Impromptus

Oslo Journal, Part IV

by Jay Nordlinger

Editor’s Note: Last week, Jay Nordlinger attended the Oslo Freedom Forum, the annual human-rights conference held in the Norwegian capital. The previous parts of his journal are at the following links: I, II, III.

Stephanie Sinclair is an American photojournalist, giving a talk called “Too Young to Wed.” She tells us about child marriage in Afghanistan. One girl self-immolated. Another girl — I think it’s another girl — was married off at eleven. Her father sold her for opium.

The photojournalist has photos, of course. I don’t really look at them. It’s not that I’m squeamish, though maybe I am. It’s that: I believe the worst anyway. I don’t need to see. You know what I mean?

But for others, I’m glad there’s photographic evidence. Do you know what I mean by that, too?

I think of Holocaust museums. I would never set foot in one. But I’m glad they exist for other people. I don’t need to be “sensitized”; I could use a little desensitizing, actually. I knew enough about the Holocaust by the time I was 20 or so to last me forever. But for others — give them a Yad Vashem or two, fine.

Stephanie Sinclair’s talk makes me think of a question I and others have batted around for years. It goes something like this: On one hand, we’re told — by our teachers and so on — that no culture is better than another. We must not be “ethnocentric.” We must not “impose our values.” We must be good multiculturalists and relativists.

Well, I can’t be: Child marriage, clitorectomy, etc. — those practices are wrong, not just for us Yanks, but for everyone. As the victims of those practices agree.

Just ask them, go ahead.

Can we pause for a sec for a language note? We have so much heaviness in this journal, we’re entitled to a light language note.

Words go in and out of fashion, and “amazing” is now enjoying a run. Everything and everyone is “amazing.” Everyone and everything is “incredible” too.

The original meaning of “incredible” is pretty much lost, I think. Luckily, we have “unbelievable,” to convey that meaning. But “unbelievable” can mean “amazing” too, if you follow me . . .

(Not long ago, Charles Moore — I think it was Moore — told a story about a young person who very much enjoyed reading a “Credo.” “It’s incredible!” he exclaimed, in admiration.)

There are Cubans at this forum, as I mentioned before — Cubans in exile and Cubans on the island, who are visiting. Berta Soler is one of the visitors from the island. She is the leader of the Ladies in White. Roberto de Jesús Guerra is another visitor (and I believe there are only two). He is an independent journalist, a very dangerous thing to be in Cuba.

Why did they let them out? Why did the dictatorship allow Berta and Roberto to attend the forum? I ask them. “International pressure,” comes the answer. Plus, the dictatorship wants to show that it is reforming — although any reforms, say Berta and Roberto, are cosmetic. Anyway, I will tell you more about my talk with them later.

Guerra founded the Hablemos Press (“hablemos” meaning “let’s talk”). I have an English translation of his speech to the forum. I think we should have some excerpts.

When I was 14, I was at a barrio meeting, organized by the Cuban Communist Party. The delegate was saying that “we should be grateful to the revolution for the food they sell us monthly through the rationing card.” I responded by complaining, “Five pounds of rice and ten pounds of beans are not enough to live on.” Days later, I was convicted of pre-criminal social dangerousness, along with 196 other teenagers in the region. I was sentenced to a year and a half of forced labor on a government sugar-cane plantation.

“Pre-criminal social dangerousness” is a funny-sounding phrase, I grant you. I blinked the first time I saw it. But it is a very, very common charge in Cuba. Many people have been tossed into dungeons and tortured, as a result of it.

Roberto has some pictures for us, and he says,

Let me show you the headquarters of Hablemos Press. Our only newsroom is the same room where my wife and I sleep and eat. We Cubans cannot legally build, rent, or buy a place to create or house a media outlet. Even if someone gave me the money to do it, I could not, since it is illegal.

He continues,

Let me show you my printing press. It is actually a Canon printer that was given to me as a present by a friend from the Czech Republic who knew about the work of Hablemos Press. With this small printer, I make from 400 to 600 copies of my newspaper a week. We are constantly repressed and incarcerated for making these copies.

The sympathy of the Czechs for the Cubans is a wondrous story. I wrote about this relationship in 2005: “Solidarity, Exemplified.”

Roberto tells us a little about what his paper has been able to accomplish, between the jailings of its workers:

Hablemos Press was the first to report in June 2012 about the cholera outbreak in an eastern province, while my country’s official propaganda brags about having the best healthcare system in the world. . . .

We were the first to report about the imprisonment of Ladies in White activist Sonia Garro and activist Madeline Lázara, when, according to my country’s government, blacks in my country should be eternally grateful to the revolution.

We were the first to show videos of the crackdown and imprisonment of dozens of homosexuals while Raúl Castro’s daughter tours around the world talking about the revolution’s achievements on gender issues.

We should have just a sense of what is meted out to Roberto and his colleagues — just a little taste:

By working in this noble profession, my correspondents and I are labeled “mercenaries,” “worms,” and “counterrevolutionaries,” and we are subject to regular detentions and mob violence led by the government.

For me, the most touching part of Roberto’s talk is this:

While many of us did not have the opportunity to attend university and study journalism, we are guided by the same principles that are taught in the best journalism schools in democratic countries all over the world: the quest for the truth, for freedom; honesty, criticism of power, and objectivity in the way we report the news.

And his conclusion, his summing up:

Journalists in free countries dream about prestige. They dream about working in the biggest media outlets. They dream about their books becoming bestsellers. They dream about world fame. They dream that their breaking news and exclusives will be the most watched. They dream that their outlets will get the highest ratings. And they dream of receiving the best critiques from viewers and readers.

In Cuba, we independent journalists dream of only one thing. We dream of freedom of expression, opinion, and circulation. We dream of not being persecuted. We dream of freedom.

When he leaves the stage, Roberto withdraws from his pocket a Cuban flag, which he waves a bit. This is a patriot, Roberto de Jesús Guerra Pérez. Not the Castros — they are international Communists.

Roberto puts me in mind of some people I haven’t thought of in a long time — the young people associated with Jóvenes sin Censura, or Youth Without Censorship. One of these “youths,” Liannis Meriño Aguilera, wrote a piece called “To Be an Independent Journalist Is to Flirt with Death.” At any rate, I wrote about them in 2007: “Youth with Unfathomable Courage.”

I have a sitdown with Berta Soler and Roberto. Let me give you a little of what the latter says.

He was detained at the airport in Havana until just before the plane took off. They wanted to make him fear that he wouldn’t be able to leave the country at all.

Without international pressure, he says, or implies, he and his cause would be sunk.

Roberto is very much in favor of the U.S. “embargo” — and complains that it is leaky. “It should be enforced for real.”

He says that, some time ago, he made a decision that he would not flee the island. He would work and suffer instead, even if it meant the death of him. “Every time we leave,” he says, “we make the country weaker.” He says that Cubans must think about coming generations: What kind of country will they have? Any better?

Earlier in this journal, I mentioned a Palestinian journalist — very brave — who chastised Palestinians in Norway for leaving Gaza. I understand her. I understand Roberto.

I have known human-rights activists who have done miraculous things in their countries. I have also known activists who have done miraculous things in exile — for their countries.

Anyway, a subject to be returned to . . .

Before dinner, attendees at the forum will have some entertainment: a comedian and a singer. (Or two singers. Sorry, can’t remember.) The comedian is Aron Kader, an American. Garry Kasparov, the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation, introduces him. “Dictators hate humor,” he notes.

Kader is a very funny guy. Gifted. He has a Palestinian Muslim father and a Mormon mother. So, he has a lot of material. He points out that dictators tend to be male — in fact, they always are (to the best of my knowledge). As Kader says, “you can’t be a dictator without a d***.”

You can’t like everything that comes from a comedian, of course. Kader does a riff about “the chosen people.” In essence, he knocks the Jews for considering themselves chosen.

“Chosen people” is not a widely understood phrase or concept. Most people, I gather, think it means, “Ha, ha, we’re No. 1! God loves us best! Eat that, losers.” But you know what may be the oldest Jewish joke there is, right? “Jehovah, couldn’t you have chosen someone else?”

Kasparov is a person I admire a great deal. Let me tell you what I’ve told him: He could have basked for the rest of his life in his chess glory. He could have hopped from continent to continent, being received as a sage, hero, and star. He could have “lived the life.” Instead, he has stuck his neck out, for his fellow Russians and others.

He reminds me a little of Sharansky — who, after the Gulag, could have spent the rest of his life as a Jewish and human-rights hero. He could have had a life similar to Elie Wiesel’s, I suppose. Instead, he decided to engage in politics: which alienated him from roughly half the people. He was willing to be disliked, instead of universally adored (not counting the KGB).

After dinner, a young Danish woman offers me a tin of what I take to be mints or chocolates. Instead, they are little tobacco pouches. She tucks one into her mouth — which is quite a sight: this lissome Dane, with some chaw between her “cheek and gum.” Tobacco-chewers, I always thought, are supposed to look like Carlton Fisk.

Thanks for joining me, dear ones — we’ll roll on tomorrow.