In Castro’s Cuba, freedom of humor went first
BY KRISTINA ARRIAGA – 12/21/16 07:00 PM EST 19
The olive green military jeep that carried Fidel Castro’s ashes broke
down. It is fitting. In a country where everything is a façade, it took
the death of a tyrant to pull the curtain back. For a moment, the world
got a glimpse of the rigged reality that is CastrOz, an impoverished
island jail. The mechanics in charge of the Jeep must have trembled in
fear as secret police pushed it to its final destination. This was the
ultimate joke at Fidel’s expense—and jokes have been banned in Cuba for
over 50 years.
Fidel Castro banned humor before he banned free press or free libraries.
He banned humor before he outlawed Christmas for over 30 years. He
banned humor before he incarcerated, tortured, and executed his enemies
and every priest who opposed him. Satire became a crime before he sent
gay people to labor camps.
Laughter became suspicious before he confiscated Cubans’ private
property, before millions fled without their wedding rings or family
photographs. Jokes were prohibited before desperate parents sent 14,000
Cuban children to the United States by themselves. Before over half of
them realized they would never see their families again.
“Irreverence is the lifeblood of freedom,” said Simon Schama, a Columbia
University scholar. Castro understood this and immediately moved to
silence any source of humor related to himself. A few months after he
became Cuba’s dictator, Cuban satire MAD-like magazine, ZigZag, ran a
cartoon with Castro in it, surrounded by people he considered undesirable.
He shut down the magazine. Soon after, the beloved Cuban comedian
Leopoldo “Trespatines” Fernandez made an on-stage quip about a picture
of Castro: “And that one there, we have to hang him very high.” Castro
forbade any more performances by Fernandez.
Over the next 50 years, no more jokes were told in public in Cuba. It is
rumored that Fidel meticulously checked “Granma,” Cuba’s official
newspaper, every single day to ensure proper, serious, and sober
treatment of all of his ideas.
But in private, Cubans kept laughing at the dictator’s expense. As
dissident Yoani Sanchez recently explained: “Laughter, banter, kidding
around have been group therapy on this island where the frustration and
dissatisfaction is exorcised by humor.”
After the Revolution, inside the island, Cubans’ humor became dark. “A
European asks a Cuban, so, how are things? The Cuban replies: ‘Well, I
can’t really complain.’ So, the European replies: ‘So, things are good,
eh?’ The Cuban looks around and whispers: ‘No, I can’t really
complain.’” “Why are there no swimming pools in Cuba? Because everyone
who knows how to swim has already left the island.” Or, “As the small
jet lands at Havana’s Jose Marti Airport the pilot announces: ‘Welcome
to Cuba. Please set your watches back 50 years.’”
My parents left Castro’s Cuba for the United States. I grew up believing
in the power of humor. Humor gave relief to my parents’ aching for their
homeland and the endless demands of their immigrant lives. Without it,
the poverty of exile and the unrelenting heat of a Puerto Rico house
without air conditioning might have suffocated us entirely. Jokes about
our situation, our culture, and our dogged reluctance to jump into the
American melting pot gave us courage.
Hardship disappeared on Sunday evenings when my family listened to the
records of exiled Cuban comedian Guillermo Alvarez Guedes. My otherwise
conservative and proper Roman Catholic family allowed these records,
filled with jokes that were (at best) inappropriate, because they
believed that they signified freedom. In the long run, these irreverent
jokes were about freedom from tyranny, freedom from the hardship of
exile, freedom from remembering all that had been left behind. We were
laughing at everything that made us sad, uncomfortable, and afraid: old
age, illness, death, and Fidel Castro.
When it comes to getting through the darkness, the ability to laugh at
it is powerful. But we need much more than that to get all the way
through. We need light. We need to fill ourselves with that which makes
us truly human—the freedom to have deeply held convictions and be able
to live according to them.
In Castro’s Cuba, the freedom of humor went first. Then speech and
religion. Castro wanted nothing but empty hulls that existed only to
Humor is the beginning of the come-back. So it gives me hope when Cubans
in the Island laugh. But it remains to be seen if the death of the
dictator will allow enough space for Cubans to claim the rest of their
Kristina Arriaga is executive director of the Becket Fund for Religious
Liberty and a member of the US Commission on International Religious
The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill
Source: In Castro’s Cuba, freedom of humor went first | TheHill –