By Yassel A. Padrón Kunakbaeva
Yadira Escobar is a young Cuban-born activist based in Florida. The daughter of Reinaldo Escobar, who had to leave the island as a political exile after spending time in prison, Yadira has always been committed to the Cuban issue. Her field of activity has been wide-ranging. She has been a visual artist, a writer, a blogger, and above all an activist for dialog between Cubans and for the normalization of relations between Cuba and the US. This stance has earned her the rejection of the more reactionary elements in the Cuban-American right. Recently, she has caused controversy by entering the race for the Democratic candidacy in Florida’s 25th Congressional District.
Bearing in mind the history of your family, why do you defend reconciliation among Cubans and the normalization of relations between Cuba and the US?
I grew up dealing with the conflict between what my family went through and the love for my native country. Homeland and migration marked by the cold war were a complex setting, but I was educated with certain moral principles that helped me understand how necessary reconciliation is between Cubans divided by ideologies which today have lost all touch with reality.
I want to solve as many problems as I can through fraternity, because too many times I’ve seen misunderstandings make things worse when there could have been an easy solution. When you love a person, you appreciate them and the feeling of fraternity prevails, so you start to really listen, because you want to reach an agreement, not to defeat an opponent.
Only when we get rid of negative inheritance and cultivate fraternity and friendship may we tackle our national problems with objectivity. We are dogged all the time by external strife and animosity, but prejudices can be eradicated with education and spiritual maturity. In a more general sense, I would like it if it wasn’t an eventual global catastrophe or a devastating famine after the Third World War that made us bring down our arrogance and cooperate for the common good, for that is the most likely scenario if we continue down this path, back to traumas we hide, but never defeated; such as fascism, the unhealthy concentration of capital in only a few hands, racism, etc.
On a smaller scale, among friends and relatives, I’ve been able to verify that when you value people first and foremost, it doesn’t matter what idea they bring, because you trust them and their will, even when they hurt you with harsh criticism or a slight in their treatment. If they are mistaken, you try to persuade them, make them see your version of the truth, and even if you’re certain about a concrete fact, like, let’s say, a mathematical equation, you are willing to concede, because you simply don’t want to hurt them.
For me, reconciliation among Cubans is a moral high ground which has a lot to do with the normalization of relations between the United States and Cuba. It’s not normal that two neighboring countries with cultural bonds can’t have healthy relations. The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore, but the United States does. Therefore, the United States should make an extra effort not to give the poor impression of sticking to old policies as the sole survivor of that ideological battle.
Empirical information can be a useful tool and, far from dangerously idealizing socialism or capitalism, I know their deepest shames, so I’ll be able to realistically contribute to an answer, because both systems need to be reformed in order to meet social demands. Both peoples would benefit when, once and for all, the governments of the US and Cuba talk to each other with mutual respect, but that will only be possible when we’re able to shed that entire well-to-do class which parasitizes our pain and profits from our tears. Change begins with unmasking all those who perpetuate discord. Once we all understand who the enemies of peace and prosperity are, we’ll be able to get rid of the biggest obstacle.
Taking stock, what do you think are the results of the cultural exchange experience? Why does it have so many enemies?
Cultural exchange failed because doing good is difficult. As a species, we are our worst enemy and we often work against our own well-being just to see the other person fail. You know, gouging one eye to see the other person go blind. That very ambitious yet beautiful project found an enemy in anyone who felt threatened by a change to the lucrative status quo. It was also disowned by conservative voters intimidated by the Obama presidency, since they viewed the arrival of Cuban musicians as an ideological invasion. I respect that fear some have of a supposed invasion, because it’s often an honest fear, although I know it comes from the propaganda of those with media power in the community. It would be coherent then that from Miami they would respect the sovereign decision of Cubans in the island to live as they wish, although we have always practiced some interference in Cuba (my own short-wave radio show could be interpreted as interference in Cuban affairs). But even so, I understand that feeling of loss of space.
For centuries our species went to war for wells of drinking water, fertile valleys and fishing areas, so we must behave with extra sensitivity when we mean to involve others in an exchange which should be mutual. The cultural exchange tried to overcome stages, but the cold war is still being fought, and disinformation fuels discord. The political right in Miami criticizes some Cuban musicians for their ideological statements in the island, and fights to keep them from having concerts here, demanding at the same time that other musicians sponsored by the big record labels (not necessarily the best) and openly against the Cuban State go play concerts in Havana. I still haven’t seen a Cuban musician from the island come to Miami with subversive lyrics against the American republic in their repertoire, or who sings Willy Chirino-like songs anticipating the crumbling of the American system. I tried to participate in the exchange, but when I asked for the travel permit, the State Department replied that it was forbidden to negotiate with the enemy, and although the artistic authorities I talked to in the island assured me they wanted to help make the exhibition of my paintings happen, they certainly obstructed the project by asking me to contact the bureaucracy to obtain countless permits and pertinent documents which, since I was born in Cuba, were unnecessary. In short, bringing together those who don’t get along for so many serious reasons will take political will and ethical courage, so we can apply a basic sense of justice in finding what benefits peoples instead of governments.
Yadira, are you a communist? What comes to your mind when they use that label against you in Florida?
No, I’m not a communist. They don’t usually ask me that question, they rather state it as a fact, and in the liberated age when anyone can identify with anything, even the other sex, they insist on denying us freethinkers our ideological identity. When they accuse us of being communists, even though in some cases we may be advocates of the free market and sort of reformists of capitalism—the most dangerous enemy of the orthodox communist—it’s really not a condemnation of Marxism-Leninism, because those leading the witch-hunts against anything that looks red have rarely read Das Kapital, don’t know what Keynesianism is or don’t understand the concept of dialectics. Like in the time of the Inquisition, it’s about detecting any dangerous activity which introduces the habit of questioning sacred tenets and may set off a wave of challenges to the power that seeks to control our minds. They put the label of communist on anyone who criticizes what’s wrong and, after advocating something better, urges others to do the same—it’s a dangerous infection which has been penalized in the United States since the past century. Being a communist is seen as being fundamentally anti-patriotic.
That simplism means to silence transverse proposals which do not remotely encourage taking over the means of production or establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. Those who have even become estranged from their own families because they feel little soldiers fighting a bogus advance of communism are worthy of compassion. With pragmatism, I can say we, as citizens of this republic, would benefit from having some attractive communist power that would force neoliberalism to make concessions in our favor so we remain quiet; since the worst thing in a relationship is that they take our affection for granted. If I were a communist, I would shout it at the top of my voice with pride, because as a public figure I’ve never minced my words, but it shows you how intolerant our environment is when I’m attacked for wanting to improve the living conditions of the majorities living within capitalism. They fear a reformist and they call her a revolutionary or a communist, because they actually want total control.
Is there political intolerance in Miami?
This question allows an expansion on the previous topic. If someone with my personal history and public statements is turned into the most hated witch who must be expelled from the country she lives in, often by people who aren’t even American citizens, then, what real space is there for the true communists who have a right to exist? Is it the crushing censorship of a stake for them to burn at?
My socialist friends are beautiful people with a vast political culture and, even though I may not agree with them about the type of future society we must build, I trust their criticism because they are the ones with a clearer view of the shortcomings of the present, and we will never know how monstrous the current world order would be without that socialist finger pointed at legal abuses. In contrast with other urban locations in the liberal coast, here we have significant Hispanic migration with ultra-conservative convictions, which is therefore strongly anti-communist (anyone on the left of Margaret Thatcher), and they keep Miami bogged down in anachronistic intolerance, in a modern city with beaches, cosmopolitan tourism and night clubs.
There’s a right to freedom of expression, but exercising it is a show of individual courage, because the law is dead letter if, in practice, so many members of our community feel intimidated when they speak. The elders let you know that they are afraid to say certain things which are outside the accepted discourse and the young shrug it away when they accept they must shut up if they wish to keep their jobs. There are even ultra-conservatives who ask me to think about future consequences for me in South Florida because of my statements. Although fatal biology will make the more radical previous generations retire, the environment will not favor the free exchange of ideas provided that new people are recruited to defend the intolerance of the past. With that ‘new’ campaign to economically asphyxiate our family members on the island by denying the charity of remittances, we see an attempt to recycle the old hatred and resentment for the general population that we know will not bring social changes, but poverty and suffering. Putting pressure on or blackmailing those in the island so they make the change that us expatriates refused to make by leaving, is cowardly and irresponsible. In contrast with the inhumane policy of confrontation I’ve seen fail, I promote peace and dialog, because there’s been enough war between us.
What made you vote for Trump in the 2016 election?
I’ve been advised to run in this election campaign for 2020 as a ‘progressive republican’ because, in addition to defending a strong social net that may rescue anyone who falls down and needs our help getting up, I hold traditional values hijacked by the conservative right in the social and economic realms. My vote for Trump is one of the reasons why the Democratic Party has made efforts to disown me, because in the era of extreme polarization, flirting with the other side is seen as high treason. Donald Trump was the outsider who, with a populist discourse, appropriated the typical causes of the working class, which has been ignored by the most elitist leaders of the Democratic Party. He promised to purge corruption in Washington DC, but then, although he hasn’t gotten us involved in any new wars, he has allowed himself to be advised by old hawks who do believe in a change of regime. Because, although it’s positive that he’s dared to speak with the Korean leader, for example, moving the American troops out of Syria to abandon the Kurds and thus continue the war in Yemen, where more than 100,000 people have died, is not really changing the course of our policies.
He will obviously be the Republican candidate, because, although the party disowned him, they have no choice. However, I will not vote for him this second time around, because he broke crucial campaign promises, he further divided the country and he has assaulted the rule of law by operating with total irreverence, as we saw in his recent scandal with Ukraine. It’s clear to me that, even though he didn’t come from the political swamp, he brought his poor business practices to the White House. Instead of exclusively focusing on improving the United States as any sensible patriot would, he has failed to be a committed leader, and we continue to waste billions of dollars in actions which benefit the few to the detriment of the many. We are increasingly closer to the next recession or the next major war, and I don’t think we have the resilience of previous generations to resist without the most sacred pillars collapsing, such as individual liberties or the rule of law. Yes, empathy has fallen by 40% in the young, and the vast majority of the population is unable to raise even $400 in case of an emergency without asking for a loan. We are not prepared for tough times, when people reveal their true colors.
Yadira, you’re a Sephardic Jew. How has your religion influenced your way of being and your political stances? What’s your opinion on the behavior of the State of Israel in the voting against the blockade on Cuba?
Although I believe in the separation of Church and State, the education I received inevitably sentenced me for life to keep a balance between the left and the right, and not to let the wealth or poverty of someone cloud my judgment. The concept of tikkun olam—the reparation of the planet so the Creator will no longer hide His face in rejection of our crimes—is the perfect example of an early education. If God’s mercy is infinite, holding grudges from our inferior human condition is reprehensible, and imperfect beings should do everything in their power within the short framework of the miracle of life in order to help their neighbors. Authoritarianism abuses others with an immature arrogance that ignores how fragile we are, and that utilitarian mentality may serve an ambitious young man as long as he doesn’t fall sick. We need a perspective in life which benefits all members of our society, to integrate the strong and healthy, but also the less fortunate, and we are all a defective product of sorts.
The Old Testament is always seen as merciless because it’s brutally honest, for if you sin, you will certainly be punished, but that internal pressure drives you to being an increasingly better person, since you’re the owner of your decisions, and not a victim of inevitable misfortune. We cannot forget either that these ancient laws were extremely civilized at that time of human sacrifices. My religious upbringing instilled individual strength into me to defend my principles without the approval of the majority, which is many times wrong or becomes organized to persecute you. And I’m an optimist, because I think the Messiah is yet to come, so the hope of a better world (caring and peaceful, where love and respect reign) is set on the future, and with our good community actions we may speed up its coming.
Life is a gift. Most of us have more than we deserve. There’s nobility in each person, but present-day culture seeks to boost our evils, because our selfishness moves the economy, and when you are truly a person of faith, you can do more good on your own than the heavy machinery of institutionalized religion. The State of Israel is weak, no larger than the Miami-Dade County I live in, and its extreme right capitalizes on the population’s fear of a rain of missiles. But it’s very regrettable that, Israel being a country under the sanctions of the Arab world—their natural neighbors—, they do not sympathize with the similar Cuban situation when they support sanctions on them. We’re talking about money and realpolitik, so that solidarity vote with the United States will not change, because it’s about survival, since only economic independence makes us free, and without those millions of American dollars, their economy would collapse. And if the extreme left seized power, by the force of democracy Israel would disappear vote by vote. So that’s why I cannot support the right of Palestinians to return, but a two separate states solution instead.
When you think of Cuba, what comes to your mind?
Cuba is the materialization of memories so distant that they were almost forgotten dreams already, so it will never lose that unreal quality. And this is not idealization, since those first six years were dark with persecution and absolute marginalization. Cuba is a rebel island in the Caribbean paradise, from which you can make the rich and powerful tremble with mirages, bravado and even wooden tanks, and I’m deeply proud of my origin. There’s relative peace and prosperity in other countries, but because of our misfortunes and victories, we have been forced to outdo ourselves, and as a result of adversity, we make flowers grow in the swamp.
I don’t know what it’s like to be normal or to live under the radar, and on a national scale we always stand out for good or bad reasons, because we are either geniuses or the most stubborn. From afar, and surrounded by foreigners, you may get—it’s not a guarantee—a better vision of what Cuba is, and even our frivolous things, what’s mundane or lessened for the world, describes a country with everything against it, and yet evolving with hundreds of special things, and in it up to the neck.
Cuba is its past; those who now live with its ghost and those who apply their minds to the challenges of the future. For me, the Pearl of the Caribbean is complaining among friends while waiting in line to buy something subsidized, in slippers, but with culture, and leaning against some architectural jewel turned into a center for free studies that attracts left-wing tourists in need of replenishing their energies to face the injustices of the current neoliberal globalization. Cuba is aluminum rocking chairs, Soviet memories and royal palm trees. Cuba is unique and it shouldn’t lose its spiritual nature.
What are you expectations regarding the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel?
Cuban democracy is imperfect, as they all are. Governments always do things wrong, but since it’s a poor country, it cannot pay for a glamorous public relations campaign, as other do, and there are still elements I cannot support, because they are direct consequences of self-isolation and the ideological narrow-mindedness born out of the state of emergency. Cuba is under permanent attack, and it’s normal that it should defend itself, but the price of defense is high.
I don’t doubt someone like me would frequently have serious confrontations with the government, when I see that the traditional homemade problems are now joined by external issues such as the appearance of selfish and cynical behaviors, in addition to the destructive use of strong drugs, when that was practically unheard of before. As any country, it has—and should have—its own model. Within my support for the self-determination of peoples there’s space to criticize and condemn what so many people are already being paid to denounce, that it’s not really ‘specialized labor’.
I understand that the Cuban people mostly loved Fidel, and the passing of time will only make that memory stronger and more romantic, but Raúl Castro got the difficult historical mission of making the transition to an economy more focused on efficiency than on ideological loyalty to the revolutionary principle, and for many people that meant the loss of their government jobs and the bitter, albeit necessary appearance of social differences. For the lost generation, it must have been very hard to see how one couldn’t live with as much dignity as before. The equality Fidel Castro fought so hard for was hopelessly weakened for economic reasons, and the marginal elements—and even the lumpen proletariat—reached the peak of their glory aided by the black market and crime. The more skillful members of the government and communist bureaucracy moved to Miami, adapting to new narratives and trying to inherit the privileges of the old anti-Castro right, with little success.
If you’re raised in capitalism, you can perfectly be a good person within the market, with your contradictions and everything. But if you said from a very early age that you’d be like Che Guevara, because personal profit is a product of the exploitation of man and you had a comprehensive education of rejection to the market, and you take the bold leap of supporting the opposite discourse, you can get to be a heartless subject of regression to the old-style man without the hindrance of bourgeois morals. You become a subject without ethical checks, like the one that formed the pack which tore down the social order after the fall of communism in the East. I’m still worried about the idea that Cuba might be going through the same scenario that, in Russia or Eastern Europe, paved the way for the horrors those peoples endured when they were left unprotected against private capital and the totalitarianism of the right, which even forbid the formation of communist parties and the use of Marxist symbols.
Díaz-Canel has managed not to be vehemently hated by Miami, because since the beginning he was presented as a powerless puppet of the communist party by the private media and the federal entity Radio y TV-Martí. So far, that’s an achievement after all, because the Cuban government must be quite busy with the aggressions of Trump, a fascist Bolsonaro in Brazil, a coup in Bolivia and the anti-Cuban actions of extremists in Nicaragua and Venezuela.
My grandfather recently underwent an operation with a sophisticated laser machine in Camagüey, but afterwards I learned that there were difficulties with the necessary antibiotic because of the economic war waged against Cuba. If all the modest sources of income go away, there won’t be enough to even turn on the respirators for patients. Governing in times of economic bonanza is easy, because people don’t feel their usual wastefulness, but the burden of being responsible—no matter how convened the distribution of responsibilities might be, it’s a heavy burden—with everything stacked against him… Díaz-Canel at least hasn’t allowed Cuba to become a failed state, so in Florida we can be thankful we don’t have a new wave of desperate rafters threatening the order or the economy, or famine affecting our families in the island. It’s very regrettable that the opening of Obama didn’t coincide with Díaz-Canel, for we will never know what would have happened between those two reformists with regards to political freedoms, regional cooperation and diplomacy in the service of our rapprochement.
What made you run for the Democratic candidacy in Congress?
There’s a lot of weight in coming from a family with a long tradition of political participation through generations. It’s an invisible heritage that predisposes you to be militant in advocating your principles. I’m running as a Democrat because we have a strictly bipartisan model, but if they—and the press—don’t leave me alone and insist on attacking me, as established castes do everywhere, I’ll keep going in spite of their resistance. If the people want it, we’ll do this with or without the Party.
I’m running because I want to serve my community, and give them the chance of choosing representation that’s real and free from anti-democratic elements, since I’m only taking contributions from individuals and not accepting corporate money. We cannot hope that professional politicians will fight tooth and nail for our interests if they are paid by corporations, because, although they get nowhere without our votes, they are aware that those millions of dollars make them know. Essentially, there are only two types of candidates, the ones who speak directly to voters and the ones who spend the whole day on their phones with rich donors and thus raise funds for publicity.
Being realistic, it can’t be done without money, but that’s something we have to fix if we really want to be a better country, where everyone is able to reach the most humble version of the American dream. Enough with covering or condemning what’s wrong from journalism or activism without trying to fix our reality in America. The Internet—though it’s hijacked by information monopolies— is a double-edged sword we will use to bring civil forces together in the same way that the hybrid and highly international fascism of today is doing.
Anything to say to the readers of La Joven Cuba?
The message you ask for the readers of La Joven Cuba will be read by the vast Cuban community spread throughout the world, and I’ll use this opportunity—if you’ve had the interest of reading this far—to ask you a favor: change your mind about something. It might seem silly, but it’s very gratifying and very freeing to allow someone to help you have a different view of something that used to be unquestionable. It’s the only way to grow, not only in our spirit, but also with others.
(Translated from the original)