizbeth, Ramon's daughters as well as Rene's daughters, Ivette and Irmita will grow up knowing their fathers have never been forgotten by their country, and held up as heroes. The Cuban 5 were mentioned each day at some time during our two week stay, and finally, at the end of our trip together, TK3 elder, Mitzi Asai said, "I'll be teaching an adult education class when I get home and I'm going to teach about the Cuban 5." She set the standard for TK3 -- to come home, tell the truth of what we saw in Cuba, and tell the story of the Five Heroes.

If you are like me, you do not know much about the Cuban 5. Perhaps you caught a small article in October this year about their re-sentencing. The motion to dismiss by the 11th circuit court in Atlanta was overturned. Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez, Fernando Gonzalez Llort, Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo, Ramon Labanino Salazar and Rene Gonzalez Sehweret must stay in prison. As ruled by the United Nations Human Rights Commission Working Group on Arbitrary Dentention, May 27, 2005, their incarceration is arbitrary and it contradicts Article 14 of the International Convention on Civil and Political Rights. Noam Chomsky calls the case of the Cuban Five "such a scandal that it is difficult to speak about it."

In fact, in September of this year when Professor of MIT, Noam Chomsky, was interviewed by BBC regarding the October re-sentencing, he said, "They weren’t criminals. They were heroes. I mean they were exposing to the US government crimes that are being committed on US soil; crimes the US government is tolerating and theoretically should be punishing itself." Instead, Professor Chomsky said, rather than acting on the information gathered by the five heroic Cubans and honoring them, the US government is punishing them. "And that’s why global opinion is so appalled by this travesty," Chomsky concluded.

In the early 1990's, these five men came to the United States to monitor Cuban exiles of southern Florida who were known to attack Cuba -- whether through false media attacks, political pressure or outright terrorism. The mid 1990's was a time marked by the crumbling of the Soviet Union with whom Cuba had a trade relationship. With the demise of the USSR, the Cuban economy suffered and Cuba turned to strengthening their tourist industry. South Florida Cuban exile terrorist groups began to wage a violent campaign against the tourist industry -- bombing hotels, airports. Terrorist acts occurred even before since 1959. Between 1959 and 2002, south Florida extremist terrorist acts killed 3, 478 and maimed another 2,099. The Reagan administration and those following should have been alarmed that 360 were committed on American soil -- 15 in Washington DC, 59 in New York, 172 in Miami, Dade County, 28 in Puerto Rico and 11 in New Jersey. Interestingly, seven were committed specifically on the date, September 11, in years before 2001, while another 5 were around September 11.

The US and even the UN did not listen to Cuba and their protests against these earlier terrorist actions. So in 1995, Cuba had no choice but to send people to infiltrate these terrorist groups and report any plans for attacks on Cuba, which the Five succeeded in doing. The Home Affairs Ministry of Cuba provided the FBI files of detailed information on plans for violence in Miami, audio and videotapes and information about the organizers of criminal activities. What was done with this information? The injustice is that rather than act on the new information, the FBI rounded up the Cuban Five.

In violation of human rights, the Attorney General's Office tried to make a deal with Rene Gonzalez Sehwerert saying that his wife and American born daughter would be deported unless he pleaded guilty. He refused to plead guilty and turn on the other four. His wife was arrested and brought to the Miami jail to be shown to Rene and he still refused. The INS then deported his family and they have never been allowed to see him, even his American born daughter.

The long trial of the Cuban Five in Miami ended after seven months with a conviction of the four of the Five for conspiracy to commit espionage, and for one, the conspiracy to commit murder. Of course, attorneys asked for a change of venue from Miami many times, but were denied. In December, 2001, the Five were given prison sentences. Antonio Guerrero was sentenced to life plus 10; Fernando Llort sentenced to 19 years; Ramon Salazar to life plus 18; Rene to 15; and Gerardo Hernandez Nordelo, two life sentences plus 15. They committed no crime. These are their sentences for fighting terrorism.

According to lawyers, Leonard Weinglass and Ian Thomas, "conspiracy to commit" is a charge prosecuters generally use in political cases. The charge of conspiracy relieves the government from having to prove the crime, crimes which was never committed. In other words, the government never had to prove the espionage that never occurred. The charge of "conspiracy" receives the same sentence as the actual crime -- life imprisonment.

The lawyers for the Five go on to say that there are other groups like the Five who infiltrate organizations on behalf of protecting their home country against threat, just as the US does in other countries themselves. To their knowledge, the lawyers say that these groups have not been prosecuted, but just sent back home.

Cuba is treated very differently by the US in many instances -- immigration policy, exchanges, and, in the case of the Cuban Five, the punishment for infiltrating organizations dangerous for their country. The lawyers believe that the difference in treatment is solely based on the way the US deals with the Revolution.

As of October, Antonio was imprisoned in Colorado, Gerardo in California, Ramon in Texas, Rene is in South Carolina, and Fernando in Wisconsin. All are in maximum security and were, at first, confined "in the hole" with no light, for one and a half years. In violation of human rights, the wives of the men have been denied visas by the United States to see their husbands. Ramon's beloved mother died since imprisonment,

This is while the known terrorist, Orlando Bosch, still walked the streets of Miami. Labeled by the US Justice Department as the most dangerous terrorist in the Western Hemisphere, he is responsible for the recruiting of Luis Posada Carriles who masterminded the bombing of a Cuban airline jet in 1976 which killed all passengers on board. Carriles was only recently jailed, after freely living out in the open in Florida for the last six years. Roberto Martin Perez, south Miami terrorist and good friend of Eduardo Avocena, imprisoned terrorist for having bombed sites in New York City and New Jersey, was being wooed by Presidential candidate John McCain who made a promise to release Eduardo Avocena.

I conclude with some words lifted from Antonio Guerrero Rodriguez' defense statement presented December 27, 2001:

Why so much hatred for the Cuban people?
Is it because Cuba chose a different road?
Because its people want socialism?
Because it did away with the large estates and wiped out illiteracy?
Because it gave free education and medical care to its people?
Because it lets the dawn break freely over its children?

Cuba has never placed the security of the United States in jeopardy nor committed any act of aggression or terrorism against it. It deeply loves peace and quiet and wants the best relations between our two countries. It has shown that it admires and respects the American people.
'Cuba is not a military threat to the United States,' Admiral Carroll said in this courtroom. General Atkinson testified that Cuba presents 'zero military threat' to the United States.
It is my country's unquestionable right -- like that of any other -- to defend against those who try to harm its people.

The job of putting a stop to these terrorist acts has been complex and difficult because the terrorists have enjoyed the complicity and lax tolerance of the authorities. My country has done everything possible to warn the US government of the danger of these acts and to do so it has used official, unofficial and public channels. However, such cooperation has never been reciprocated.

In the 90's, fired up by the demise of the socialist camp, terrorist groups intensified their activities against Cuba. It was, they felt, the long dreamed hour for stirring up the final chaos, for terrorizing the people, destabilizing the economy, damaging the tourist industry, building up a crisis and dealing the death blow to the Cuban Revolution.

What could Cuba do to defend itself and be forewarned of the terrorist plans against it? What could it do to avoid a greater conflict? What options did it have to safeguard its sovereignty and the safety of its children?

One way to prevent these brutal and bloody acts, to prevent the suffering becoming worse because of more deaths was to move quietly. There was no alternative but to rely on men who -- out of love for a just cause, out of love for their country and their people, out of love for peace and life -- were prepared to voluntarily agree to carry out this honorable duty against terrorism, that is, to give advanced warning of the danger of attack.

Antonio ends his defense with several quotes.

If I were asked to do the same thing again, I would do it with honor. An excerpt from a letter that Cuban general Antonio Maceo who fought for Cuban Independence in the 19th century, wrote a Spanish general comes to mind at this time with force and passion: "I shall not find any reason for having cut myself off from humanity. I pursue not a policy of hatred but of love; this is not an exclusionist policy but one founded in human morality."

Because of your rulings, my beloved brothers and I must be unjustly kept in prison, but there we shall not cease from defending the cause and the principles we have embraced. Your honor, many days and months of an unjust, cruel and horrible imprisonment have gone by! I have sometimes wondered, what is time? And like Saint Augustin, I have answered myself, "If they ask me I don't know but if they don't ask me, I do know." Hours of solitude and hopes, of reflection about injustice and small mindedness; eternal minutes in which memories burn bright. There are memories that burn the memory!

I take these verses by Marti for the last page that I write in the diary of my long days:
"I have lived:
It was a duty that I pledged my arms
And not once did the sun drop down behind the hills
That did not see my struggle and my victory . . ."

And here in this courtroom I quote from the Uruguayan and world poet, Mario Benedetti: " ... victory will be there, just like me, simply germinating"

Because in the end, we shall rest free and victorious beneath that sun which we are denied today.
Terrorist? NO!
Son, patriot, father, poet, artist, thinker and beloved son of the Cuban people.

Write to two of the Five Heroes and let them know you know their story.

Fernando Gonzalez Llort
Ruben Campa Federal Detention Center
P.O. Box 019120
Miami, FL 33101

Antonio Guerrero
Ruben Campa Federal Detention Center
P.O. Box 019120
Miami, FL 33101

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


As an introduction, let me explain that Will and I returned August 25 from Cuba. We spent two weeks there with a Berkley based group, Tsukimi Kai, Japanese Americans doing a cultural exchange and oral history research project with Japanese Cubans. We first learned about Tsukimi Kai when director Steve Wake, also trip coordinator, showed his film "Under the Same Moon" at DisOrient Asian American Film Festival 3. Will and I had the privilege of hosting Steve in our home.

We became so excited learning that there were Nikkei in Cuba from Steve. Why that is a surprise anymore to me is a sad comment on how easily one becomes brainwashed. Of course, the USA is not the only country where Japanese immigrated during the chaotic time following the forced opening to the West in the 1850's. Japanese went to Latin America including Cuba, as well as Canada and the US and I'm sure many other places in the world. Anywhere they were recruited to do hard labor.

"Under the Same Moon" made Cuba accessible to Will and me. And when Steve emailed us about Tsukimi Kai 3, TK3 became the door to a longheld fantasy. We had planned for the summer a small kitchen remodel, maybe work on the "bathroom from hell" our name for the back bathroom, but it was no contest. Cuba won. (Side note. I don't call these rooms insulting or apologetic names anymore. I think of them as my Cuban kitchen and bathroom because they haven't been upgraded since the early 60's, the same time of the beginning of the blockade.)

It's expensive to go to Cuba, and two weeks is a long time at this time in our lives. It meant leaving my mother and putting a hold on Winnemem work. Beyond the two week trip, TK3 is a very serious kind of group. Every other week on a Saturday, we attended meetings on Skype, and in between times had homework. There was the readings, of course. Also there was the play -- in Spanish, the Soran Bushi dance (done the hard way) and sub committee meetings between the larger meetings. The subcommittees were working subcommittees. Will was on the social documentation committee. I was too but I realized in Cuba I was useless without language. And I was on the gifting committee (omiyage) for 250 Nikkei we would meet on the Isle of Youth, and other Nikkei families in Cienfuegos, Batabano, Havana as well as a museum, elder center, youth community center, a Committee in Defense of the Revolution (i.e., City government), and a community murals and art project, our bus drivers, guides, and other people helping us. The workload for every committee was quite heavy. Other committees included logistics (very inportant but daunting) and fundraising as well as the Home Team. Preparation was key.

So we went to Cuba and returned. Now it's a month later from our departure to Mexico City to Habana. We are having our first Skype meeting since our return on Thursday. The meetings are not over. And we are to address any one of three prompts: a) share a highlight of our trip; b) what was learned about Nikkei and Okinawans; or c) Cuba's significance -- effect on our life, how we see the world and how we see Cuba. We each have five minutes which means prepare. I am sharing with you my response to the TK3 team and will write about Cuba many times on my blog. How did I like Cuba? I will say that from the moment we returned, I felt something which could only be described as homesickness. Cuba is in my heart.

For the moment, my trip highlight story also addresses how the trip affected me, how I see Cuba and how I see the world.

At Murealeando, a group of us, Will and I, three of the mural artists and the school principal were talking. I remember joking, the work’s not easy living in the bowels of the Monster. “Aha!” said the principal pointing with one finger toward the ceiling. “I have lived in the Monster, and I have seen its belly! That’s what Jose Marti said!”

Will and I involuntarily shouted and applauded. That quote was such a revelation.

Over the two weeks, what we saw in Cuba no matter what neighborhood we may have visited, was an application of Jose Marti's quote. Just 100 miles from a huge empire who had plans of their own for Cuba since the 1800's and in the years since the revolution which purged their country of US thugs, the mafia, and which nationalized US sugar companies, Cuba has remained true to themselves despite acts of terror, a long US blockade affecting its economy. Despite the huge challenges, Cuba has realized in a very short time all their important revolutionary goals beyond anyone's expectation -- agrarian reform, health care and education. The rest of the world knows Cuba by the cadre of Cuban doctors who are often the first to arrive at every disaster site in the world. The rest of the world knows Cuba by its educational system which graduates doctors from all over the world, third world countries and even a few from the USA. The rest of the world's citizens travel there freely as tourists. What they see is that being Cuban is a hard life but treasured, that Cubans work together to stay Cubans. Cuba may have little materially, but what I witnessed is a wealth of pride living their revolutionary vision, something that so many countries aren’t able to do yet. I am inspired by the democratic values expressed in their Constitution, the power of grassroots organizing, their optimistic view, resourcefulness and hard work despite a lack of materials and their tenacious defense of their identity, lifestyle and revolution. I feel at home with the “tribal-like” hospitality I witnessed everywhere. I feel uplifted and cleansed by the land and the climate.

I am forever changed by Cuba. We’ve all experienced becoming well and not realizing until then how sick we really were. Cuba lit Hope in me that apparently I had been living without for quite awhile. Even if I had some hope, Cuba certainly made the fire flare higher. Within a few days there, I felt my stress go. I hadn’t realized I carry it all the time. The faces of the youth without an edge, the unexplainable feeling one gets in a country where no one is being crushed, the tenor of the laughter, the breadth of the hospitality, the quickness of the embrace, the landscapes without ads and and airwaves without jingles, surrounded with that, I was more lighthearted than I have ever felt.

Will and my gleeful response in Murealeando to the Jose Marti quote erupted because it so resonated in our own lives, our most significant choice being that we accepted tribal membership when it was offered along with the heavy responsibilities which come with it from a small unrecognized historical tribe in California who will always be Winnemem no matter what. From the beginning of time, they have demonstrated their sovereignty. The tribe has taken a stand against every attack upon our way of life, a stand which we refer to as War Dance, or H’up Ch’onas as the Winnemem ancestors did before us. The tribe, like Cuba, does not have material wealth, and as a result, human life and the land become our treasure. Our position -- on the outside of the Monster's belly -- gives the tribe strength and direction. Our chief may joke about Winnemem Wage -- working hard for no pay -- but to belong to mountains and springs, and inherit the privilege and ancient responsibility to speak for sacred lands, the salmon and clean water is a rare privilege in this "Land of Opportunity." I was anxious to share Marti's quote and other things I witnessed in Cuba with my Winnemem family. And when I did the Headman encouraged me, if I could, to set up something which would help build a relationship between the Winnemem and the Cuban people.

My own perspective on world struggle, after returning home, has shifted. Even for those who are not tribal and do not have an historical pre-colonial relationship with the land, there’s a living example for survival just beyond this crumbling empire’s borders, a country running on people’s power, guided by human rights. No matter what happens, communities of people can rise to any challenge, even without material wealth and live happily if their eyes are fixed on valuing human life and the earth and if they work together to accomplish any task. Even in its imperfection, the Cuban people see themselves "in process" of meeting democratic ideals. That is how they view struggle. As the young violinist said whom we met at the community center, a center which was brought to life by disenchanted youth and the adults and elders of the community, “I have hope.” And that’s the gift I brought home with me.
"from Outside the Belly" was also known as "TBAsian" from 2008-2010. Thank you for reading.

from Outside the Monster's Belly

from Outside the Monster's Belly
. . . following Earth instead (Rakaia River, site of Salmon Ceremony, photo credit Ruth Koenig)


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Eugene, Oregon
I am a citizen of the Winnemem Wintu Tribe. I am a Nikkei descendant sansei (third generation);retired teacher, involved in the Winnemem tribal responsibility to Water, Salmon, and our belief that the Sacred is our Teacher. Working locally for human rights and supporting youth leadership.