Sunday, March 28, 2010

Gloria Estefan at intersection of art, politics

Posted on Saturday, 03.27.10

Gloria Estefan at intersection of art, politics
In my opinion: Human rights and the Ladies in White
Myriam Marquez discusses human rights, the Calle Ocho protest led by Gloria Estefan and the 'Damas de Blanco' in Cuba.
Ladies in White stand up to regime in Cuba
In this 2008 interview, Yolanda Huerga speaks about the history of the 'Damas en Blanco' movement.
Miami Herald Staff

It may seem strange. She's a singer, not a politician.

Yet Gloria Estefan now stands squarely at the intersection of art and politics. And there, standing silently beside her on the stage at last week's Miami march -- as she called for peace, love and human rights -- was Emilio, the astute businessman who makes things happen.

Her crossover from artist to leader began last Sunday. Gloria couldn't take the TV images anymore of women in Havana getting beaten by regime-organized repudiation mobs as they marched silently to call attention to Cuba's dismal human rights record.

``We have to do something to let the world know,'' she told her husband. By Tuesday, she was holding a news conference calling for anyone who cares about human rights and freedom to dress in white and march ``silently'' Thursday down Calle Ocho. (The silent part, she joked later, was a tall order.) The Estefans would pick up the tab for security, closing streets and satellite time to beam the event worldwide.

It was a defining moment.

A march called not by a political group but by a shy, petite woman who has worldwide name recognition. A mother who doesn't care if diving into this political storm can wreck her popularity with some fans here or abroad.

Of course, Gloria and Emilio have never been apolitical. They have been to Guantánamo to sing to desperate balseros, held prayer vigils when a little boy became a political pawn in Fidel Castro's script. She's the daughter of a Bay of Pigs and Vietnam War veteran, who spent a year and a half in a Cuban prison.

Definitely, she has spoken up over the years about Cuba's dictatorship -- but only when asked.

But now Gloria is leading, not waiting to be asked, with a simple theme that's universal: treat others as you would want to be treated. That, in essence is the meaning of humanity, of empathy -- the ability to connect with others' suffering, a lesson she embraced, Emilio told me, when she studied the Holocaust.

Humanity. It's the same theme that Cuban-American actor Andy Garcia uses when asked about his homeland. These artists don't impose -- they expose.

Andy, who last year narrated a documentary about the Ladies in White, is leading a march Sunday in Los Angeles. Other marches have sprung up at college campuses where the group Raices de Esperanza, Roots of Hope, have been reaching out to young people in Cuba for several years.

For this is a historic moment. Two crazy old men in Havana have refused to change the script of their 51-year-old regime. They're still in revolution mode -- all fire and brimstone and blood to keep control.

Then Orlando Zapata Tamayo died Feb. 23 after an 83-day hunger strike.

The Ladies -- the mothers, daughters, wives and other loved ones of Cuba's political prisoners -- walked in his honor in Havana with Zapata's mother, Reina, leading.

And the mobs came to beat them, and the foreign media's cameras were there to capture it all, to see Cuban security drag elderly women and toss them as if they were trash onto a bus. And the European Union noticed and decided not to play nice with the Brothers Crazy.

But those images, oh, those images couldn't get out of Gloria's head.

At a packed Casa Juancho restaurant minutes before the march, Gloria was serene, glowing. ``This is so important, those women need the support of those of us who can speak freely,'' she told me, as a who's who of well-wishers squeezed in to greet her. ``We're here, we're comfortable. They're risking their lives. We have to add our little grain of sand.''

It's those grains of sand that can build a mountain of support for the Cuban people.

Emilio, the power behind his woman, was jubilant. Outside, the streets were flush with supporters dressed in white -- not just Cuban exiles but Venezuelans, Colombians, Nicaraguans, Ecuadorians. There were American, Cuban, Mexican, Spanish flags and others. There were young people; families; former political prisoners like Cary Roque, who fought 50 years ago; salsa stars like Willy Chirino and Lissette; and 20-somethings like rapper Pitbull.

But it was that Tuesday news conference that struck me most. There, Gloria and Emilio had managed to bring two warring camps to the same place. Members of the Cuban American National Foundation and the Cuban Liberty Council, which split from the foundation almost a decade ago over differences about how best to help Cubans rid themselves of the Brothers Crazy.

The embargo, the travel ban, the daily family flights, wet foot/dry foot -- all the tactics and all the policies -- were set aside on this side of the 90-mile puddle to focus on the images coming from Havana, on the mothers, daughters and wives who for seven years have been marching silently -- until now. Now they chant: Libertad.

And thanks to Gloria standing at that intersection where heart trumps politics, where art embraces truth, the ladies' message resonates. At last.

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