Ted’s Excellent Adventure
Long story short. Ted Henken, the quite white chair of the Black and Hispanic Studies department at Baruch College who calls himself “El Yuma” and writes a blog under the same title, recently returned from a trip to Cuba where he had gone to interview bloggers of all persuasions, but most especially his close personal friend, “La Yoa,” (Yoani Sánchez) whose cherished interview he saved for last.
Before undertaking his mission, Henken had a small problem, which was that he guessed that his effusive public support for Sánchez – the Cuban blogger who writes about Cuba only as a chamber of horrors – would likely compromise his efforts to obtain a journalist’s visa for his Cuban blogger publicity tour. So as he says, on the basis of “better to ask forgiveness than permission,” he set out on the well-worn trail blazed by plenty of previous US journalists whose desire to report from within Cuba overwhelmed their willingness to respect the rules that Cuba has established for such pursuits.
It’s sort of an old story by now, and Ted admits he was no innocent abroad. After being ushered out of the country as persona non grata, he wrote to the Cuban blogger Harold Cárdenas Lema at La Joven Cuba, “No big deal. I always knew that this might happen to me.”
Ted has painstakingly recounted his exit interview with Cuban security at José Martí International Airport, tellingly in Spanish, not English, as this is the language that is far more useful to recruit Cuban defenders. On this side of the straits, it’s not that big a story, after all. Normally, it’s even a win-win for the USAmerican who attempts it. Tourist visas to Cuba are dispensed at most foreign airline desks for a nominal fee, no questions asked. You pay your money, you take your chances. And if you get stopped at Cuban customs and sent back on the next plane, you can always moan about Cuba being a totalitarian state, and the media will be happy to print your statement.
We don’t know if Henken ever made any attempt to obtain a journalist’s visa, but he seems to imply that he did not. And when he arrived in Cuba, once again purchasing his umpteenth visa turistica, Cuba did not turn him away but gave him the benefit of the doubt. That’s when he decided to roll the dice. Day after day at his blog, he posted pictures of himself meeting with one Cuban blogger after another, mentioning their chats, mocking Cuban visa control and daring Cuba to do something about it.
Unsurprisingly, this led to an unpleasant conversation as El Yuma was leaving the country, and as a victim of plenty of unpleasant conversations at customs (unfortunately of the US variety) I feel a certain amount of sympathy for Henken. I wonder how many of those kinds of Cuba-related interrogations he’s experienced on US soil? Has he ever experienced the pleasure of having OFAC open a case against him and try to extort money from him?
Henken says that Cuban security told him that they were well aware of the content of his interviews and that he had not come, as he claimed, to dialogue, but to impose his viewpoint. Henken pointed out that he had met not just with counterrevolutionaries like Yoani, but also with bona fide revolutionaries like La Joven Cuba. The response was tart. “Cubans are very polite and of course they’re going to talk to you because they don’t know what you’re up to. But we know, and we’re not going to allow it.”
There is a certain truth to this. Henken has always been very clear about where his sympathies lie (even after the shameful recent remarks from our vigilante-in-chief to 60 Minutes, he admits to being a hopeful Obama supporter) especially when it comes to the media creation known as Yoani Sánchez. He does not level the least criticism against her for her relentlessly negative spin, and never bothers to examine the rather clever marketing plan she represents.
As I understand it, the offer to Yoani some years ago in Madrid went like this: go back to Cuba, beg for repatriation, with tears if necessary, start blogging – just two or three paragraphs a day, a few times a week, always in a negative way, then watch the money roll in through jinned up prizes and corporate media mentions. The alternative; backbreaking domestic labor in a country where neither she nor her husband could speak the language, made the offer a no-brainer. By now, the international awards accruing to Sánchez from opaque foundations and multinational media conglomerates are fast approaching the million dollar mark, while she continues to hammer the Cuban government for refusing to allow her to leave the country to accept all the invented awards, while deliberately making no mention of the visa denials and economic conditions that are the real barriers to travel for the rest of her compatriots and other third world citizens.
So Henken’s lack of critical thinking about any of this is somewhat surprising for an academic. Rather, his criticism has been squarely aimed at those who presume to criticize the media creation. Full disclosure: I have been one of his targets.
If the bloggers not allied with Yoani, like Elaine Díaz and La Joven Cuba for instance, agreed to interviews with Henken it most certainly would have been out of courtesy, and with a politeness that most likely precluded any uncomfortable questions about Henken’s visa status and whether his journalism was authorized. His complaint that he should be able to interview counter-revolutionary Cuban bloggers because Jimmy Carter did, is absurd. I’m pretty sure that diplomatic passport holders have no use for visas of any kind.
The upshot of Henken’s exit interview at José Martí was that he was told that this would be his last visit to the island. Personally I wouldn’t have done it that way. I’d have left it a little more vague, and waited for Henken to spend some money on another charter flight before sending him back on the next plane. But I’m not Cuban. It’s not for me to say.
In the meantime, Henken finds himself in a (self-created) pickle. Without being able to travel to Cuba, it’ll be hard to maintain his career as a Cuba consultant and expert on Cuban social media matters. Not impossible though. Brian Latell seems to manage. So does Ann Louise Bardach, although Henken’s not really in her league. He seems to be counting on a groundswell of support from his Cuban interview subjects to overturn his persona non grata status. But I don’t see it happening. Because if they do it for Henken, they’ll have to do it for everyone and tell the world that their journalistic visa controls are just for show. And Cuba, like any country, has the right to set its own rules and control its own borders, even when those controls inconvenience capitalism’s defenders.
However, I can see an opportunity for a trade as well as a chance for Henken to put his visa experience and love for Cuba toward something useful. Not that anyone’s asking but I’d recommend that he use all his academic credentials and connections to agitate for the US to give Olga Salanueva and Adriana Pérez O’Connor visas to visit their husbands in US federal prison. And if he is successful, perhaps Cuba might consider responding in kind.