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Vol. 74/No. 37      October 4, 2010

‘Everybody in Cuba
has access to culture’
LONDON—Aida Bahr, a prize-winning fiction writer, literary critic, and screenwriter in Cuba, recently spoke at two universities in the United Kingdom on “Culture and the Cuban Revolution.”

On September 10 Bahr spoke as a guest lecturer at a meeting of 70 people hosted by the Hispanic Studies Department at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The event was chaired by Dr. Fiona Mackintosh, a university lecturer in Latin American literature. The next day more than 80 heard Bahr at the University of London’s Birkbeck College. The events were broadly sponsored by bookshops, artists and other cultural figures, students, and trade unionists.

Bahr is director of Editorial Oriente, a publishing house based in Santiago de Cuba. Actor and screenwriter Andy de la Tour, who chaired the London event, noted that Bahr is also one of the organizers of the annual Havana International Book Fair, which he attended in February. “It was the high point of my trip to Cuba this year,” he said. “It’s not a publishers’ and agents’ love-in like the Frankfurt and London book fairs … but a truly mass event.”

Bahr described the watershed in Cuban culture opened by the 1959 revolution, as working people used the conquest of state power to eliminate capitalism on the island and take ever-greater control of society. The 1960-61 campaign to eliminate illiteracy was key and “one of the greatest achievements of the revolution,” she said.

Bahr described how her mother gave classes in working-class neighborhoods in their hometown of Holguín when tens of thousands of young people went to the countryside to teach peasants how to read and write. “1961 was the year of the Bay of Pigs and young literacy volunteers were targeted by counterrevolutionaries,” she explained. “A number lost their lives for what they were doing but many times more volunteered to replace them.”

At the same time, institutions were created to promote culture. Today “every municipality has a library, theater, cinema, gallery, art school, and museum,” including in municipalities made up of scattered villages, Bahr said. “So everybody has access to culture. Not everyone becomes a performer, but everyone is able to enjoy culture.”  
Shift in cultural policy
Bahr gave a vivid description of the shifting trends of cultural life in Cuba from the 1960s up to the present.

“In the ’60s many things were going on; there were lively debates and many magazines. Books were sold for 40 cents. The quality was poor, but we wanted to read them, not look at them. It was a time of massive participation.”

Bahr was taking her first steps as a writer in the ’70s, at a time when “we became dependent on economic aid from the Soviet Union and with that came considerable Soviet influence on cultural policy,” she explained. “Socialist realism was emphasized; art was considered in official policy as a means to ‘form the population.’

“Some of our best writers were marginalized because they dealt with subjects like homosexuality that were considered taboo. The Beatles were judged to be ‘decadent’!”

These policies were later reversed.

“Some refer to the ‘grey five years’ from ’71 to ’76, while others speak of the whole decade as the ‘dark period.’ Both are right,” she said. In 1976 the National Council of Culture was disbanded and the Ministry of Culture founded. “This was not just a change of institutions, but a change of policy.”

“So ‘grey five years’ refers to the official policy,” she explained. “But you also have to change the people. Many in official positions still held to the discredited policy.”

Armando Hart, one of the historic leaders of the clandestine revolutionary struggle against the Fulgencio Batista dictatorship in the 1950s, became minister of culture in 1976. Bahr explained that Hart called for a return to the inclusive cultural policy of the early years of the revolution, captured in the slogan: “Within the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.”

“In the ’80s there was a new debate, a new openness,” Bahr said. “A critical eye on Cuban art and fiction was developing.” There was an abundance of literary festivals and writers’ workshops. She described organizing book presentations in the streets and in factories. In one case she and a colleague brought a few copies of a book to present in a shoe factory, but the workers kept coming up to buy them, so they had to go back twice for more.

When the deep crisis hit in the 1990s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the abrupt ending of favorable trade and aid, it was “not a setback for creation, but for the material means of creation.” Writers started to deal with “unpleasant subjects,” such as prostitution.  
Paper shortage
Cuba continues to face economic challenges today. There is a shortage of paper. “Oriente plans to publish 42 books this year, with 27 already edited and ready for printing. But only three have been printed,” she said.

Oriente publishes a wide range of titles, both fiction and nonfiction. “We try to balance genres and tendencies and have both experimental and traditional writing,” Bahr said. “Every year we try to publish some unpublished writers. We’re not worried how well the books sell. We have to select the best.”

Lively question-and-answer periods followed the presentations at both events.

The Edinburgh meeting was sponsored by the Screen Academy Scotland; Joy Dunn, president of the Scottish Trades Union Congress; Elaine Smith, member of Scottish Parliament; Councillor Gordon Munro, Labour spokesperson on culture in Scotland; and many others.

Sponsors of the London event included dancer and choreographer Carlos Acosta; actors Charles Dance, Susan Wooldridge, and Roger Lloyd Pack; writer Pauline Melville; and general secretaries of the journalists and broadcasting trade unions.
Related articles:
‘Spending beyond income jeopardizes revolution’  
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