HAVANA TIMES — Some years ago, the death of an old professor who taught at the University of Havana unleashed a torrent of tears and praises among his former students, who remembered him as an exemplary educator, father and friend. Some even claimed he had taken a number of subversive stances within the stifling context of his faculty that were worthy of remembrance.
But the son of another intellectual from that generation that flourished in the 60s – respected by the same people who venerated the late professor, curiously enough – told the group of friends of which I was part a diametrically opposed story about the deceased. He called him an informer and an opportunist, and told us that, according to evidence that had come to light, he was one of the people responsible for the repression his father had suffered decades before.
Sometime later, on learning that Cuban institutions would be paying tribute to this veteran intellectual, I expressed my gladness in a kind of accolade I published in social networks. It wasn’t long before another intellectual who was also living in Cuba at the time (and who was younger than the first) expressed surprise over my enthusiasm. When I asked him why he was surprised, he shared a private and devastating testimony that attested to the lack of solidarity the celebrated intellectual had shown towards him during a censorship process he had endured. I was left speechless.
I would have dismissed these anecdotes as typical squabbles among faculties had these individuals (whose names I shall not divulge, for obvious reasons) not been intellectually valuable members of Cuba’s post-revolutionary academic elite. What their stories confirm, however, is how difficult it is to regard any intellectual career developed in the front lines of Cuba’s institutional panorama – a context where reasons of State penetrate artistic and intellectual circles – with indulgent naivety.
Such an approach, at any rate, would presuppose balancing out the social (or socialist) causes these thinkers alleged to have defended and their contradictory relationship with the adverse and concrete consequences of the system they bet on – the establishment and defense of an authoritarian order.
It is from this perspective that I wish to address the opinions recently expressed about the figure and legacy of Alfredo Guevara, following the publishing of an excellent interview with the late cultural leader conducted by Nora Gamez and Abel Sierra. There have been debates about his identity (as intellectual and government official), his view of the Cuban people (negative or optimistic), the reach of his critical thought and his links to the Cuban State.
As regards the usefulness and sense of these polemics, there isn’t much one can question: every thought can be subject to different and even daring approaches, particularly when we are talking about the thought of someone whose statements become diffused, without a clear direction, in a series of recollections, interviews and compilations of texts*. What each new fact that comes to light generates, ultimately, is renewed interest in the enigmatic figure.
In Guevara, we find an author whose works rely more on enlightened opinion than systematic reflection, a combination of ambiguous phrases and postures. It is a legacy where the nexus between intellectual rigor and social commitment gave birth to some rather bizarre creatures. I am thinking of Guevara’s unusual defense of the controversial film Guantanamera – a defense that involved explicit lamentations and silent protest – or the more recent incident, when he incited the young to fight for things which he, with more access to the country’s highest authorities than anyone else – did not want to address.
I don’t believe we ought to turn Guevara into an ogre or a hero. Like anyone who has pursued a career as an organic intellectual within Cuba’s institutional networks, Guevara was jointly or directly responsible for considerable achievements, secrecy, punishments and rewards. These are the intellectuals who champion a “plausible debate” (capable of making the most conservative members of the status quo uncomfortable) while confirming the practical and discursive limits of such a debate. They can certainly nurture and protect critical intellectuals and ideas, but, ultimately and globally, they thwart the development of a living, pluralistic social culture and thought that can have an impact on the daily life of the nation and its people. This gives us more than enough reasons to tear down the idol – one among many we have – that they would make of Guevara.
Guevara’s decisions and attitudes in terms of cultural policy produced valuable people and works, just as they left others without protection or downright screwed. His aesthetic tastes breathed fresh air into a film industry that was never once invaded by socialist realism, while they blocked other tendencies, works and filmmakers with their authority.
He is not a henchman, but neither is he a redeemer. He is not a somber bureaucrat, but neither is he an intellectual of the stature of other organic thinkers such as Carlos Rafael Rodriguez** or Fernando Retamar. Guevara represents that hybrid species that the cultural officer represents (a Lunacharski rather than a Mayakovski), needed in contemporary societies to mobilize public resources, protect artistic creation and favor the consumption of a certain kind of art. Under the specific conditions of State socialism, Guevara added to these the duties of a vigilant cultural commissar.
I respect those who wish to do so, but I, facing the urgent needs of the present and the political and cultural experiences we’ve accumulated in a post-Soviet Cuba, find no way of transforming the late official and his work into a cultural tradition we should turn to. Guevara may have taken collective artistic creation under his wing, but so has the poet Reina Maria in the course of these years, in spite of the censors, from a rooftop, with far less support and surely with far more spirit than the bulk of Cuba’s cultural institutions. So has Desiderio Navarro, through the project Criterios, sustained by an exceptional mix of erudition and agony by the polyglot translator and essayist.
Did Alfredo Guevara encourage novel social thinking? My impression is that the studies and debates my generation conducted at Havana’ Marinello Center or the Almendares park (as well as other spaces we improvised or set up at the periphery of official institutions) enjoyed greater autonomy and were much fresher than the fora he authorized…at least those I was personally able to attend. The list, from my point of view, could be far longer.
Reading Guevara’s works and testimonies, I notice a number of reiterated constants: fidelity to an abstract utopia prevailing over an assessment of its results, an oracular and elitist perception of the people as they are and a typically totalitarian mania of thinking himself in the vanguard of the nation and its history. All of these things are burdens we must shed if we wish to move forward towards new forms of civility and social knowledge, for there is nothing as antithetical to republican virtues as aristocratic propensity.
*The author of these lines has read Guevara’s collected correspondence Y si fuera una huella (“If I Were Merely a Trace”) the books Revolucion es lucidez (“Revolution is Lucidity”) and Tiempo de Fundacion (“Foundational Times”) and a series of interviews published in printed and digital media over the past fifteen years. I would be grateful for any additional information that could make my perspective on the author’s ideas more complex.
**The two-volume work Letra con filo (“Sharp Words”) is, in my opinion, a masterpiece of socio-economic and political analysis which attests to the intellectual stature of Carlos Rafael.