Friday, August 28, 2009

Pánfilo — Where do we draw the line?

A Havana drunk who calls himself Pánfilo has become the central character in what is — to me — among the most intriguing Cuba-related human rights campaigns in recent memory.

It all started when an undeniably inebriated Juan Carlos González Marcos, better known by the nickname Pánfilo (Spanish for, among other things, "dimwitted"), interrupted what appears to be an interview related to reggaetón to give the world a piece of his mind on Cuba, the lack of food there, and the system that denies its people decent jama (a Cuban slang term for food... which can also take the verb form jamar, which means "to eat").

Thanks perhaps to liquid courage, the video went viral. At least in Cuban American circles. Pánfilo was a household name and on his way to becoming the face of Cuba's destitute. In the aftermath, Pánfilo recorded more videos, doing little dances, and giving testimonials about the need for food, the lack of freedom, and even making predictions that he would end up in a prison cell for having expressed his discontent.

But he also did this sober interview, where he never retracts his statements, but does give the impression that he never had any political objective in making them and probably hadn't made them had it not been for the curda. Further, he says in this video that he wasn't looking for trouble and would prefer not to have his image become a political tool.

By the time this video had gone viral, Pánfilos drunken predictions had become a sobering reality. He was sentenced to a two-year prison term for "pre-criminal dangerousness," a catch-all charge the Cuban regime uses to avoid such bourgeois nuisances as evidence and just cause. It's hard to make the argument that he was arrested for anything other than his dissent.

Advocates for human rights have a dilemma to face:
  • On the one hand, Pánfilo was pretty explicit about not wanting to be the poster boy of a political campaign.
  • On the other, he's since been put in prison, and that's an injustice that shouldn't be ignored.
Some have decided to move forward with campaigns and blogs such as Jama Y Libertad, which uses this as its site's banner:
(Don't let yourself be silenced! Food and Freedom)

There are other sites, social networking site groups, etc. as well.

The question is: Where is the balance between respecting that Pánfilo never wanted to make trouble for himself by being seen as an activist and making sure that we're not ignoring the abuse of his right to speak his mind — even when under the influence?

I don't know that I have that answer, but I'd like to hear what you have to say. So go on... discuss in the comments section. Hopefully this will generate some creative solutions to a delicate problem.


delexilio said...

I agree, this is a tricky question and I had an initial reaction of stating that maybe we should back off and respect his wishes to not make him a poster boy.

But that statement was obviously made out of fear, and possibly coersion. It was also made before he was put in prison.

Now that he is in prison, I think that changes the story. I don't want to disrespect the man's wishes, but that statement was made in his effort to avoid being put "en candela", in trouble, in his own words. Well, too late -- he's already in prison.

He was asking people to quiet down for a specific purpose. That purpose no longer exists, so I think that makes his initial request moot.

Furthermore, I think that because that statement is made out of fear, or possibly coerced, that's exactly the mechanism that allows the repressive machine in Cuba to always "win."

Panfilo was intimidated by the system, letting the system win. But I believe that we should ALWAYS speak out against injustice. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. I don't think it's right to sometimes "let it go." I just don't.

Otherwise, the system gets that much stronger, and only reinforces the mentality that people need to keep their opinions to themselves.

So that, combined with the fact that what Panfilo was trying to avoid has taken place anyway, leads me to believe that we should support this movement and request Panfilo's release. Not as a prisoner of conscience, not with the usual rhetoric, but with a simple statement saying "Panfilo was arrested for merely saying that he and other Cubans are hungry. This is outrageous and he should be released immediately."


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