A writer and scholar, Gustavo Perez Firmat was born in Havana, Cuba, and raised in Miami, Florida. He attended Miami-Dade Community College, the University of Miami, and the University of Michigan, where he earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature.
He taught at Duke University from 1979 to 1999 and is currently the David Feinson Professor in the Humanities at Columbia University. GPF is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and has been the recipient of fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the Mellon Foundation.
He is the author of many books of prose and poetry, including Bilingual Blues, The Havana Habit and Next Year in Cuba, a memoir of life at home and in exile. His study of Cuban American culture, Life on the Hyphen, was awarded the Eugene M. Kayden University Press National Book Award. In 1995, GPF was named Duke University Scholar/Teacher of the Year.
In 1997 Newsweek included him among “100 Americans to watch for the 21st century” and Hispanic Business Magazine selected him as one of the “100 most influential Hispanics” in the United States. In 2004 he was named one of New York’s thirty “outstanding Latinos” by El Diario La Prensa. In 2005 he was selected Educator of the Year by the National Association of Cuban American Educators. GPF has been featured in the documentary CubaAmerican and in the 2013 PBS series Latino Americans.
– Professor Pérez Firmat, at one time in the USSR Cuba was named «Liberty Island». Now this statement can cause only smile in Ukraine. Whether became on Cuba more freedom after years of managing the country by Raul Castro?
– Cuba under the Castros, which means Cuba during the last fifty-six years, has remained essentially unchanged. Echoing the USSR phrase, the Castro dictatorship calls Cuba “territorio libre de América” – “free territory of America” – but this supposed “freedom” does NOT include: freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, freedom to form political parties, economic freedom, freedom of movement. Cuba is the most unfree society in Latin America, and has been this way for over half a century. The hope that, under Raúl Castro, things will change remains just that: a hope. This history of lack of freedom explains why more than 2 million Cubans (over ten percent of the island’s population) have chosen to live outside of Cuba and why thousands more have lost their lives trying to escape from the island.
– Is there today in Cuba free press?
– Cuba’s official press, including newspapers, magazines, news broadcasts on TV and radio, is controlled by the State. There is a growing group of independent journalists, inside and outside of the island, that publish in blogs and other online publications such as Diario de Cuba, currently the most important outlet for unfiltered news about Cuba, but the official press is government controlled and subject to censorship. A recent example: A couple of weeks ago the Castro regime authorized a blog called “14yMedio” to appear on its Reflejos platform. A few days later, the blog was shut down because government officials deemed that the opinions being expressed were “counterrevolutionary.”
– Since the beginning of this year, the Castro government has intensified its campaign of harassment and intimidation of these independent journalists?
– Ironically, after December 17, 2014, when President Obama of the U.S. announced that his administration will begin normalizing relations with Cuba, the harrassment and imprisonment of independent journalists and other dissidents have increased. Raúl Castro seems to be sending the following message to Cubans and others: don’t think that if we re-establish diplomatic and economic ties with the United States, our way of government will change. He has also explicitly said this several times in the last couple of months. The fear of many Cubans is that renewed relations with the United States, instead of promoting change in Cuba, will give the dictatorship a lifeline for its survival.
– Most of Cuba’s independent journalists do not think of themselves as dissidents. The willingness of these men and women to sacrifice stems from their desire to establish a free, objective, independent, uncensored press in their island-nation?
– In Cuba today to be “independent” is to dissent from the State’s control of information. So I would say that, whether they choose to call themselves “dissident” or not, independent journalists are in fact dissidents because they offer an alternative to the highly selective and censored information provided by the government media. Independent journalists offer opinions and information that dissent from the dictatorship’s propaganda.
– Today, Cuba stands alone in the hemisphere as the only country that tolerates no independent newspapers, magazines or news broadcasts. Castro remains the chief obstacle to freedom in Cuba for local and foreign journalists alike?
– Cubans sometimes say: No Castro, no problem. But I don’t think it’s that simple. More than half a century of totalitarian rule cannot be wiped away with the disappearance of the Castro brothers. For one thing, other people like the Castros – perhaps even younger members of the Castro family, several of whom are highly placed in the government hierarchy – could take their place. For Cuba to have an independent press, the political culture needs to change. Cubans have to learn to participate in a democratic political process; to be stakeholders in their government; to create a vigorous and diverse civil society. I don’t know how quickly this will happen.
– Cuba is poised for historic change. Whether the transition is to democracy hinges largely on whether Cuba has a free press it gives it citizens the basis for informed decisions about how they want to be governed?
– I hope that you are right that Cuba is poised for change. I have been thinking the same thing – for fifty years! When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and with it Soviet economic subsidies and military assistance for the Castro dictatorship, many Cubans thought that Cuba was poised for historic change. That was nearly twenty-five years ago. Nothing happened. Back in those days there was a very popular song by Willy Chirino, a Cuban exile singer and composer, that said: “Nuestro día ya viene llegando” – “Our day is coming.” Well, that day never did come. We are still waiting. We have been waiting for more than half a century. By now several generations of Cubans – hundreds of throusands of Cubans – have died waiting for that “historic change.” The cemeteries of Havana and Miami, including those where my parents and grandparents are buried, are filled with Cubans for whom that “historic change” did not happen. That’s why I sometimes think that whatever happens in Cuba in the future, it will have happened too late.
– What does Raul Castro mean when he says, “We must move forward one step at a time?” Or is it just an imitation of change in Cuba ?
– Genuine change in Cuba requires the disappearance of the dictatorship. As long as Cuba is ruled as the personal fiefdom of the Castros or their successors, no meaningful change will come. And so I would not put much stock on Raúl Castro’s statement. Cubans have a saying: “Aunque la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda.” Translation: “You can dress a monkey in silk, but it is still a monkey.” The Castro dictatorship is the monkey.
– What are the priorities for Cubans today? Improvement of economic situation, improving relations with the United States or development of Cuban tourism?
– It depends what Cubans you are talking about. For those Cubans who are part of the government hierarchy, the priority is to maintain the status quo, since it allows them privileges that the vast majority of Cubans do not enjoy. For those Cubans who are not apparatchiks and who live in poverty or near poverty, the priority is improvement of their economic situation, but this will not happen until Cuba becomes a free and open society that allows for and fosters personal freedom and initiative.
– Professor Perez Firmat, you were born in Cuba. Whether you hope to visit Cuba, when there will not be dictatorships of Castro?
– The Cuba where I was born no longer exists. As the Cuban poet Ricardo Pau-Llosa puts it, we have outlived our nation. And so I do not know whether I will ever go back to Cuba. If it was hard to leave, it would be equally hard to return. Return to what? To see the ruins of the city (Havana) where I was born and raised? To see strangers living in our house, which was taken by the government when we left? The whole notion of “visiting” Cuba upsets me: one “visits” a foreign country, not one’s homeland. You might say that I’ve been “visiting” the United States – a nice place to visit – for most of my life. If I were to go to Cuba, it would not be a visit but a homecoming. But if I do decide to return, it certainly will not happen until the Castro dictatorship has disappeared. The French writer Victor Hugo, an exile himself for part of his life, said: I will not return until liberty returns. I agree with that.