Jose Varela, the Cuban Charlie Hebdo / Ivan Garcia
Ivan Garcia, Havana, 8 February 2015 — No one wants to know him except the readers of his blogs. Jose Varela is out there on his own. He is the type of humorist that public figures from both sides of the Florida Straits want to keep at a distance, the farther the better.
He is an outlaw squared. The Cuban regime has tried to co-opt his posts and cartoons when they ridicule dissidents. But when Varela trains his canons on the Palace of the Revolution, the curtain of censorship comes down.
Word has it he lives on a farm outside of Miami and that in 2006 — I do not know why — he broke into the offices of El Nuevo Herald, where he worked as a cartoonist, with a toy machine gun.
It was like a movie. News of the event made it all the way to Havana. “Pepe Varela got all hot and bothered. After a dirty trick by the Herald’s editors, he held the paper hostage. The riot police had to intervene. I love his blog. It’s irreverent and quite funny. On top of that, he writes well. That’s a lot to ask these days,” says a neighborhood friend who lives in Hialeah.
The first time I heard about Varela was in 2009. I had a blog on a website run by Yoani Sanchez called Voces Cubanas (Cuban Voices). One night someone mentioned that Varela had telephoned Sanchez asking if he could interview her or just meet her.
She turned him down. He was known to take pot shots at her in his posts (and still does). Some said he was with State Security, the perfect pretext in both Cuba and Miami for dismissing free thinkers and guys who are out there in left field.
I started reading his posts out of professional curiosity. They are written in the style typical of emails, without capital letters or proper punctuation. They are well-paced and entertaining, and anyone might end up being the target of his biting sarcasm.
For some time now a Google banner has warned visitors to his site that they are entering “enemy territory,” an affront to America’s vaunted freedom of speech.*
Neither the Inter American Press Association nor Reporters Without Borders nor any of the other high priests of press freedom has condemned this act of censorship by the U.S. search engine.
Varela could make a killing if he invoked the Fifth Amendment. Like it or not, he is an American citizen who pays his taxes.
It is quite understandable that a blog like his would be banned in Cuba. The country’s military rulers don’t have much of a sense of humor.
Political satire on the island is banned. In fact, the first press outlet to be banned — it happened in 1960 — was a weekly humor magazine: Zig Zag.
This reached an extreme in the 1980s when a cartoonist from the newspaper Granma was fired for showing a skull with a pirate’s hat in the middle of a photo of Fidel Castro. When the page was held up to the light, the overlay became visible.
It was probably a fatal coincidence that cost this man his job and several hours of interrogation by scowling counterintelligence officials.
In Cuba officials rarely smile, not even for the camera, but they are very adept at discerning insults or jokes considered “counter-revolutionary.”
Being a humorist in Cuba is an act of masochism. You have to craft jokes with double meanings if you want to escape the party’s guillotine.
The New Man that Che Guevara and Fidel Castro tried to create was a robot who killed yankees, planted bananas and worked as a volunteer without pay. Dancing to guaguanco, being unfaithful, reading novels and Corin Tellado and following major league baseball were petit bourgeois pursuits.
For a Cuban dissident to be considered a democrat, he presumably must defend freedom of expression and accept figures like Varela.
After the attack in Paris on the magazine Charlie Hebdo, the government and the opposition in Cuba denounced the savage murder of twelve people, including several of the publication’s cartoonists.
It was an empty gesture because neither the regime nor the dissidents tolerate criticism or jokes at their expense.
There is a Cuban Charlie Hebdo. His name is Jose Varela. He laughs at everyone. He lives on the other side of the pond and his weapon is his pen.
Translator’s note: In the U.S. a visit to the cartoonist’s blog site begins with a content warning that states, “Some readers of this blog have contacted Google because they believe this blog’s content is objectionable. In general, Google does not review nor do we endorse the content of this or any blog.” To enter the site, readers must then click a button that reads, “I understand and I wish to continue.”