Cuba’s Cultural Policy: Sledgehammers and Speeches

Dariela Aquique

Fidel Castro in 1964. Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — The strategy for determining and controlling education and culture in the country as being based on political principles (understanding that I’m referring to unconditional support as stipulated by the government) can clearly be seen from that well-known speech “Words to the Intellectuals.”

Nevertheless I was reviewing other materials and found another speech from back then dated April 30, 1971, (in Spanish) at the closing ceremony of the First National Congress of Education and Culture.


Referring to the analysis of this event, according to el Comandante:

“The issues that raised the most heat, the most passion and the most unanimity, those which caused the most clamorous applause, were precisely those issues that addressed ideological questions, political questions, revolutionary questions, and that revealed how revolutionary ideas, patriotic ideas, internationalist Marxist-Leninist ideas have penetrated deeply into the heart and conscience of our people, especially in a large number of our educators. [We can see] how the teachers who were sent here as delegates were a true reflection of this thought, these ideas, these vertical and radical positions in politics, which is crucial.”

I have taken on the task of underlining the lines of the text that I consider frightening. Following that time, future generations would receive programmed instruction without the smallest option for questioning, which would end up making them limited in their ability, knowledge, analytical abilities and comprehension of many facts.

How then can you speak of our country’s educational level being at that of the First World? And also to boast about being cultured (and I’m speaking of education, not the educational system. I’m talking about the cultural level, not about being highbrow).

I found many more phrases, ones as alarming how as these:

(…) But one must maintain a very specific standard about the priorities of our Book Institute. And that standard can be summed up in these words: In the books published by our Book Institute, the first priority should be educational books (APPLAUSE), the second priority should be educational books (APPLAUSE), and the third priority must be books for education! (APPLAUSE). This is more than clear. (…) Sometimes certain books have been printed. The number doesn’t matter. As a matter of principle, there are some books that shouldn’t be published, not one copy, not one chapter, page or letter! (APPLAUSE)

This shows the very high levels of censorship that was faced (and still is) by publications on our island, whereby if you’re not a writer committed to the revolution then your work will be ostracized. Even beyond commitment, it will depend on the interpretations and decisions by certain officials who base these on certain models of what should or shouldn’t be read by Cubans. This reminds me of the Holy Inquisition.


Respect for intellectuals and artists, and the degree of their promotion or the allowed visibility of them and their work is subject to their political stance, beyond their actual abilities as creators. We see this unfortunate situation in a sentence by “Big Brother”:

“Our assessment is political. There can be no aesthetic value without human content (…)”

What human values is he talking about? Those defined by him?

There’s no human value in Paradiso, the novel by Lezama Lima? – who went for so many years without being published and who was finally recognized. There’s no value in any of the work of Virgilio Piñera? – who was also passed over but is now praised to the point of satiety.

Is there no human value in the novels by Reinaldo Arena? Or those of Guillermo Cabrera Infante? Or in the poetry of Heberto Padilla?

To give more recent and less known examples, is there no value in the work of Faisel Iglesias or Luis Orlando Pardo Lazo, only because the leaders of the revolution didn’t/don’t appreciate them?

How much literary and artistic work have we been deprived of? I’m referring to Cuban work, not to even mention international work.


Disrespect and contempt for intellectuals is manifested in these lines from the speech:

“And of course, as agreed to by the Party Congress, Do we have little competitions here to serve in the role of judges? No! To serve in the role of a judge one must be a true revolutionary, a true intellectual, a true fighter! (APPLAUSE).

And to get back to the subject of winning a prize in a national or international competition, one has to be truly revolutionary, a real writer, a poet of truth (applause), truly revolutionary. This is clear – and clearer than water. Magazines and competitions are unsuitable for phonies. They will only accommodate revolutionary writers.

“How have these people been receiving awards, writers of garbage on many occasions? Because more or less regardless of the technical level of writing or one’s imagination, we as revolutionaries value cultural works in function of the values they embody for the people (…) In contemporary times, who’s considered an intellectual? There’s a little group that has monopolized the title of intellectuals and intellectual workers.”

When I say intellectual rats, it’s clear that we hardly mean all intellectuals. No! There too, [the rats] are in the minority! But like sailors say, rats try to standout in their miserable role of passengers on boats that sink in the stormy seas of history.”

But this is a speech from 41 years ago. The terrible thing is what happened then is still happening now with these attacks against culture, which now not only depend on the levels of unconditional support for the regime. Now the paranoia goes along other channels, such as the issue of an artist having to do what they are told and not dream of trying to become rich.


It could be that you support the revolution, and that you have even been recognized and honored by it, but that doesn’t suffice if you appear to them to be profiting. Two irrefutable and distressing examples of this policy of harassing creators was the whole campaign unleashed in the 1990’s against “PM Record” studios, owned by singer-songwriter Pablo Milanes. This continued until it finally made him decide to shut it down.

There was also the closing of the workshop of artist Pedro Pablo Oliva, in Pinar del Rio last year, due to government actions stemming from certain statements made by the painter.

And now, the entire brotherhood let loose on disrupting a thriving business: “El Cabildo,” a private company de 130 employees in the city of Havana. This was founded by Ulises Aquino, a renowned baritone who also founded the Opera de la Calle (Street Opera) in 2006.

El Cabildo was a pioneer effort to put artists to work in their own sort of cabaret. Aquino, with the assistance of the Ministry of Culture, coordinated the licensed activities of three restaurants and set up shop in a previously abandoned facility where Cuban customers paid a 50 peso admission price (equivalent to about $2 USD), while tourists were charged $10 from Sunday through Thursday, and $25 for the weekend cultural program.

I quote from the Reuters article where it was reported:

“But Aquino Guerra had the misfortune of El Cabildo being noticed and Reuters writing about it with a grandiloquent headline: “In Cuba, An Opera Singer Building an Empire.” As a result, 10 days after that article appeared, on July 23 the director of Labor of the Playa Municipality issued resolution 29/2012 resending the authorization of Ulises Aquino Guerra to operate as a self-employed worker.

“It was found that that he was charging a $2.00 cover (or 50 pesos in national currency) during the show by the Street Opera Company, which was subsidized by the Ministry of Culture, and that those revenues were being used for personal gain (among other illegal activities).

This measure was responded to publicly and forcefully by the artist in an open letter that circulated on the Internet and to the Director of Labor of the Playa Municipality. In it he gave the details of the company and criticized the arbitrary manner in which inspectors burst into the facility in the middle of a performance. But nothing happened, no licenses were returned and El Cabildo has ended. Perhaps soon (hopefully not) the Street Opera will also close.

If you’re an artist, a Cuban intellectual, and want to live without problems, then shut up, nod and don’t make any more money than what they determine. This way your work will reach the masses, you won’t be labeled a rat, and they won’t shut down your workshop or your business. This way you won’t feel the manner in which culture is being sledgehammered in the name of culture, that battering that dates back to old speeches.


3 thoughts on “Cuba’s Cultural Policy: Sledgehammers and Speeches

  • It is a childrens lesson and sometimes for foolish adults, that two wrongs do not make a right.

  • And an elite class of 1% should not have the power to decide the fate of hundreds of millions of Americans as they they do in your country which you seem to be blind to.

  • No one single person should have the power to decide the fate of millions of people as this man had and for all intents and purposes, continues to have.

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