On the 6th of April 2022, six students from La Chataigneraie, in years 11-13, had the opportunity to attend the 14th Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy. The day was not only inspiring and profound, but provided important insight into the lives of victims of oppressive and authoritarian governments. Although the Summit itself, held in Geneva’s International Conference Centre, was fascinating and at times gut-wrenchingly sad, the general consensus amongst the attendees from La Châtaigneraie, was that the interviews which the students had the opportunity to conduct in pairs with various speakers at the conference were the highlight of there experience.
One interview that left a long-lasting impression on the interviewers, Maya Breckenridge and Pola Aleksandrowicz in year 11, was with former Cuban political prisoner, artist and activist, Hamlet Lavastida. The interview focused on the use of art as a powerful tool for activism, especially in repressive governments, such as the Cuban government. When asked about the use of art in his activism, Hamlet Lavastida described art as solid and sometimes more impactful on the public because of its existence in a space, and its ability to conceptualise problems into a form of expression more understood and accepted by the public. He also praised art for the ability to be less theoretical while still having a huge impact in the cause, the proactiveness of art, and its ability to change and adapt depending on its message and what will be more impactful at the time that it is conveyed. Lavastida highlighted the necessity to think of the role that you want the particular piece of art to play in society, when creating the art, as well as who the target audience is for said piece of art, to assure a response to the art which challenges thinking, in the way intended. He stated “When I create art, I try to address the problems of my society, which is Cuba. I focus on the lack of political and historical background present in Cuban society.”
When asked about how censorship and freedom of speech has affected art and art with political messages in Cuba, Hamlet Lavastida described the different levels of censorship ranging from suggesting or pressuring the artist to banning their art, to physically persecuting them, as was the case of Hamlet Lavastida and many of his artistic colleagues. He highlighted the fact that censorship exists everywhere in the world, but in Cuba it is established by the government, so impossible to escape.
Hamlet described his experiences as a Cuban political prisoner as using Soviet methods, including both physical abuse and psychological torture, and explained that although the methods used are well known, the specific case of Cuban imprisonment is barely known or talked about. He describes his experiences there as “paranormal activity”, and compares it to UFOs and such, to highlight the severe impact it had on him. To end the interview, Hamlet Lavastida shared some advice to younger generations pursuing activism, especially under repressive or authoritarian governments. “My advice is that you can never stop, to continue, encouraging the people, encouraging the society, encouraging even just the close people around you. I think empathy is transmitted through one person to the next.” He highlighted the importance of giving testimonies and bearing witness of what is happening, and establishing connections between the people you are trying to inform of your experiences.
Another interview that was packed full of interesting and inspiring messages was with Miguel Henrique Otero, the CEO of Venezuela’s last independent Newspaper El Nacional, which was founded in 1943 by his father, a writer and journalist and his grandfather, an entrepreneur. El Nacional quickly became the most popular newspaper in Venezuela because of how modern it was at that time. Throughout the next years it became a liberal, centre left newspaper, surviving the dictatorship of Marcos Pérez Jiménez and his censorship. When Hugo Chavèz won, El Nacional backed him, because he was pro-freedom of speech, and had a much more capitalist approach. Unfortunately, due to the influence of other authoritarian regimes, he became obsessed with staying in power, and began expropriating private enterprises, including newspapers, fighting with the media, and ultimately destroying freedom of speech. Due to this, El Nacional decided that being an internet platform was the best decision for them, feeling it would give them a safety net, especially due to the pressure put on them by the government, being the last independent news source.
Although the internet platform has now been banned in Venezuela, the newspaper is trying to teach Venezuelan civilians to use VPNs to access its sites, to give them an impartial source of information. When asked about the power of the written word in the opposition of a government, Miguel Henrique Otero accentuated the importance of facts and information to build an opposition of a government, and explained that this is why the Venezualan government made such an effort to nationalise newspapers and television. He also highlighted the rising difficulties of getting reliable information to the Venezualan public, due to the government being increasingly secretive, as well as harassing their journalists, who now have to resort to being in disguise. To conclude the interview, Miguel Henrique Otero shared some ways that El Nacional has been getting around the restrictions put in place by the Venezualan government. “Anybody can be a journalist. The traditional media don’t like social media and its approach in giving information, but we have an example here (this summit) of how powerful it can be”.
Both these activists went on to speak in a panel on Resisting Dictatorship in Latin America, where they gave testimonies and speeches of their protests against their authoritarian governments. As can be seen from the extracts of these interviews, both individuals described the importance of regular people in resisting dictatorship and repressive governments, in both word of mouth protest and updates given on social media. Both Hamlet Lavastida and Miguel Henrique Otero believe that, through the joint efforts of many people, change can take place, even in the most repressive of regimes.
We would like to thank the organisers of this event for inviting La Châtaigneraie every year since 2010, the many speakers for making such a huge impact on everyone listening, and Dr Hambley, for giving us the opportunity to attend.
(If you would like to watch the Summit, here is the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ujKzQ2nBeZ0&t=1s )