NEW YORK — The first time I “met” Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo — aka @OLPL — on that infinite and unpredictable public square that is the Internet, he was tweeting from Havana.
It was a night in December 2011 and a flotilla from Miami’s Movimiento Democracia had sailed to international waters off Havana and staged a fireworks display to show solidarity with dissidents being beaten up and arrested.
When I signed on to Twitter, Cuban bloggers began to pop up in the feed.
“You can see the fireworks!” independent journalist Reinaldo Escobar tweeted in Spanish.
“Ball of light on the horizon! And it’s not the moon!” tweeted Escobar’s wife, blogger Yoani Sánchez, not as famous then as she is now.
I was incredulous. From what I thought I knew about Cuba, this breaking-news reporting, American-style via Twitter, wasn’t exactly possible for people whose access to the Internet was prohibited, or in the best circumstances, limited and under surveillance.
Then, as if he were reading my skeptical mind, entered @OLPL to the tweeting fray — posting an image of the ball of light over Havana rooftops that Sánchez had described. Equally interesting as the spot news photo was Pardo’s Twitter image, the portrait of a man with hippie-styled long curls, topless, the Cuban flag draped off a shoulder.
Who was this university graduate in biochemistry who left science for literature, tweets in English, penned heartfelt blog entries in poetic Spanish, asked/begged that followers recharge his cellphone account?
At first simply a free-spirited soul who threw out enigmatic phrases almost impossible to decipher, I came to know Pardo as a prolific communicator so adept at outwitting his censors that he could confuse friends, too.
I’ve been following Pardo — seeing the world through this provocateur’s eyes — and last week, I met him while he and Sánchez starred in the conference The Revolution Recodified: Digital Culture and the Public Sphere in Cuba at The New School and New York University.
And now I know what his American host, professor Ted Henken of Baruch College, meant when he posted on his blog, El Yuma: “ Preparense-here-comes-orlando-aka-olpl.”
Get ready … Pardo turns everything you might think you know upside down.
At the first news conference, he taunted journalists who asked about his plans for the future by telling them he was staying in the United States — and some rushed to tweet: “Orlando Luis Pardo says he’s not going back to Cuba.”
I laughed heartily because I knew Pardo was bluffing; into his spiel he had blurted out that perhaps he would stay with the girlfriend he had landed in “Wilmania,” which I’m sure many misunderstood as “Alemania” (Germany).
Wilmania or Alemania, it was the imagination of the writer I’d seen before trying to impose his irreverent nature.
The journalists, on the other hand, missed his larger point about his fight to pursue whatever course he chooses.
“I am a citizen of the world,” he said. Words that maybe to us who carry a U.S.-passport, and thus are entitled to all the privileges that come with first-world living, sound cliché.
But for Pardo, 41, his quest is to test the limits of a totalitarian regime which gave him a passport and 24 months to roam and return, or lose his citizenship.
“Maybe after 24 months I go back for one day and go out again,” he said, questioning why people of other nationalities are “just traveling” and Cubans are put under a microscope and forced to define their living arrangements.
To further make his point — and I also think, to get people thinking about the ways in which two opposing sides can coincide — Pardo told the story of how, when he visited Miami for a couple of days before coming to New York, an anti-Castro journalist aggressively asked him the same question as officials from Cuba’s State Security: Was he staying abroad or returning to Cuba? “The question of Castroism,” he called it. “The regime … coerces and limits you.”
He’s chosen to act like a free man, whether it’s to use his Internet skills to speak up against repression in Cuba — supporting the efforts of the daughter of dissident leader Oswaldo Payá to demand an international investigation of Payá’s death — denouncing the new round of violence against the Ladies in White, and the jailing of fellow writers; or to confuse U.S. journalists filling in the blanks.
“We have selected to live a human life,” he said, “and if that costs us our life, that’s OK.”