NEW YORK -- What do you know?
I came to the hip capital of the world to attend an unprecedented conference on digital media in Cuba and ended up witnessing an American-style version of what on the island is widely known as un acto de repudio.
Literally, the phrase means an act of repudiation, but in any language its a calculated, verbally violent attack that escalates and turns uglier and uglier by the moment. Its the favored weapon of the desperately intolerant to quash a point of view that runs contrary to their deeply held beliefs.
Note this important difference: The point of an acto de repudio is not to express an opposing viewpoint a value held dearly in our democracy but to disrupt an event and/or discredit an individual.
And thats exactly what a group of pro-Cuban-government Americans sought to do Saturday in this cultural hub where one expects intelligent conversation disrupt the packed conference The Revolution Recodified: Digital Culture and the Public Sphere in Cuba, at The New Schools Tishman Auditorium, and discredit one of its panelists, the celebrated Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez.
In the United States for the first time, Sánchez, 37, was the last speaker of the last panel of the day, Cuba in a Global Context: Social Media and Political Change, which included U.S. experts on social network analysis who have done fieldwork in Russia and the Middle East.
While the panelists made insightful presentations about how global networks are expanding and fomenting social change, organizers gave members of the audience note cards to write down questions for the panelists. It was an effort to speed up time-consuming translations and people walking up to microphones.
After the questions were collected, conference coordinator Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American interdisciplinary artist and associate professor at The New School, read them to the panelists.
Most turned out to be for Sánchez and quickly, a pattern of antagonism against her emerged:
How much money is the State Department paying you?
Could Sánchez name five human rights violations in Cuba, since the previous day she had said there were many but hadnt named one?
Has she ever attempted a civil dialogue with people who support the government?
Sánchez took the questions as an opportunity to present the kind of view of the real Cuba that quickly shatters utopian myths.
Her answers were slam dunks against the regime and most of the audience applauded her.
The fact that she and the U.S. government coincide on wanting to see democratic change in Cuba, Sánchez said, doesnt make her a slave to U.S. interests, and by the way, when did you ever hear of a person in Cuba who wanted freedom and wasnt called a CIA agent?
The rhetorical game, Sánchez called the practice.
She listed a myriad human rights violations recognized by the Geneva Convention lack of freedom of speech and assembly, of movement throughout the island, etc., but the last violation she named was a zinger: Lack of access to the Internet.
That, to me, is also a human right, she said.
But it was her answer to the question about who she had engaged in dialogue that brought out the rage in her detractors.
Every attempt to debate issues has ended in pro-government people hurling insults, or hasnt materialized because the other side hasnt come to the table, Sánchez said.