Over 52,000 people worldwide have signed a petition calling for the release of all of Cuba’s political prisoners.
Last Friday marked the five-month anniversary of the death of Orlando Zapata Tamayo, the Cuban political activist whose life ended after eighty-five days of hunger strike. The #OZT: Yo acuso al gobierno Cubano (I accuse the Cuban government) campaign, run by a collective of Cuban exiles in Latin America, Spain, Germany, and the US, began collecting signatures at their website in March. Several videos appeared on the OZT site and on YouTube this week, showing participants delivering signatures to Cuban consulates in Spain and Canada, and to the UN Cuban Mission in New York.
The group’s first online campaign took place in 2009 when they advocated for the release of Panfilo, a somewhat accidental activist who was briefly imprisoned in Cuba last fall. Juan Carlos “Panfilo” González was drunk when he interrupted the live outdoor filming of a documentary, jumping in front of the camera and shouting that Cubans were hungry and needed food. The footage made its way onto YouTube and has been viewed over 800,000 times since.
Panfilo was initially incarcerated for public, “pre-criminal dangerousness” (code in Cuba for anti-government sentiment or action), but it is believed that international pressure, much of which was generated by the OZT group, helped to get Panfilo transferred from jail to a rehabilitative facility where he was treated for alcoholism. Authorities might have saved themselves some heat if they had arrested him for public drunkenness rather than public dangerousness, but had this been the case, Panfilo may never have become an icon of Cuba’s online community.
While Panfilo is now little more than a colorful footnote to the narrative of the OZT group, I still like to puzzle over the accidental nature of his fifteen minutes. Watching the video, you don’t get the sense that his antics were pre-meditated—he really does seem like a drunk guy who saw a video camera and seized the moment without giving it a second thought. And the man being filmed doesn’t ignore him, or ask the camera guy to stop the film. He pats Panfilo on the back, a friendly acknowledgement of the neighborhood drunk, and continues talking, until Panfilo interrupts again. This time, the camera follows the film’s new star, and we watch him stumble through his bizarre, impromptu performance.
Panfilo’s message is blunt, but what’s going on around him, and the circumstances of his arrest, are far from clear-cut, like so many things in Cuba. The video becomes a collage of Cuba’s oft-mentioned different “realities” where the creation of yet another state-sponsored film project collides with a spontaneous, irreverent interruption by the elephant in the room, the realidad social. I wonder: how does the state manage to support the creation of countless films like this one, while still falling short of adequately feeding its people? And what inspires this man to leap into action? Under what category does this act of expression fall? And then I think, but wait a second, that’s just the neighborhood drunk. And then I’m back where I started. Maybe this is why I like it.