Cuban culture

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Thu Sep 13 09:23:04 MDT 2001

Le Monde diplomatique, September 2001


Cuba: not shabby in soul

The Castro regime survived the collapse of Comecon and the US embargo,
isolation and mass tourism, though no one knows what will happen when Fidel
dies. The economy is battered and the Cubans have lost their financial
security, but they value their provision of arts and education perhaps more
than ever. 

by our special correspondent FRANÇOISE BARTHÉLÉMY*

Located at the entrance to the historical centre of Matanzas, Cuba's former
sugar capital, the Bonifacio Byrne cultural centre is a proud-looking
structure in spite of its dilapidated state. It is so short of furniture
that its patio chairs have to be hauled up to the second floor by means of
ropes so that music students can have proper seats. Chosen from various
primary and secondary schools, the students learn all sorts of instruments:
the lute, guitar, double bass, bongo drums and guïros, a percussion
instrument made from hollowed-out calabash gourds.

"This provincial centre for community culture opened its doors in 1991 even
though the 'special period in time of peace', caused by the collapse of the
socialist camp, was just beginning," explains Ileana Barrera, a spirited
woman from Matanzas who takes pride in the centre's success. "As material
goods were scarce, we thought that cultural activities would be vitally
important to offset the shortages and foster intellectual life." The
dismantling of the eastern bloc, with which Cuba maintained 85% of its
foreign trade (70% of it with the former USSR), in addition to the United
States embargo, plunged the island nation into the worst depression in its
history. From 1990-94, the most critical period, Cuba's gross domestic
product (GDP) fell by almost 38%, badly affecting the country's standard of

Ten years later Cuba stands re-emergent, as if seeking its past vitality.
Ms Barrera, a trained historian, represents the Afro-Cuba folklore group
and acts as a liaison between the educational and artistic communities.
"There are 50 of us who work at the centre, which is open to everyone, from
children to retired people. At the end of last year, Fidel [Castro] and
Abel Prieto, the minister of culture, decided to open 15 institutes
throughout Cuba to train thousands of art instructors. The training
programme includes five years of special preparation (dance, theatre,
music) as well as comprehensive training. Art schools have now been set up
in each province as well."

The first centres for art teachers were founded in 1960 but in the
mid-1980s they began to decline, as teachers left in search of more
lucrative careers. The situation, which has also affected schoolteachers,
engineers and doctors, got even worse in the early 1990s. Cuba's reliance
on tourism, by then the main pillar of its economy, required a double
currency system: dollars for foreigners and the privileged, and pesos for
ordinary Cubans, the communes y corrientes who were the majority of the

Arts teachers now earn approximately 200 pesos per month ($10). This is not
poverty-level but it means a constant financial battle. For idealistic
Cubans the shock of having to deal with market values was painful. "Until
1990 we gave away the handmade books that we produced in limited editions
of 200," is the rueful comment of Agustina Ponce, director of Ediciones
Vigía, a book publishing company. "In that same year we had to start
thinking commercially and that was painful. None of us grew up thinking
that way." Ms Ponce was born in 1958 to parents who strongly backed the
aims of the revolution and was herself a member of the Cuban Communist
Party (CCP). She has gradually adapted to the switch from a
state-controlled economy to variations on market economics. Ediciones Vigía
sells a substantial portion of its production in dollars to purchase
supplies, especially recycled paper. "Fortunately we benefit from gestures
of solidarity by the US, Canada, France, Spain and our Cuban friends,
whether here or elsewhere. They donate paint, brushes, crêpe paper, ink,
among other items," adds Ms Ponce. She says her two favourite projects are
expanding the number of bilingual titles and providing support to workshops
where young people learn skills such as drawing and working with paper.

A sham bound to fail 

In 1989 the state-controlled publishing sector produced more than 4,000
different titles totalling 50-60m copies, including schoolbooks. But since
Cubans are such passionate readers, demand always outstripped supply. In
1993-94, when ordinary consumer goods were scarce, and electricity cuts
lasted eight hours per day and fuel was nowhere to be found, book
production fell to 1959 levels. "Many thought that we were ruined," says
Roberto Fernández Retamar, poet, essayist, editor of the journal of the
Casa de las Américas cultural institute and recipient of the National Prize
for Literature in 1989. "I'm 70. The journal is my life. I wasn't just
aboard the boat. I was the boat. Well, we managed to survive the crisis,
and that was the people's achievement, not just the government's. Those of
us in intellectual circles shook a huge load off our backs. Our links with
Comecom  (1) were not only economic but cultural as well. Between 1971-76,
following the death of Che Guevara [in 1967], the revolution showed signs
of sectarianism. During that period a writer of José Lezama Lima's stature
was damned! We had changed course long ago, but finding ourselves on our
own was what helped to liberate us. And subsidising books to the extent
that we did was a sham that was bound to fail."

Cuba has not had to cope with the structural adjustments imposed on many
other countries, nor has it risked having its domestic market invaded by
exports from its powerful northern neighbour. Cuba has survived, and
reactivated its economy, though it has managed only to reduce, not
eliminate, the numerous hardships faced by the Cuban people. But a new
cycle of growth enabled the country to boost its GDP by 6.2% in 1999 and by
5.6% last year (2).

Keeping pace with these positive developments, editorial production has
gradually risen over the past few years as well. Although the prominent
publishing house Editorial Letras cubanas, which specialises in narrative
prose, poetry and essays, offered only 78 new titles last year, other
publishers have expanded. Ediciones José Marti, for example, which for many
years focused on political writings as well as publishing the works of José
Marti (3), went into severe decline in 1992, with the number of books
published falling from 130 to only 20. The company has since reinvented
itself and has kept up its foreign language publications. "Necessity
provided us with opportunities," says Cecilia Infante, company director
since 1993. "We began to focus on co-editions and co-productions with
foreign publishers, especially those based in Europe and Latin America.
We've published more literary works, poetry, short stories and novels. All
our books are sold in dollars, whether for export or for the domestic
market. We're delighted to see tourists heading off with the high-quality
guidebook Connaissez Cuba or a book about the famous bar La Bodeguita del

Others are less optimistic, including two students sitting on the steps of
the Capitole in Havana's central district. Iván had planned to give his
girlfriend Ada a copy of Isabel Allende's book The House of the Spirits for
her birthday.. He ordered the book but then could not afford its $15 price

"Dollar" bookstores started to appear five years ago and have rapidly
expanded in the past two years. "At the Moderna Poesía bookstore you can
find the best titles from the very best publishers," says Ada. "Sometimes a
store will have separate peso and moneda cruda (dollar) sections. In the
dollar section the quality is fabulous: the paper, the printing, the
authors, the topics. Not to mention the recordings, postcards and posters.
In the peso section you can only find older books such as Fidel and
Religion: Conversations with Frei Betto  (4) or the Marxist classics or
José Marti's complete works. It's infuriating."

We leave the Capitole and enter the bustling Old Havana district, with its
plazas, churches, paseos, fortifications, palaces, windows and doors with
ornate metalwork, and façades in various styles. In the Plaza de Armas is
the Cuban Book Institute. Adel Morales, poet, vice-president of the
institute and editor of the journal La Letra del Escriba (The Scribe's
Letter), comments sadly: "People, especially young people, read much less
than they used to. An entire generation has grown up with a shortage of
books and it'll take them a long time to catch up. In the space of a decade
not only economic life suffered but cultural life too. Yet at the same time
the number of writers is booming."

Culture is part of daily life

Unlike in the neighbouring countries of Latin America and the Caribbean,
culture is part of daily life in Cuba. Film premieres draw huge crowds,
theatregoing remains popular and information on cultural events is widely
available. Music is an integral component of the Cuban lifestyle, with pop
music events attracting as many fans as baseball games. "Up until 1990
books enjoyed a very high standing. When the crisis came, relations between
authors and readers suffered a devastating blow," explains Leonardo Padura
Fuentes  (5) at his home in Mantillas, a popular residential suburb on the
outskirts of Havana. "Still, the crisis has been beneficial. For the first
time since the revolution, there is now a distance between writers and the
state apparatus.

"The government used to control the cultural industry in its entirety. When
the publishing houses found themselves paralysed, authors had to look
elsewhere to find publishers. Writers gained some freedom by finding
opportunities abroad. Take France for example. Until 1988, when one spoke
of Cuban writers two exiled authors' names came up: Severo Sarduy and
Guillermo Cabrera Infante. Now Cuban writers comprise both those living in
Cuba and those living off the island. This applies to all artists. The
'inside/outside' division was bordering on the absurd. Although the issue
remains taboo in the world of politics, in cultural circles the debate is
ongoing and has been defined by two recent phenomena: the recognition that
there is 'one' Cuban literature which transcends political beliefs or place
of residence, and the government's loss of direct control over the results
of artistic creation."

In the first two decades of the revolution, cultural policies "encouraged"
artists none too gently to follow the path towards a variety of "socialist
realism". Ten years ago when Cuba found itself "naked in the mirror and saw
itself as it was", to quote the writer Reynaldo González, previously taboo
themes began to emerge: exile, seen in terms of human drama rather than as
the strictly political issue it once was, together with marginality,
racism, delinquency, corruption and homosexuality.

Easing of taboos

Although there may be no more taboo authors or taboo subjects, even the
meekest challenges to the regime and its dignitaries (starting with Fidel)
or any questioning of Castro's evolving political philosophy are
off-limits. After all, every media outlet remains firmly within the
government's control. The easing of taboos was apparent last April at the
last Book Fair, which featured 200,000 visitors, 1,400 different titles and
500,000 copies sold. The playwright and novelist Antón Arrufat, whose play
Los siete contra Tebas (Seven against Thebes) earned him a spell of
isolation in the 1960s, had his praises sung by everyone there. And the
renowned poet Gastón Baquero (1914-1997), shunned for decades because of
his political opinions and his decision to leave Cuba, has finally been
published in Cuba and to some extent "legalised".

Many think the minister of culture, Abel Prieto, has been a breath of fresh
air and has acted as a catalyst for the changes in the government's
cultural policies (6). "We're well aware of the gap between education and
cultural levels, and the ethical values that implies," says Prieto. "So
we've launched a plan for bringing culture to the people
 These measures
are meant to promote culture that is comprehensive and general. For example
there are the 'University for All' television programmes which feature a
wide variety of subjects, ranging from foreign languages and art
appreciation to geography, Spanish grammar, Cuban and world history,
comparative religion and other topics." These programmes are shown both in
the early morning and later on in the day to allow as many people as
possible to view them. "We are also starting action programmes in the
field, including training art teachers and performing culture-related work
within communities. Culture is currently the cornerstone of Cuba's social

At the Plaza de Marte in Santiago de Cuba (a port city in south-east Cuba),
you can board an overcrowded tarpaulin-covered truck where passengers have
to stand up. It is a miserable way of travelling to the lush Vista Alegre
district, which houses the prestigious Casa del Caribe (Caribbean House).
Its director is the intellectual and writer Joël James Figarola, a member
of the National Council of Cuba's National Union for Writers and Artists
(Uneac) (7), which meets with Castro every six months. According to
Figarola, the last meeting focused on ways to combat marginality, which has
been exacerbated by unemployment and poverty, as well as the lack of
opportunities available to many young Cubans.. He believes marginality can
be fought by applying the values it brings to the fore: courage and
friendship, respect for the family and motherhood, as well as supernatural
and religious practices, which constitute belief systems that also pay
tribute to beauty and life itself.

The artist Caridad Ramos could add solidarity to this list. Ms Ramos, 45,
is a sculptor who has produced a remarkable body of work, including the
Celia Sánchez monument (Lenin Park, Havana, 1985) (Sánchez was Castro's
companion until her death) and the Che Guevara monument (Holguín, 1988).
Her most recent exhibition Ambivalencias, last May, focused on male
dominance within a society "still ruled by men", double moral standards and
the solitude women face in their search for sexual identity. Born into a
family of poor farmers, Ramos recalls: "We had to share what little we had.
Solidarity was essential. Thanks to the revolution, I had the opportunity
to study, which my mother never had."

Ramos is involved with the Swallow Project launched in 1995. The project
brings together some 85 participants of all ages who receive training from
seven art teachers and take part in workshops on music, plastic arts,
acting and puppetry. Resources may be limited but there is no shortage of
enthusiasm.. Time is spent on both innovation and more traditional
repertoires. "No matter how difficult the 'special period' was, it was
beneficial," says Ramos. "The links with the Soviet Union were stifling. We
were clinging to the economic benefits we received from the USSR and found
ourselves in a state of dependency. Overprotection often crushes you. You
become lazy. Now we're digging deeper than ever before as we seek our own

Never caught unprepared

Alfredo Guevara, a leading figure in Cuba's intellectual and cultural life
and organiser of the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema,
goes one step further. According to Guevara, the collapse of the Soviet
Union was accompanied by short-term disaster that also offered the
opportunity to re-evaluate Cuba's role on the world stage. "I believe that
the revolution's greatest achievement was not that it won the guerrilla war
but that it launched an alternative development plan within the space of a
year. Of course the signs pointing out the route to take were already
clear: biology, computers and tourism. Relying on tourism is hardly an
original step for a developing country. But we made sure that the expansion
of the tourist trade took place gradually and cautiously, for opening up a
country brings any number of difficulties. We took risks, and immense ones
at that, but we protected ourselves against the biggest risk of all: to be
caught unprepared. As a small island nation next to a huge country that has
always sought to swallow us up, we once stood our ground with oil and arms.
Now we do it with tourism."

Is this too optimistic? The promotion of large-scale tourism has coincided
with a growing prostitution trade that is sometimes tolerated, at other
times suppressed, and has come to symbolise the waning values of the
revolution. The economic transition has come before egalitarian objectives
and has caused greater inequality, exposing Cuba to the risk of social
unrest. And even with the economic resurgence, an estimated 15% of the
population still lives below the poverty line. "We are aware of this,"
Guevara acknowledges, "and that is why tens of thousands of young Cubans
from the Young Communists or the Federation of Communist Students are
working tirelessly in the disadvantaged barrios (neighbourhoods), providing
physical and intellectual sustenance."

Last year 1.75m holidaymakers visited Cuba and 2m are expected this year.
In 1998 the cultural and tourism ministries drafted an agreement to expose
tourists to the finest aspects of local culture. Yet most visitors are keen
to take advantage of the easiest options: mulatas, palmeras, maracas
(mulatto women, palm trees, maracas). How can mass tourism be prevented
from dragging Cuban culture down with it?

The coastal resort area of Varadero represents the pinnacle of Cuban
tourism. Perched along a strip of ocean-washed sand, the hotels look out on
mile after mile of beachfront. Only foreigners can enjoy this. The hotel is
staffed by Cubans and the chambermaids and bellboys are generally
ex-professors and former engineers. This is shocking even if the situation
proves temporary, as the powers-that-be have maintained.

Owned by the Spanish-based Meliá hotel chain, Varadero Meliá, a palatial
five-star luxury facility, was unveiled by Castro in 1991. The hotel's
clientele includes Spaniards, Canadians, Germans, French, Portuguese and
Argentines. A portrait of Che Guevara hangs above the door of the Cuban
hotel manager, Nelson Hernández Sosa. On the wall there is a quotation from
José Martí: "Human greatness is not measured by what one attains but by
what one seeks passionately to attain."

"We present the highest forms of our rich, diverse culture for the benefit
of our guests," declares Hernández Sosa. "Although it was difficult to
convince Alicia Alonso, the star of Cuba's National Ballet, to come here,
eventually she did. The Matanzas Symphony Orchestra was eager to come.
Culture and education give a people dignity and also serve to attract
holidaymakers who are more intellectually curious than one might expect."

On one of the paths leading to the hotel restaurant Roberto Pérez Viscaino,
from Matanzas, is manning a stall featuring objects made from cow horns. He
had just got married when the "special period" began and found his dreams
of being an artist put on hold. For 10 years he has worked eight hours a
day at the hotel; and he paints at night. His mother-in-law, who emigrated
in 1994, lives and works in Las Vegas as a casino waitress. Pérez Viscaino
also considered leaving. "It's true, we're facing no end of problems," he
says, "but all things considered, we're a small island with an irate
neighbour. I visited Brazil and saw the violence, the illiteracy, the
hunger, the kids in the streets. In comparison you realise that things here
aren't so bad after all. We have plenty of security. You're not scared for
your life or your children's. Of course I'd love to travel. I'd need a
letter of invitation for that but I'm confident I could get one. I've won
awards in Japan and India, but I'm more interested in making a name for my
artwork than in making money."

Since the economy began to show signs of recovery, Cuba's leadership has
adopted a harder line and political openness is no longer on the table.
Confronted with the neo-liberal model, Cuba takes pride in having braved
its hard times without relying on (to quote Castro) "beans, seeds or
calories" but through "conscientiousness, confidence and patriotism"
instead. Now, more than ever, Cubans are being called on to build socialism
of a "superior quality" to that of the past.

At the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil,  (8) the Cuban
delegation called for a "globalisation of resistance" and received a warm
welcome. Could the "Castroist dictatorship" be encountering reserves of
sympathy, especially in Europe? The international climate seems propitious,
and this has no doubt prompted Cuba to display some heavy-handed
ideological hype. The two government-controlled television stations
broadcast endless round-table-style news programmes led by journalists and
politicians who discuss current events using the same tired arguments,
which the newspapers and radio stations then report in their entirety.
Ritual occasions known as "open tribunals" take place every week in some
provincial location, attended by hundreds of thousands of resigned Cubans,
required for example to denounce US military manoeuvres on the Puerto Rican
island of Vieques.

But if Castro's Cuba still plays this same old tune (el teque, el sonsonete
or la cantinela) and continues to put limits on democracy, its cultural
life is effervescent. Some magazines have a surprising freedom of tone,
such as Temas (Themes), founded in 1995 and edited by Rafael Hernández, or
the excellent La Gaceta de Cuba (Cuban Gazette), edited by Norberto Codina.
"I'm still betting on Cuban socialism," says Aida Bahr, who has headed the
Ediciones Oriente publishing house, based in Santiago de Cuba, for the last
three years. "Our country is trying to shift to a market economy, not
without some difficulty. If we Cubans are allowed to undertake this
restructuring on our own terms, we have the assets that will enable us to
move forward. Cubans are highly educated because the largest investment has
been made in people, in human capital. The country's biotechnological
industry also shows promise and its medical science is cutting edge.
There's no reason for us to make a 180 degree turn that would only bring us
the hardships faced by neighbouring countries."

Not everyone will find these comments convincing. Yet at the meeting of the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) last April, the World Bank recognised
that Cuba, which is ineligible for the loans made available to the
developing nations, has better social indicators than most of those same
countries (9). 

* Journalist

(1) The Comecon Council for Mutual Economic Assistance was the
international economic organisation for the socialist countries and was
dominated by the USSR.

(2) Nord-Sud Export, Paris, 9 February 2001.

(3) José Marti, the Cuban patriot and writer, was imprisoned by the Spanish
in 1869 for his revolutionary ideas and was killed in 1895 during the
Battle of Dos Ríos.

(4) Translated and published in the United States under this title by Ocean
Press in 1990. ( )

(5) Leonardo Padura Fuentes is best known for his Four Seasons tetralogy of
detective novels (available in French at Editions Métailié, Paris).

(6) Abel Prieto is the author of the novel El vuelo del gato (The Flight of
the Cat), published by Ediciones B Barcelone, 2000, in which he retraces
several decades of the Cuban revolution.

(7) Founded in 1982, the Casa del Caribe (Caribbean House) organises a
Caribbean Cultural Festival every June.

(8) See Ignacio Ramonet, "The promise of Porto Alegre", Le Monde
diplomatique English language edition, January 2001.

(9) Reuters, Washington, 30 April 2001.

Translated by Luke Sandford 

Louis Proyect
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