BPR Interviews: Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo

Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo is a Cuban fiction writer, blogger and photojournalist. Author of five books of fiction, columnist for Diario de Cuba (Madrid), El Nacional (Caracas) and Sampsonia Way Magazine, and the opinion blog Lunes de Post-Revolución (available in English at orlandolunes.wordpress.com).  Pardo Lazo came into conflict with the Cuban government in 2009 when he attempted to publish his short story collection, Boring Home, which was at first censored.  Since the book’s publication, he has not been permitted to publish, study, or work in Cuba.  He was arrested on three occasions, harassed, and prevented from leaving the island by Castro’s secret police.  Finally allowed to leave Cuba, he entered the U.S., where he was a guest writer of the City of Asylum Project site in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Pardo Lazo has continued his literary and political activities since his arrival in the U.S, with publication of two books in 2014. He will be in residence at Brown University through February, 2015.

Can you speak about your experience blogging in Cuba? 

I am a member of the Union of Writers in Cuba. It’s the only official institution for writers. I published four books of narrative in Cuba, I was well known as a writer. [In 2008], suddenly my fifth book of narrative, “Boring Home,” was taken out of the press. I was told that I couldn’t publish in Cuba ever again as long as I kept my blog going. They could have published my book…but they really couldn’t stand that I was becoming friends with Yoani Sanchez, Claudia Cadel — all of the bloggers and independent journalists in Cuba.

How did you feel when President Obama announced the US-Cuba policy change?  

Everybody was calling me on December 17th — so happy — and I really couldn’t feel happiness. I am not pro-embargo. I am not pro-isolation. Isolation didn’t bring democracy. I think that America is opening up to Cuba, but I’m not so sure that Cuba is opening up to America. Or even opening up to Cubans. That’s the point. And why do we need to be happy? Because of Americans. After so many years of nationalism and revolutionary rhetoric, suddenly Americans solved our questions.  I found myself in the paradoxical situation of, after defending Americans for so many years, pushing a little against this administration…Why do we keep escaping from Cuba if this is a moment of hope? There is what I call the “pedestrians’ plebiscite.” We have over 2 million Cubans outside the country. Believe it or not, they cannot reside permanently in Cuba. First, they have to go through a process of repatriation. Are we going to be discarding one-fifth of our population? If this is not an exile, I don’t know what is.

Does this policy of repatriation for exiled Cubans reflect a closed-mindedness and refusal to engage with external ideas?  

Yes. Even when you can see a million people in Revolutionary Square, the Cuban people have never been able to truly participate in our system. My people are very happy. I love my people. But when you talk to them, Cuban-to-Cuban, I have the feeling of apathy. Cubans of the same sex don’t marry and we don’t care. I mean, are there less LGBT people in Cuba? No. It’s only that if the government is not discussing this, we don’t mess with it. In many ways, the revolution has been very conservative, really republican, really reactionary.

Does that mindset also apply to other civil rights issues like race? 

If you are part of the status quo, you can be white, black, Russian, Chinese…So talking about racism in terms of race, in my opinion, reduces the tremendous civil apartheid that we have — in a system that is at the same time very egalitarian. If you are poor, the problem is you cannot choose. Once the Cuban government guarantees some social benefits, you owe gratitude to them — dependency.

How effective are social activism movements in Cuba? 

Cuba behaves prophylactically. In order not to get into trouble with the building of a mosque or a church here, we just don’t build them. Muslims in Cuba do not organize themselves or claim any kind of rights. We don’t celebrate gay pride parades. Instead, there is an organization against homophobia, CENESEX, which somehow fosters ideas to fight homophobia. But what about gay pride? This is not a clinical issue. Why don’t we go to the streets? Why don’t we go to some parades? Occupying parts of the city and painting rainbows? No, no, no. Rainbows are good in America but not in Cuba.

If there’s so much discontent in Cuba, why have Fidel Castro and Raul Castro historically enjoyed wide support?  

Their popularity was imposed. They destroyed the civil structure of the Republic. The Cuban government was working without a constitution from 1959 to 1976. Then we created a socialist constitution, which was approved almost unanimously. So at some point, the revolution was institutionalized. And at some point, there was no more resistance. There was discontent. Today, there is no opposition in Cuba, in a way. If you don’t like communism, then you don’t like the state; you don’t like national security; you don’t like Fidel; you are a counter-revolutionary. And in that climate, it is very easy to say — this is Stockholm syndrome — “I love the revolution!” It’s easier to say so, even to yourself. My critical consciousness started very late. It has to do with infantilization. I’m not responsible. I don’t care. I don’t pay taxes. Only recently the self-employed are paying taxes. It’s like living in a family.

How does the government channel the people’s desire for civic change? 

Little by little, they are making these changes in the issues that are important for the United States. We don’t have important issues in Cuba. We need to copy what is being discussed in America. Police violence, race issues…We need to take those things and try to solve them in Cuba, so when the next program of Brown University students go to the island, we can take them to CENESEX. People in Cuba are still using the n-word. And the Cuban people are very homophobic, very macho. Because there is no debate, no education, no two religious people or a gay couple talking on the television and explaining advantages or disadvantages. Fidel Castro was trying to be just to everybody, but in his conception of justice, [he became] the philanthropic monster. He loves the Cuban people in his way. We’re waiting for the life of Fidel Castro to finish in order to move on.