Sunday, August 23, 2009

Freedom of Expression & The Juanes Affair

Freedom of Expression & The Juanes Affair

Recognizing the boundary between vigorous debate and assault

"Only oppression should fear the full exercise of freedom."

Jose Marti y Perez

“Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers."

Article 19 Universal Declaration of Human Rights

I had committed myself to not addressing the Peace Without Frontiers concert organized by Juanes in Havana due to a lack of time and interest viewing it through an entertainment and cultural prism.

At this moment Ariel Sigler Amaya, Alfredo Pulido López, Juan Carlos Herrera Acosta, Normando Hernández González, Alfredo Dominguez Batista, Jose Daniel Ferrer and Dr. Garcia Paneque are deathly ill. I especially fear for the lives of Ariel Sigler Amaya and Normando Hernandez who are both emaciated and in the case of Ariel can no longer walk. I am also deeply concerned about the July 21 arrest of Dr. Darsi Ferrer who has exposed the horrible injustices of the Cuban medical system on film and now faces years in prison. Amnesty International has identified 58 Cuban prisoners of conscience rotting in Cuban prisons for exercising their fundamental human rights. This should generate a lot more passion and outrage then a pop concert in Cuba.

Sadly Cuba is not the only human rights disaster in the world there are others in similar circumstances that need help. In the past few weeks I’ve had to mobilize with others to get a friend out of a Zimbabwean detention center that has a track record of torture; denounce attacks against journalists in Venezuela not to mention highlight a new law to clamp down on freedom of expression; march with Iranian exiles against the killing of students and pro-democracy activists in Iran; sign petitions and lobby for the release of Aung San Suu Kyi who has spent more than a decade under house arrest and has now had her sentence unjustly extended an additional 18 months along with more than 2,000 Burmese political prisoners rotting in prisons throughout Burma; denouncing the extrajudicial execution of Russian human rights activist Natalia Estemirova; denouncing the rape of a Chinese student in one of the infamous Chinese black jails and other actions. These outrages should generate more passion than a pop music concert.

Nevertheless the Juanes affair dominates the news in South Florida and has gotten uglier obligating me to speak out. Why? Because as a human rights activist one cannot remain silent when they are being violated in front of you in your own hometown. Sadly this is not the first time Human Rights Watch back in 1992 wrote a report on violations of the freedom of expression in Miami and followed up with a 1994 report. This is the same organization accused by the Cuban Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in June of 2009 of being mercenaries. This is because Human Rights Watch is both independent and objective and has written a profound analysis of Cuba’s repressive machinery and held the regime accountable for decades. With regards to the situation in Miami I’ve spoken out in print and in public both in 1996 and 1999 respectively during the Rubalcaba and Los Van Van affairs and do so again now.

Now a vigorous debate about the merits of a pop music concert in Cuba is fine, although not of great interest. My plan was to watch or listen to the September 20th concert get feedback from people who attended the concert and from members of the democratic opposition then draw conclusions about the event. This remains the plan with regards to the concert, but this essay serves to address a more important topic: the right of Juanes and a group of musicians to play in Cuba and the right of a Colombian artist to form his own opinions about Cuba and not be threatened with physical violence.

Freedom of expression is an inalienable right for all individuals in all countries, at all times especially in matters of civic and political expression and those that seek to censor free expression, intimidate persons seeking to express themselves, imprison them or terrorize them is guilty of committing a profound injustice. Individuals here have crossed that line and demonstrated their contempt for human rights. Two clear examples first at the demonstration on August 14th on 35th Ave. and SW 8th Street where a black shirt representing Juanes was doused with a flammable liquid and set on fire by one of the demonstrators who stated to the press: “This is what we are going to do with him burn him for being a communist, a traitor, a terrorist, and for licking Fidel Castro’s boots.” Secondly, A day later on Twitter Juanes received the following message: "I hate what you are saying but you will die for defending your right to say it."These are not examples of free speech but fall under the legal definition of assault: the threat to carry out physical harm against an individual and demonstrating the means to do it and constitutes a true threat. Another example of this type of language involving death threats against a Cuban exile activist occurred in 2007 the individual making the phone calls was identified by the police and interviewed on Channel 41.

This is intolerable in a free society. However this is the kind of language often used by Cuban government agents and reflects a country that is second in the world only to China (28) with 21 imprisoned journalists according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. Currently there are 58 human beings rotting in Cuban prisons recognized by Amnesty International as prisoners of conscience which means they are there because they were willing to put their lives and reputation on the line to defend human rights. Just days ago a man spoke out in front of a camera that he is hungry and days later is sentenced to two years in prison. These are the kind of threats that are all too common in totalitarian states like Cuba.

Everyone, even a musician, has the right to their opinion and to expression; and that includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. The debate over whether the concert and the message will leave a positive legacy in Cuba can be heatedly debated but the right of anyone from any country going to any country to play their music and express themselves is a fundamental right. Death threats meant to intimidate and silence dissent are unacceptable and need to be condemned.

One must separate politics from other spheres of life only totalitarians subsume everything to a political ideology. One of the questions raised by critics of the concert is "if Juanes would’ve played in Chile during the Pinochet dictatorship?" Well for the record one of the greatest bands of all time The Police did just that in 1982 in Viña del Mar. They played a concert and were interviewed on Chilean television. They did not criticize the Pinochet regime during their visit: they played their set and did their interview focusing on their music and the band. That did not mean that Sting, Andy Summers, or Stewart Copeland were Pinochet supporters. They were musicians doing a gig. Years later in 1988 Sting did pen a song They Danced Alone which blasts Pinochet’s dictatorship. The band also played in Argentina during the military junta in the midst of thousands being disappeared and brutally extrajudicially killed. Do not expect much from musicians other than they play their music well and are entertaining. If they care about human rights fine, but they better know how to play well.

A final observation about the Juanes concert which is billed as an apolitical affair. When you visit the official website of the concert series you’ll find that one of the documents of interest is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Human rights encompasses civil and political rights but are not political in and of themselves but fundamental and transcendent rights that are beyond the politics of the day. If the musician understands this fact the September 20 concert in Havana should be an interesting show.

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