This past week at the Strawberry and Chocolate Cultural Center in Havana, I attended the “Last Thursday” debate, which is organized every last Thursday of the month by the editorial board of Temas magazine.
The forum consists of a roundtable with several guest specialists to discuss a theme that is determined at the beginning of the year.
On this occasion the discussion was devoted to “school textbooks.”
The topic was presented by magazine’s director, Rafael Hernandez. As the host, he asked that what was discussed not be disclosed, since the debate would be filmed and later shown to the panelists, who would be able to cut out anything they felt didn’t accurately reflect their thinking.
Likewise, another important point was raised: “Nothing would be posted on the Internet until it was first done so on an official site.” What I found curious was that they asked those in attendance at the public presentation to first remain silent on what’s said by the panelists, after they express their opinions openly before the more than 100 people present. Nor did I understand why these panelists would later have to retract anything.
Rafael, just as he demands of himself, went on to fulfill his commitment to the sponsors of the magazine by making two “commercial” announcements. He read letters from Ramon Labañino and Gerardo Hernandez, two of the five Cuban prisoners in the United States under charges of conspiracy to commit espionage.
Gerardo Hernandez’s letter alluded to what happened to opposition blogger Yoani Sanchez last year when she came to a “Last Thursday” debate in a disguise; she knew beforehand that she and the entire community of independent bloggers were not permitted in the forum. Nevertheless, in his letter to Rafael Hernandez, Gerardo Hernandez referred to Yoani as a, “wig-wearing German tourist promoted by the information transnationals who want to sabotage your debate.”
Personally, I believe that the sole entity acting explicitly as a saboteur of the “Last Thursday” debate has been the State itself, which on more than one occasion has kept certain people from entering the Strawberry and Chocolate forum. It’s worth clarifying that months before what happened to Yoani, moderate socialist Manuel Cuesta Morua and the rest of the members of his illegal association, Arco Progresista (Progressive Arch) were also prevented from entering the hall.
That fact could be looked at in two ways, since Morua Cuesta and many of the members of Arco Progresista are black, and because the debate was dealing precisely with the issue of racism in Cuba (by a strange twist of fate).
Rafael Hernandez belongs to a generation of Cuban intellectuals that came after “the historical generation” of the Revolution; therefore, they’ve had to live with the eternal guilt of not having gone to the Sierra Maestra Mountains to fight against the Batista dictatorship, for having been too young.
That’s why as a member of his generation, Rafael has had to spend his life demonstrating, time and time again, his inexhaustible loyalty to the Revolution. Like so many others, he has been “dethroned” on more than one occasion only to reclaim a position of prestige within the official party line, though with great effort.
Despite this, I believe that the work of political scientist Rafael Hernandez is commendable because he has achieved what seemed impossible: the creation in Cuba of a setting for debate in which the panelists often express their disagreement with each other and even with the State itself.
It’s important to highlight that the debate around “school textbooks” occurred with complete agreement between the panelists and those in attendance. The thinking of the panel was that while these texts contribute to students’ knowledge, if the teachers are poor then even the best books are of little value.
When the time came to open the floor to the public, excellent comments were made. One of the most outstanding was by writer Jose Miguel Sanchez (whose pen name is “Yoss”) who said that what must be reflected in the new school books are the new problems of Cuban society – those that arose in the wake of the collapse of the socialist camp and with the establishment of a dual currency in our country. The inclusion of these problems is necessary, he asserted, for children and teens to grow up with minds that are conscious, un-prejudiced and aware of their responsibilities to the nation.
The upcoming debate (set for Thursday, November 25) is titled “USBs: The Informal Consumption of Audiovisual Information.” That name itself is a harbinger of controversy since much of the audiovisual content consumed in Cuba is absolutely informal and has Miami television stations as its principal supplier.
Given that, I find myself praying that the “Strawberry and Chocolate” facility does not again deny the right to admission. If it continues to do so, instead of “Last Thursdays” what we’ll have are “Disguised Thursdays,” since we won’t know if the expressed opinions of the panelists will be the same as what’s published later.