CULTURE-CUBA: The Times, They Are A-Changin’
By Dalia Acosta
HAVANA, Apr 7 (IPS) - Topics that are taboo in Cuba, absent from media coverage and missing in the political discourse were nevertheless present in debates at a congress of intellectuals who advocated a greater role for criticism in society, and more room for dialogue and participation.
"This is one more sign that the country is changing. Analyses are much more realistic, and there’s a shift in attitude among officials when they face criticism," a participant at the Seventh Congress of the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) told IPS.
"Not only was the congress critical of systems that used to be virtually untouchable, such as Cuba’s public education system, but that criticism has come from people in high positions, and has been well received by the people moderating the debates," added the intellectual, who preferred to remain anonymous.
For his part, Alfredo Guevara asked "Can primary, secondary and prep schools properly educate children and adolescents and thus lay the foundation for the future as they are at present, governed by misconceived criteria and practices that ignore elementary pedagogical and psychological principles and violate family rights?"
The "new" curricula reflect improvisation or "a lack of design" in present Cuban society, said Guevara, one of the veteran cultural leaders of the Cuban revolution. A solution, he argued, must involve "fundamental corrections."
"Sound solutions cannot be built on the basis of dogmas, obstinacy, lack of knowledge of reality, or ignoring the warning messages provided by experience and coming from the people," said Guevara, who founded ICAIC, Cuba’s film institute, in 1959.
"UNEAC must help build the Cuba of today. The country, in effect, is accepting that what was neither convenient nor prudent yesterday is necessary today," said Havana city historian Eusebio Leal, who added that the changes being experienced by the country today are not "cosmetic," but profound.
Although it was off-limits to accredited foreign correspondents on the island, the Mar. 1-4 congress was extensively covered by the national media, which devoted pages of print, hours of broadcasting and space on Internet sites to the main speeches.
UNEAC, which was founded in 1961 and has over 8,500 members, faces the challenge of reviving its democratic character and role as a channel for dialogue between writers and artists and the rest of society, aspects that according to the main report produced by the congress have been largely lost since the 1990s.
The cultural congress, the first to take place in Cuba since Fidel Castro stepped down, coincided with the implementation of a set of government measures intended to eliminate unnecessary prohibitions and restrictions, stimulate production and open up new options for the population, but within the framework of the country’s socialist system.
Although the Cuban media avoided mentioning the spontaneous debate that broke out among intellectuals in early 2007, and it is not yet known whether it was discussed in the congress, it is a safe bet that the spirit of the so-called "e-mail war" was alive and present at the meeting’s different commissions.
An important measure, related to that debate, is the proposal to create a working group attached to the presidency of UNEAC, to monitor aspects of "institutional control and censorship and to follow up on specific cases that may arise."
"Most conflicts over publicly circulated works arise because appropriate, respectful dialogue is not established in time between officials and the artists, who quite rightly feel committed to the integrity of their work," said critic Helmo Hernández.
He also proposed a UNEAC commission "to watch for and study any signs of discrimination, not only racial but also based on gender, religion or sexual preferences."
"Casting an Afro-Cuban actor, or even five or 10, in important roles in a television serial does not necessarily mean that an open debate about diversity is being held, nor is the problem of race portrayed in depth by their mere presence," said playwright Norge Espinosa, who added that the same is true in the case of sexual diversity.
The analysis went to the essence of present-day Cuban society. "We must delve into and debate not only what socialism means, but also, most importantly, how to make it an attractive and culturally desirable goal," said essayist and poet Víctor Fowler, one of the participants in last year’s e-mail debate on cultural freedom.
In Fowler’s view, socialism must be transformed into "a pleasant way of life marked by an extremely wide spectrum including lifestyles, sexual identities, entertainment, folk practices, religious forms, open spaces for people to use, and new forms of interpersonal communication."
Becoming more attractive is a "categorical imperative" for "a social process, in this case a socialist revolution that is already half a century old and has, in addition to external enemies, the contradictions that the process itself has generated in its progress, and the attrition that wears down so much strength," said Fowler.
Writer Fernando Martínez Heredia said that the prevalence of "ingenuous or superficial antithesis" in the world of ideas, like the false opposition between "native and foreign," is "very damaging," as is "blindly lashing out, or alternating between hard and soft positions" in the field of practical measures.
There is clearly much to be done. The congress also debated the role of the media in Cuba, including the banality encouraged by today’s television programming, the silence of the national press on some aspects of modern Cuban reality and the limited access to the Internet.
"We talk about a culture of debate, but we don’t have spaces where the practice of debate is systematically facilitated," said Rafael Hernández, editor of the cultural journal Temas, who also spoke of the need to "create spaces for truly inclusive discussions on the Internet."
Among the problems discussed were hard currency-only sales of Cuban music and films, the lack of venues for dance music and singing, meagre royalty payments for authors and the lack of resources which threatens Cuban television production.
Prior expectations which have not been reflected in the national press also include the need to legalise independent music and film and TV productions, which have been ushered in by new technologies and the limited response and support from state companies.
"UNEAC must help build the Cuba of today. The country, in effect, is accepting that what was neither convenient nor prudent yesterday is necessary today," said Havana city historian Eusebio Leal, who added that the changes being experienced by the country today are not "cosmetic," but profound. (END/2008)