Posted on Sunday, 09.20.09
BY MIRTA OJITO
Was it the song? Jama y Libertad. Food and freedom, croons Boris Larramendi.
The Madrid-based Cuban songwriter wrote the tune as part of the campaign
to free Pánfilo, imprisoned last month in Cuba after he drunkenly
declared in a YouTube video that there is hunger on the island.
Pánfilo was reportedly released Thursday night and sent to a rehab
program for 21 days. Then, the government says, he is free to go home,
which is not the same as being free.
Veteran human rights activists have long maintained that publicity and
pressure work, even in Cuba, one of the few places in the world where a
man can go to prison for announcing in an 81-second YouTube video that
he is hungry. A campaign to free Pánfilo, www.jamaylibertad.com, was
launched on August 26, about three weeks after his arrest, by a group of
Cuban exiles with no experience as human-rights activists.
More than 3,000 people — from Paris to Havana and from New Jersey to
Chile — signed a letter urging the Cuban government to free Pánfilo and
to respect the right to basic freedoms for all its citizens. The letter
was delivered Thursday in Miami to a representative of Juanes, the
Colombian singer who is scheduled to perform in a pro-peace concert in
Was it Juanes? It wouldn't do to have a Latin American star in a
government-sponsored concert in La Plaza de la Revolución, while Pánfilo
sat in a cell and the international campaign raged on.
We may never know why he was released. What is now apparent is that the
Cuban government has quickly — quicker than ever before — rectified a
grievous mistake. That is, if Pánfilo is treated as an alcoholic and not
as a mentally disturbed patient.
“It must have caught the government by surprise,'' said Enrique Del
Risco, a writer and lecturer in New York, and one of the organizers of
the campaign. “It was too quick. It moved too fast for them and there
was a lot of enthusiasm around. Some people asked me, `Why Pánfilo?' and
my answer was, `Why not Pánfilo?'''
Juan Carlos González Marco, 48, who calls himself Pánfilo, became a
YouTube sensation in late Spring, when he walked in front of a camera to
state a simple but fundamental truth: What we need is food, only he said
“jama,'' [pronounced HA-ma], using Cuban slang.
Pánfilo quickly went from being the archetype of the town drunk to a
symbol of all that ails the Cuban people. In June, in a second video, a
sober Pánfilo asks to be left alone. If it was possible for some people
to laugh with the first video, it was impossible not to be moved by the
second. You can't ignore the fear in Pánfilo's eyes. He is a man afraid
of the state.
And then there is the third video. The spontaneity of the first video is
gone, and so is the soberness of the second one. In their place is a
grotesque performance of a shirtless drunk ranting about hunger and the
Days after the third video was posted on YouTube, on July 28, Pánfilo
was arrested and charged with “dangerousness,'' a draconian concept
which means that he has the potential of committing a crime, but hasn't
yet. He was sentenced initially to two years in prison, which was cruel,
short-sighted and absurdly out of step with the modern world.
For years Cuba has reacted to outside pressure to release political
prisoners. European presidents, members of the U.S. Congress, famous
writers have all interceded on behalf of political prisoners, such as
Armando Valladares, Ernesto Díaz Rodríguez, and Angel Cuadra, who were
brought to their attention by campaigns orchestrated by a handful of
human rights activists. Still, it took decades to free most of them.
That was pre-Internet. Pánfilo is a different story. He may have been
both doomed and saved by the Internet. His YouTube video was seen by
more than half a million. But so was the news of his sentence and
imprisonment and, more important, a quick thinking campaign that
incorporated the best that technology has to offer.
It took days to collect more than 3,000 signatures on his behalf. Back
in the '60s and '70s and even the '80s, when activists like Frank
Calzon, now with the Center for a Free Cuba, were campaigning to free
political prisoners, communication between Cuba and Washington could
“First we had to hear about the case from someone who brought it to our
attention,'' said Calzon. “Pánfilo was known to the world before he was
He was also the perfect victim. Pánfilo was not a human-rights activist,
a dissident or an intellectual. He is, simply, a man. A black man who is
hungry and drinks too much. Therein lie his power and his weakness.
The government has always been intolerant of dissent, but it is
particularly vicious when the dissenter is black. The most recent
victims of execution in Cuba were three young black men attempting to
steal a vessel to escape the island six years ago.
Pánfilo has escaped that fate. He's never said he wants to leave Cuba.
What he wants is food. What he needs is food, rehab and freedom. But
when he walks out of rehab, Pánfilo will still lack food. And freedom.
Mirta Ojito is an assistant professor at Columbia University's Graduate
School of Journalism in New York.
Hunger, unsated – Other Views – MiamiHerald.com (20 September 2009)