A Havana Bookstore and Space for Philosophical Debate

Daisy Valera

HAVANA TIMES — The long journeys in search of the rissole snack and carbonated drink that mitigated the hunger of my university years would usually take me to the intersection of Havana’s Infanta and San Lazaro streets, before a sign that pointed the way towards the then non-existent Alma Mater bookstore.

The 1-centimeter-thick coating of dust that had veneered the windows made it impossible to tell whether the bookstore, before closing its doors definitively, had been turned into a hair dresser’s or a souvenir shop.

For more than five years, the locale remained unchanged. Because of its proximity to the downtown area, I prophesied it would end up as a junk food establishment or pizzeria – a return to a commercial logic not unlike the one once evinced by the expropriated Lamparas Quesada light fixtures store that had once occupied that spot.

My predictions did not come true: the Alma Mater Internacional bookstore of old re-opened its doors on September 30th of last year, in commemoration of the “student revolt” of 1930 – a move that, rather than suggest how well things are going at the University of Havana, reveals the degree of apathy that characterizes the student body these days.

For the past four months, the wine-colored, air-conditioned bookstore of polished marble floors has operated without having to resort, as it once did, to the sale of office accessories or T-shirts bearing photos of the University of Havana (now ranked 56th among Latin American universities).

This past November, it opened two new locales: one with computer consoles (without Internet access) and a conference room / art-gallery space.

Though one can come across an occasional book from Cuba’s excellent Criterios collection, what abounds in the bookstore are books of poetry and Latin American novels, Cuban children’s books and miscellaneous science journals. It is next to impossible to find works by the main European thinkers of the past century.

The majority of the volumes available are those produced for the annual Cuba Book Fair (Feb. 13-23 in Havana), an event which, of late, has been chiefly dedicated to countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.

One of the novelties of the recently re-opened bookstore is the Pensar con (“Thinking With”) space, fruit of collaboration between the Cuban Book Institute and the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Havana.

To date, the space has held debates surrounding the thought of such philosophers as Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault. It will focus on Jean Paul Sartre throughout February.

In recent decades, philosophical inquiry in Cuba has been limited to the teaching of Marxism-Leninism (and not as a result of a debate among Cuban intellectuals). Many are of the opinion that the philosophy syllabus at the University of Havana has been designed, not by philosophers, but by ideologues.

The recent and superficial “updating” of this syllabus hasn’t stemmed from theoretical developments or the fact philosophy teachers have become familiarized with other schools of thought, but from political events such as the collapse of the socialist bloc.

The new space for debate offered by the Alma Mater bookstore could well represent a reaction to many years of dogmatic, restricted and sterile education, an act of resistance to the imperative of having to think exclusively on the basis of old Marxism-Leninism manuals.

6 thoughts on “A Havana Bookstore and Space for Philosophical Debate

  • Have you ever stopped to consider that perhaps your ideas are so “out there” that there is little or no interest in them?

  • The US media does have a significant liberal bias. Not Communist, not socialist, not anarchist, but “liberal” which is roughly centre-left on the US political spectrum.

    However, there are several Marxist writers who somehow manage to get their idiotic columns published in the mainstream media. For example, Jesse Myerson’s recent piece in Salon defending Stlain, Mao and communism in general.


    When is the last time a pro-capitalism op-ed was ever published anywhere in Cuba?

  • Once again, you lose the bet. My brain did not explode. Blum seems to ignore Paul Farhi in his reply and misses the point that the role of the media in presenting the “news” is to publish the facts. As a separate action, the media, as it often does, has a responsibility to provide opposing sides editorial space for debate. That his narrow view of the world (and yours) is not well or often represented in US media is a reflection of the extremeness of your views. He complains about the lack of US media that supports the views of former despots like Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia, Moammar Gaddafi of Libya, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, or Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti. Likewise, there are few outlets that reflect the perspectives of pedofiles and serial killers. How do you know the political leanings of the wealthy owners of US media? All you know is what they publish. Recently, a prominent editor of Cuba’s
    government-controlled newspaper, Granma, defected to the US. In a televised interview she expressed her personal editorial biases which ran counter to what Granma published. Unless, you know these people personally, you have no idea
    what their politics are.

  • And…. speaking of a bias in the media and what cannot be said ….you might want to Google up “Blum: Bias By Omission ” which is a superbly detailed article on the one-sidedness of the U.S. media.
    Yes, Cuba allows only one side of things to be presented but for a person from the United States to be critical of that limitation on a free press when in the U.S. some six huge corporations determine what we see, hear and learn on some 95% of the media seems to me to be the height of hypocrisy.
    In Cuba the people know that their government tells them only what the government wants them to know.
    This is not the case in the U.S. where the corporate media, run by only the very wealthy, have somehow convinced the middle class that it’s all the fault of the poor.
    There is not one COMMUNIST editor, owner, columnist, writer who is anywhere near the top yet the U.S. public believes that the U.S.media is overwhelmingly liberal.
    So… go ahead Moses ..venture into terra incognita, read the Blum piece and see what you’re not seeing.
    My bet is that you won’t make it past the second paragraph.before your brain explodes.

  • What is most remarkable about this story of a bookstore in Cuba is that it is remarkable at all. In a society that has produced many outstanding writers, it is surprising how few bookstores there are in Cuba, and how few Cuban writers’ works are available in them.

    Even more remarkable is that people need to find an alternative space for discussing philosophy, given that the Department of Philosophy at the University of Havana, just up the street, doesn’t allow that sort of thing.

  • One of my earlier casa particulares is just across the street from this bookstore. I am happy to hear it is open again. There is a small, privately-owned art gallery a few doors down the street that is a real treat. The real test of change in Cuba will be when even one book critical of the Castros is available for public sale. I am not holding my breath…

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