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CULTURE & REVOLUTION: Cubans engage in dialogue on censorship and freedom of speech

The article below, titled “Culture and Revolution,” was published in the Dec. 4, 2020, issue of the Cuban daily Granma. It was authored by Abel Prieto, director of Casa de las Américas, the best known and most prestigious Cuban cultural institution. Prieto has written several books—including The Humor of Misha: The Crisis of Socialist Realism in Political Jokes and The Flight of the Cat—published in various languages. From 1988 to 1997 he was president of the influential Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, known as UNEAC by its Spanish-language acronym. He served as the Cuban Minister of Culture from 1997 to 2012 and from 2016 to 2018. He was also an adviser to Cuba’s former president Raúl Castro. 

The article responds to accusations levelled against the Cuban government for allegedly censoring artists and limiting free speech in the aftermath of the detention of members of the San Isidro Movement, a small and loose association of individuals claiming to speak for censored artists. The group burst into international notoriety in late 2020 thanks to backing by the U.S. government and savvy use of digital technology and social media. Rapper Denis Solis, one of San Isidro’s leaders and a self-described die-hard supporter of former U.S. president Donald Trump, posted a video online where he screamed: “Donald Trump 2020! That’s my president,” as he was arrested for contempt by Cuban law enforcement.

“In a country hammered by U.S. sanctions,” noted a Dec. 9, 2020, article in the New York Times, in an opaque reference to Washington’s 60-year-long ruthless economic war against Cuba,[1] “the [pro-U.S. government] politics of some in the [San Isidro] group have raised eyebrows” in Cuba. The Times article also acknowledged that “some members of his [Solis’s] artists’ collective…have been seen with U.S. embassy officials.”

On Nov. 26, 2020, after Solis was arrested, the Cuban government broke up a “hunger strike” of a few members of the San Isidro group. The day after this incident, about 200 artists, writers, students, and others who do not belong to the San Isidro Movement gathered outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana, Cuba, to voice their concerns about the Cuban government’s actions and to discuss freedom of expression. A group of 30 participants entered the building and held a dialogue about these issues for four hours with ministry officials. 

Translation of the article from its Spanish-language original and endnotes are by World-Outlook.com.

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By Abel Prieto

Photo: EFE

Not by chance, October 20 was chosen as the Day of Cuban Culture. I remember how Armando Hart[2] stressed with so much pride the significance of that date, when the Hymn of Bayamo[3] paid tribute, for the first time, to the men and women who lead the nation’s cultural life.

It had captured, so optimally—Hart said—the organic affinity between our artistic creators and the patriotic, anti-slavery and anti-colonial ideals of 1868; enriched thereafter by [José] Martí, [Julio Antonio] Mella, [Antonio] Guiteras, and Fidel.[4]

The victorious revolution in 1959 won the enthusiastic support of the overwhelming majority of Cuban artists and writers. Many, even those living abroad, returned to the island to join in building a new world.

Although U.S. aggression began very early—through pressure and threats, attacks, bombings, the funding of armed gangs, and a fierce media campaign—the revolutionary government did not neglect to advance Cuban culture. It founded ICAIC (the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry), Casa de las Américas, the National Printing Office, and the first school for art instructors, while also carrying out the literacy campaign.

As [Alejo] Carpentier[5] said, times of loneliness had ended for the Cuban writer and those of solidarity had begun. That is because the revolution created a massive and eager public for arts and literature. It also gave space to the most genuine and historically discriminated expressions of popular traditions and the most audacious pursuits in various artistic genres.

Unable to fathom the deep links between culture and revolution, the Yankees repeatedly tried to organize “dissident” groups in intellectual circles. But they failed time and again.

The case of Armando Valladares was an act of desperation. He was paraded before the world as a disabled poet and prisoner-of-conscience. They even published a highly advertised book of his poems dramatically titled From My Wheelchair. But he was neither a poet nor disabled (he nimbly climbed the airplane steps when he was pardoned). He had a murky past in the Batista tyranny’s police force and was sentenced to prison for terrorist activities.

Today, many years later, they present an alleged “movement” (San Isidro), an alleged “rapper” who was prosecuted for contempt, and an alleged hunger strike conducted by a dozen alleged “young artists.” They were backed by a big campaign in the foreign press, in digital media funded for political subversion, and in social media. They had the immediate support of [former U.S. Secretary of State Mike] Pompeo, [U.S. Senator] Marco Rubio, [Organization of American States General Secretary Luis] Almagro, and other notables.

Social networks were used to generate a tense atmosphere, charged with emotional intensity, in order to arouse expressions of attachment and moral support against a supposed injustice.

As studies by many analysts have shown, the use of social networks to appeal to emotions involves people into fleeting sentimental communities, and it paralyzes their ability to reason, judge, and determine the boundaries between reality and fiction.

Many (most) of those who gathered outside the Ministry of Culture on November 27 were influenced by the atmosphere created on social networks. Few knew what actually happened at San Isidro or who the main characters were. Perhaps some of them had had one or another bad experience and they felt hurt. I think they honestly wanted to have a dialogue with the institution.

Left: Cubans gathered Nov. 27, 2020, in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana, Cuba, to discuss freedom of expression. About 30 entered the building later and engaged in a fruitful dialogue with ministry officials for hours. Right: The dialogue on the San Isidro incident continued Dec. 5, 2020, at the Adelardo Estorino Theater in Havana. [Photos: (Left) Alexandre Meneghini/Reuters; (Right) Cubadebate]

Others (a minority) participated with total awareness in an operation against the revolution. They used social networks to amplify what was happening there and published it in a distorted way. Fake news was broadcast about an imaginary crackdown that included tear gas, pepper spray, and allegedly ambushed participants. They knew that their lies were helping to justify Trump’s policies against their country. Their only interest in “dialogue” was to turn it into news, into a show, and score it as a victory. Some needed to justify the money they are getting paid.

However, it is necessary to clearly separate the comic book these marginal elements of San Isidro represent, from what happened at the Ministry of Culture. Among the latter, there were valuable young people who must be heard.

The cultural policy of the revolution has opened a vast and unprejudiced space for artistic creators to work in total freedom. There have indeed been errors, misunderstandings, and blunders, but the revolutionary process itself has set out to rectify them.

Together with UNEAC and the Asociación Hermanos Saíz[6] (Saíz Brothers Association), these institutions are always open to a frank discussion with artists and writers. If for some reason the dialogue is interrupted, there are suitable communication channels to reopen it.

It is totally legitimate to discuss how to consolidate the links between artistic creators and institutions, to discuss experimental artistic expressions that have not yet been sufficiently understood, to discuss the indispensable critical function played by artistic creation, the “anything goes” aspect of the postmodern vision, about the freedom of expression, and so many other topics.

What is not legitimate is disrespect for the law, the desire to blackmail institutions, to disparage the symbols of the nation, to seek notoriety through provocation, to participate in actions funded by the enemies of the nation, to collaborate with those who work to destroy it, to lie in order to join the anti-Cuban choir in the social networks, and to incite hatred.

In the midst of the worldwide crisis brought about by the pandemic and global neoliberalism, Cuba also endures unprecedented harassment from the United States. That’s why they’ve chosen this particular moment to finance spectacles that distort the image of our country.

Any artistic creator who approaches Cuban institutions with legitimate objectives will find representatives willing to listen and provide support. There is no possible dialogue with phonies.

Dec. 5, 2020, event at the Adelardo Estorino Theater in Havana, discussing issues related to the San Isidro incident. Panelists include (from left to right) Casa de las Americas president Abel Prieto, Union of Writers and Artists president Luis Morlote, Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso, Hermanos Saíz Association president Rafael González, and Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas. (Photo: Cubadebate)

ENDNOTES

[1] The United Nations has adopted a non-binding resolution calling for an end to the U.S. embargo against Cuba with overwhelming support every year since 1992. A UN report published in May 2018 stated that the U.S. government’s financial and trade embargo on Cuba had cost the country $130 billion over nearly six decades.

[2] Armando Hart was one of the historic leaders of the Cuban Revolution of 1959. When the revolutionary government established the Ministry of Culture in 1976, he became its minister, serving through 1997. He preceded Prieto as head of the José Martí Cultural Society. Hart died in 2017.

[3] “El Himno de Bayamo” (The Hymn of Bayamo) is Cuba’s national anthem. It was first performed on Oct. 20, 1868, during the Battle of Bayamo. That was when the Cuban independence army freed the eastern city of Bayamo, launching the first war of independence against Spanish colonial rule. Perucho Figueredo, who took part in the battle, wrote and composed the song. The melody, also known as “La Bayamesa” (The Bayamo Tune), was composed by Figueredo in 1867.

[4] José Martí—revolutionary, poet, writer and journalist—is Cuba’s national hero; he founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892. Julio Antonio Mella was the founding president of the Federation of University Students and a founding leader of the Communist Party of Cuba in 1925. Antonio Guiteras was a student leader of the fight against the Gerardo Machado dictatorship in the 1920s and ’30s. Fidel Castro was the central leader of the Cuban Revolution; he served as the country’s prime minster from 1959 to 1976 and its president from 1959 to 2008.

[5] Alejo Carpentier, a leading Cuban and Latin American writer, is considered one of the best novelists of the 20th century. He was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, but grew up in Havana, Cuba. He self-identified as Cuban during his entire life. Jailed because of his activities opposing the Gerado Machado dictatorship, he went into exile in France, and later in Venezuela, after he got out of prison. He returned to Cuba in 1959 and joined the revolution. He served as a Cuban diplomat in Paris until he died in 1980.

[6] The Asociación Hermanos Saíz (Saíz Brothers Association) is a cultural organization for young people, formed in 1986, primarily with the growing appeal of break dancing and hip-hop music in Cuba.

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