A must-read from Punk Outlaw Records:
In December of 2009 I visited Havana, Cuba to help a friend who was working on a documentary film. I brought my own camera, which was pro-sumer, meaning it looked like just a regular personal camcorder any tourist might have but it actually shoots professional video and audio. I wanted to grab some interviews for my own documentary “Punktology… The Worldwide Influence of Punk.”
I had researched and concluded there must be some kind of punk scene there, because the band “Porno Para Ricardo” was making headlines. Turns out the lead member, Gorki Augila was in exile after numerous arrests and harassment by the Cuban government for “social dangerousness” which, according to the website PunkNews.org, is behavior that runs contrary to “communist morality” and allows authorities to detain offenders before they commit an actual crime.
I knew if I found any punks willing to speak on camera, I’d have to be careful. I was not a registered journalist and this was my first time in Cuba. If I were to get in any trouble there was no U.S. Embassy there to help me out. Indeed, I had a young filmmaker friend who had died while in Cuba attending the “Havana Film Festival” with his film just a few years before. I had no idea what to expect and I was excited if a bit nervous.
I was with another, more experienced filmmaker, Camilo, a Colombian-American who was bilingual and had agreed to run camera and translate for me while I ran the interviews.
We went to Calle G or G Street, where I had been told the Los Freakies (the freaks) hang out on a nightly basis. Los Freakies were basically the misfits of Havana, a crowd of hundreds of teens and young adults consisting of goth and metal heads, skateboard kids, emos and yes, a handful of hardcore punks, some sporting mohawks and tattoos. It was a surreal scene.
The police were close by but they didn’t seem to really be doing anything but watching the Los Freakies hang out and frankly, they looked really bored. In the U.S. that might mean the cops would be grabbing some coffee & donuts or busting a jaywalker. In Cuba, I was to find out it was a recipe for trouble.
We started pre-interviewing a couple of punks who were very eager to be on camera and tell the world about the punk scene and about life in general in Cuba. But just before the camera started rolling, the police spotted us and headed straight for us.
I thought for sure my camera was going to be confiscated. I was prepared to claim tourist status but that wouldn’t explain the microphone. I was racking my brain to explain the microphone when I realized that instead of questioning Camilo and I, the police had focused all their attention on the punks.
In the end after some very brief questioning they took one of our potential interviewees away in handcuffs to jail. The charge? We weren’t told and were not sure. But it is illegal for Cubans to speak to tourists. How long would he remain in jail? What would happen to him there? None of his friends were sure, but their enthusiasm had vanished and they were much more reserved afterward. We could feel the gloom that had set in and realized this was probably a far more serious matter than an overnight stay in the pokie.
I stayed in Cuba just 8 days, but during this time, I was personally in contact with no less than 3 Cubans who were arrested while I was there for very different minor offenses, ranging from not having their “papers in order” to “tourist harassment”. In Cuba, it appears the police have free reign to arrest first and make charges later.
Eventually we learned to be more covert in our operations and amazingly, even after the arrest of one of their own, I had no problems finding other punks who, though they had heard about the arrest, were still willing and eager to speak on camera.
In case you have never seen it, here is a video compilation that we put together shortly after.
That night in Havana, Cuba has bugged me ever since. I’ve never forgotten the shock of seeing someone hauled away in handcuffs, simply for having a conversation. I felt somewhat responsible for that poor guy’s arrest. Had I not had my camera and been nosing around Calle G he would have never been taken to jail.
The Cuban people are desperately poor and most (that don’t have government jobs) subsist on a sub par diet of rice, beans and potatoes.
The tourists in Havana are extremely important to the very limited economy there. As a result tourist are usually protected at all cost. The joke around Havana was that if a tourist were to stab a Cuban for no reason, well the police would promptly arrest the Cuban for “running into the knife” of a tourist and let the tourist go free.
Good, nutritious food and justice are not the only things missing in Cuba. It’s obvious that freedom of expression is in short supply as well and this, I gathered from our interviews, was the most frustrating part for Cubans.
They felt their leaders were old, backwards, out of touch and basically crazy and they were paying the price. When I looked out into the Cuban harbor, I noticed none of the boats had motors. Only rowboats are allowed for Cubans I suppose. Cuba is such a paradise that the government feels the need to keep people prisoner.
At night, I noticed many families in Cuba watched the local Univision (the Spanish TV network) station from Miami, whose signal bled into Cuba. Even this simple pleasure incurred a risk.
I heard stories of police, undercover government officials and citizen informants roaming the streets at night listening for homes that might have been “illegally” watching TV signals from the U.S.
Internet access was a non existent and when I think about it, I’m really surprised there was a punk scene at all in Cuba. Thanks to bands like Porno Para Ricardo and the punks who bravely spoke out to our cameras, though, I have faith that the punk scene is still thriving in Cuba. As you can see from the interviews, they find ways to get internet, music, clothes, etc. despite the U.S. embargo and a paranoid and repressive Cuban government.
Are there worst offenders of freedom of expression than Cuba? Possibly in the Middle East (Iran, Syria, etc.) or China (where the U.S. doesn’t dare impose an embargo), North Korea or in some African countries. But for a relatively small island country just a few miles off the coast of Florida, it amazes me that this cold war relic of a place can still cause so much misery.
With all that’s going on in the world today, it would be pretty easy for citizens in the U.S. and other parts of the developed world to forget that Cuba even exist.
But having visited the island, I can’t get out of my head the image of the guy being arrested and of his friends’ gloomy dispositions afterward. I can’t help but wonder if the people on camera who told us so candidly how they felt about the Cuban government might also have joined their punk amigos in jail… or worse. I certainly hope not but you never know.
Since my Cuba trip, I’ve traveled to most of Latin America and I’ve been wanting to showcase music from the many excellent punk bands I’ve come in contact with while filming “Punktology”. I was finally able to pull enough music together to put together a compilation.
We’ve decided to name this compilation “Punktology: Volume 1 – Free Cuban Now” in honor of our punk “comrades” in Cuba. We hope to have the compilation out digitally at places like I-tunes, Amazon, etc. by December.
I decided a long time ago that commercial projects in and of themselves were not fulfilling. As the late Steve Jobs said “leave a dent in the universe”. I don’t believe that most people think that freedom of expression should depend on an old dictator finally succumbing to death (and a nice warm place in hell afterward). I believe most people feel that freedom of expression is an inherent right of all mankind regardless of geography.
Other than raise some awareness or make a little noise, I’m not sure what we may accomplish by putting out this compilation, but it is something. And if we do end up actually making any money, well, we’ve pledged support to our buddies at Cuba Skate, a small but passionate start up charity that is working hard to supply skate boarding equipment and better opportunities to Cuban youth
The press release announcing our little venture is below. Please read and if possible, help circulate.
Oh and if you get a chance today, go out and say something controversial or unflattering about your government to a group of people (if your in the U.S. maybe at one of the Occupy Wall Street, etc. events) and enjoy the feeling of walking away free without being thrown in jail. ! Sure feels good doesn’t it?!
Here's the press release:
Punk Outlaw Records' Compilation Says "Free Cuba Now!"
Punk Outlaw Records announced plans to release their first compilation collection, “Punktology Volume 1 – Free Cuba Now!” which will feature independent punk and hardcore music from Latin America and the Caribbean.
The fledgling digital record label’s objective is to showcase a collection of punk music from emerging musicians in Latin America and the Caribbean to North American and European audiences.
The title “Free Cuba Now” was chosen to help bring attention to the fact that Cuban punks, as well as many other subcultures on the island nation of Cuba, still suffer from oppression and suppression in their freedom of expression at the hands of the Cuban police and government.
The musical compilation is the first from the fledgling music label and features artists covered in the documentary “Punktology”, which is currently being produced by Punk Outlaw Productions to showcase the worldwide influence of punk music.
“While working on the documentary, I visited Cuba and witnessed firsthand the incredible lack of basic freedom of expression we take for granted in much of the western world when one of our interviewees was arrested, apparently for simply speaking with us” states Robert Rose, Founder of Punk Outlaw Records and Executive Producer of Punktology.
“I believe Punk music is at its best when it’s railing against injustice. The music comes from a variety of bands from different countries, each with their own issues such as social inequality, government corruption and crippling poverty, but freedom of expression is a basic human right that most enjoy and we think Cubans, and all human beings deserve this right as well.” Rose continues.
Punk Outlaw Records has pledged 25% of the record label’s share of net profits to a U.S. based charitable organization, Cuba Skate (www.CubaSkate.com) which provides skateboarding equipment, clothing and works to better opportunities to Cuban youth.
Participating artists for the project include Punk Outlaw artists Los Suziox (Colombia) and Rudos Wild (Uruguay). Other contributing artists include Anti-Everything (Trinidad), Demeter/DMTR (Ecuador), El Terrible Y Los Mongoloides (Peru), Lokekeda (Colombia) and Warning (Guatemala). More announcements are expected in the coming weeks.
The compilation will be released and available for purchase at various digital online retailers including I-tunes, Amazon Music, Zune and more in December 2011.
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