The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.62/No.42           November 23, 1998 
Cuban Artists Take The Offensive -- `Culture Is A Weapon To Defend Our Socialist Revolution'  
Below we reprint the document on "Culture and Society" presented at the congress of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (see box below). Translation and subheadings are by the Militant.

Our congress has justly been identified with the name of Juan Marinello, whose 100th anniversary we commemorate today. Bertolt Brecht, Federico García Lorca, or Paul Robeson could be singled out in a similar way. Beyond personalities, the year 1998 marks the anniversary of two far-reaching historic events that we cannot fail to mention: the 150th anniversary of the birth of the Communist Manifesto and the 100th anniversary of the U.S. intervention in the Cuban war of liberation. We'll come back to the first one. Regarding the second, as we well know, it was the visible beginning of modern imperialism, and for Cuba it meant we ceased being a colony of Spain only to become a U.S. colony, with this or that name, for six decades - until January 1, 1959. That date thus marks the winning of our independence and, simultaneously, the opening of the Cuban revolution. As history showed, neither could be won without the other.

About the Communist Manifesto, the least that can be said is that, 150 years after its first publication, the document remains startlingly relevant on basic questions. It recognizes developments such as the internationalization of capitalism and its devastating impact on all aspects of human existence, as well as the enormous differences between rich and poor. It demonstrates how capitalism, far from being an unchanging system (what would frivolously be called "the end of history"), is, to the contrary, subject to enormous crises and contains within it the seeds of its own destruction.

This text, a founding document in so many ways, is also, in a certain manner, a manifesto on globalization. Today, throughout the world, we are living with the consequences of what was seen and foreseen in its pages with great insight. Among these consequences was the subsequent rise of imperialism, which was analyzed and described by Lenin, and what has been called late capitalism, which is what exists today -marked by a predatory neoliberal globalization that many label "postmodern." In discussing culture and society, especially in Cuba (and from Cuba) in 1998, it is necessary to take up these questions.

A world order that destroys culture
We do not limit the concept of "culture" to arts and letters (although it is obvious that, as writers and artists, we give these the place they deserve). For us, culture is the coherent, unified face of a society. In our case, it is above all a Cuban culture, tied, of course, to the culture of all humanity. This perspective reinforces the remarks made by comrade Fidel [Castro] at our last congress [in 1993], where he said that "above all we must save our culture." This is a point he has returned to on a number of occasions. For example, in the masterful presentation Fidel gave at the Autonomous University of Santo Domingo August 24, he stated:

"A terrible problem ... we are facing is the assault on our national identities, a ruthless onslaught against our cultures such as we have never seen in history, the tendency toward a single, universal culture. Can such a world be conceived? It is not a world that combines the wealth and culture of many countries, but a world order that, by definition, destroys culture, a globalization that inexorably destroys culture. What is a homeland if not one's own culture? What is national identity if not one's own culture?"

This "terrible problem" is faced especially by all countries that today are often called the South. But it also affects countries of the North, which are experiencing an attempt to replace their rich and ancient cultures with a kind of modernization that has turned out to be no more than Americanization and banalization - from thought itself, to the media, to the fabric of everyday life. The country that, more than a century ago, Martí(1) called "the American Rome," is acting like the old Roman Empire, only this time on a world scale. The problem is especially acute for our peoples. We are well aware of this in Cuba, which, for obvious reasons, is the focus of our attention here.

Since ours is a socialist revolution, we think it is of utmost importance to take into account the collapse experienced by the countries that called themselves communist in Eastern Europe, and to draw the lessons of their experiences. When the only such country was the Soviet Union, and it had not yet (or barely) gone through the traumas that would mark it so negatively, Antonio Gramsci wrote:

"Fighting for a new art would mean fighting to create new artists, which is an absurdity, since they cannot be created artificially. One must speak of the struggle for a new culture, that is, for a new moral life, that cannot but be intimately tied to a new intuition of life, until it becomes a new way of feeling and seeing reality and, as a result, a new world intimately fused with `possible artists' and `possible works of art.' "(2)

This struggle was evident in the opening years of the October [1917 Bolshevik] Revolution, which were characterized by an intense artistic ferment and renewal, which unfortunately was later stifled. During these early years (as now it appears clear to us), it was not a question of competing with capitalism on its own terrain. Rather, what was decisive was the "struggle for a new culture, that is, for a life with new moral values." The goal was that the development of all would be the precondition for the development of each, and vice versa. The goal was a free and just society, not a society of opulence. Competition with capitalism on its own terrain, accepting its rules of the game, would come later; it would affect everything, from the economic to many aspects of the spiritual, and would turn out to be fatal.

In his essay "Actually existing Marxism," where he took up the famous collapse of the so-called actually existing socialism in Europe, Fredric Jameson(3) spoke of "the essentially cultural failures of communism," of its "failure to create a collective, specifically socialist, culture." And having considered the terrible situation such countries have ended up in, we are forced to draw conclusions from the sudden turn of events there.

`Compañero' vs. `Señor'
Not long ago, some of us objected to the fact that some people have dropped the word compañero, indiscriminately substituting the word señor together with the corresponding feminine and plural form of each. This is not a discussion of some superficial matter. Giving that up is a (small but noticeable) part of what could become giving up "a collective, specifically socialist, form of culture," a "way of life and a subjective practice" that our people have been forging in the heat of decades of revolution. These are cultural realities that we must defend if we don't want to suffer a disastrous transition (or regression) to capitalism. Our banner, on this and many similar fronts, must be: no concession to a return to the worst of pre-1959 Cuba, to neocolonized Cuba, with all the scourges of the past.

For this reason, we cannot help but be concerned about the inevitable presence in our country - the result of the concessions the revolution has had to make in order to survive - of small pockets of capitalism. While these may be, as we said, inevitable, that is not the case with things such as the construction of buildings that are caricatures of the vulgar structures that imperialism plants throughout the world, buildings that violate the norms of urban development and show no regard for the architectural values or the overall image of the cities, which are also part and parcel of our identity; the unnecessary or excessive introduction of English, sometimes at the expense of our language; the presentation, as works of art, of foreign and native works of abysmal quality; attitudes, open or hidden, that are susceptible to shallowness and to right- wing ideas that are in vogue - all under the guise of being up- to-date.

More examples can be added to the list, unfortunately. Claiming it is a question of satisfying tourists and visitors is a false argument, because the more our country appears less like itself, the more we will encourage tourists and visitors to go to the country we are making a caricature of. The fact that this country, as we well know, is the United States, particularly its Miami area, only makes things worse.

We cannot forget for a minute that our country has been and is blockaded (indeed, subjected to an economic war) by the United States for close to 40 years. Legislation such as the Torricelli and Helms-Burton laws proclaims the renewed intention of the government of that nation to destroy ours, with the pretext, also unacceptable, of doing so through the revolution; they resort to hypocritical fifth-column efforts like those that make up "Track II."(4) Our culture is called on to play a central role in defeating their objectives. Thus, all attitudes that undermine our culture (wherever their source, and regardless of how aware one is of this fact) are anti- revolutionary attitudes.

Schools that stimulate culture
One of the institutions that should have the most weight in any transformation of society and culture is the schools. Being free, universal, and guided by socialist principles in our country, it is evident they must promote, from the earliest years, an education that not only opens the way to the revolution in science, technology, and information, but also points to the humanist dimension of knowledge and the need to dream through art and literature - an education that is imbued with the demands for representation by the various groups that make up Cuban society, and that stimulates love for our culture. With regard to the latter, following the commendable example of what is already being done in relation to Martí's message, we must require our students to become familiar with the vast heritage of Cuba. Presenting the totality of our past and present culture in a step-by-step way, with programs organized by age, specialty, and level, would lead to an enriched view of who and what we are, and would provide a barrier against the very serious dangers of penetration and forgetting our past.

It is essential that we proclaim the importance of our authentic popular culture (which is so strong among us), appreciated in its true dimension. Only criticism that is unprejudiced, informed, and knowledgeable of the ground it covers is qualified to separate the wheat from the chaff; to redeem, as a worthy part of our culture, that which is deeply rooted in our foundations. We must break down the false wall between the elite and the masses, a porous division that it is healthy to cross in both directions on a daily basis. It is also necessary to fight to keep the dubious demands of the market from adulterating the products of popular culture, as they so frequently do.

It is our duty to defend both our cultural patrimony and our genuinely modern culture. Only with a superficial view could they be considered distant or even opposite realities. The first guarantees the continuation of the values, some attained over centuries, that have helped give us our distinguishing features; the second allows us to rise to the needs of the times we live in and constantly renews those features. But we insist it must be a genuinely modern culture, arising from our needs, not from attitudes that are simply copied.

This dialectic of traditional and modern leads us to underscore the kind of unity that we need - one forged out of a diversity, unity in the best sense of the term. It is not a question of repeating the same thing but of taking many enriching paths toward a common horizon that is constantly renewed. That unity requires strengthening the ties between generations (without minimizing the inevitable and positive differences) in order to develop a vigorous platform for our work.

Given the great difficulties we have confronted and continue to confront, it is even more necessary to stimulate our work as writers and artists. To stimulate it spiritually, of course, but also materially, providing income, wherever possible, both in national currency and hard currency, for those who must find ways inside the country to earn due remuneration for their labor.

As for those who, for various reasons, have settled outside the country, we must clearly distinguish between those who, wherever they may find themselves, maintain their ties to the country, and those who have broken those ties or hide them, chameleon-like. The latter are sometimes ideological fugitives, afraid of the harsh conditions that imperialism and the fall of European socialism have forced us to live under - they are the Alberto Lamar Schweyers and Raúl Maestris of today.(5) Like them, they are full of vacuous words that cannot hide the openly reactionary and neo-annexationist character of their ideas, and are frequently well-paid, even if they are second- or third-rate talents. Nonetheless, no matter how far removed we may be politically from those who are hostile to the revolution, we can't mechanically reject their artistic and literary works, which, in spite of everything, may continue to belong to our culture and even enrich it.

A basic aspect of our work as creators of art and literature is the role of criticism they tend to play. And it is not only art and literature. In "Our America," José Martí wrote his memorable words: "People must live criticizing themselves, because criticism is health; but with a single heart and a single mind." Since works of art are not mere ornaments but rather ways of penetrating reality, they cannot abstain from criticizing that reality. Of course, it will be a criticism that is "healthy" when it is carried out "with a single heart and a single mind" - in our case, those of the nation and its indispensable revolutionary aspirations, which must be based on a correct combination of responsibility and boldness.

The role of criticism in much of our art and literature must find greater resonance in our mass media, even though there are notable exceptions that we are happy to applaud. Unfortunately, however, it remains largely true, as has already been said, that we still have a very provincial way of thinking when it comes to criticism and debate. In order to meet the standards of the dynamics of the Cuban revolution, we urgently need to rectify this situation, for the good of all.

Need to address sharpened inequalities
The pockets of capitalism that we have mentioned have created or sharpened inequalities, and, at the same time, have produced signs of regression in treating social relations. Sometimes, in imitating what happens in other countries, certain enterprises return to job distribution schemes that give preferential access to the better-paying jobs to "whites" over "blacks." Similarly, the image of our country that appears in certain shows and some of the media reflects very inadequately the multiracial character of our culture. It is only because of the survival of inherited prejudices together with a lack of imagination that, putting aside the original versions, many characters have to be "white." (Our dance groups often provide examples of a useful approach to this question).

To this, one can add a reluctance to openly discuss the question of racial prejudices, a basic question in a country of our characteristics and at a time of such scandalous and shameful racism in so many parts of the world. On the other hand, "white" racism tends to produce an equally unacceptable "black" racism. This question must urgently be taken up in a thorough way. It requires constant attention, as it represents a vital strategic line for preserving our community.

Despite the fact that women have been the hardest-hit section of Cuban society during the special period, we are pleased to note that the number of women involved in literary and artistic activity has increased, with remarkable results. It is evident that there has also been an improvement in how homosexuality is viewed, and we are pleased to know that an outstanding role in this improvement has been played by works such as the film Strawberry and Chocolate,(6) a valuable example of what criticism embodied in a work of art can do in helping to alter certain aspects of social reality. These changes in society must be accompanied by a continuous process of reflection, without which we would be unable to have a thorough understanding of their nature and confront their implications.

Understanding the approach we must take in face of this difficult contradiction is complex but unavoidable. If we don't follow the rules of the market, where will we get the resources to sustain cultural productions on a large scale? If we only follow those rules, what will we end up turning our culture into? To take just one example, the field of publishing, small printings and relatively high prices have reduced considerably the number of our readers, which used to be high. It can be said that our cultural periodicals, which have been playing an important role, are read by only a small minority in the country.

Our culture grew in a dialogue with the rest of the world. We must maintain and develop that dialectical relationship. Before the special period, this had been achieved to a substantial extent. Achieving it again is another challenge we have before us. Since we have referred to that basic concept of "Our America," let us remember that Martí advised grafting all cultures onto those of our republics, without forgetting that they must remain the guide. Among these cultures to be grafted, one can mention those of the Third World and those of the former socialist countries. As if by magic, the latter seem to have disappeared from our landscape, which is not exactly inspiring; meanwhile, we are flooded by U.S. products that are rarely the best.

Several of the preceding points, of course, are related to the difficult material conditions we are forced to endure. That does not exempt us from creating values that reinforce our sense of national identity, of our culture. Now, we carry out that task by confronting realities such as the persistent search for the dollar and the devaluation of our currency, even though it is undergoing a recovery. We have experienced the absurd refusal, in some places, to treat Cubans on an equal basis with foreigners, even if they pay with dollars.

Sooner or later, relations with the United States will be reestablished, since the blockade they have imposed on us is irrational and unsustainable. Are we prepared to face that challenge, as we have been in confronting the blockade? Starting now, we must develop a "Track III" to confront the threats of Track II and go on the offensive.

Going on the offensive seems a good point on which to end these thoughts, which of course could continue much more, and which will be enriched by the comments to follow. Redeeming the gains of the revolution and socialism, which are our pride, cannot be accomplished any other way but by moving forward. And by doing so with our feet planted in the present and our eyes on the future that we have the obligation to conquer. We, the writers and artists of Cuba, are conscious of our duty to help achieve this goal.

1. José Martí was the central leader of the struggle for Cuban independence from Spain in the late 19th century and is Cuba's national hero. He died in combat in 1895.

2. Antonio Gramsci was a founder and central leader of the Italian Communist Party. He was arrested by Mussolini in 1926 and died in prison 11 years later.

3. Fredric Jameson is a professor at Duke University and the author of Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.

4. The misnamed Cuban Democracy Act of 1992, often called the Torricelli law, and so-called Cuban Liberty and Democratic Solidarity Act of 1996, or Helms-Burton law, both contained provisions often known as "Track I" and "Track II" of Washington's aggressive policies against the Cuban revolution. The first refers to the tightening of the U.S. economic embargo. "Track II" refers to provisions that - in the guise of promoting the "free flow of ideas" between the United States and Cuba - aim to corrupt and buy off Cuban academics and professionals.

5. Alberto Lamar Schweyer and Raúl Maestri were liberal Cuban intellectuals in the 1920s and '30s who moved sharply to the right, becoming supporters of the pro-imperialist Machado dictatorship.

6. Strawberry and Chocolate is a popular, prize-winning film by renowned Cuban director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea.

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