Reinventing Cuban Culture

Dariela Aquique

Abel Prieto. File Photo:
Abel Prieto. File Photo:

HAVANA TIMES — The other day, I read somewhere that Abel Prieto, President Raul Castro’s advisor and Cuba’s former Minister of Culture, had expressed concerns over what he calls the “Americanization” of culture.

For some time now, Cuban authorities have expressed their preoccupation over how certain sectors of the population, particularly the new generations, are strongly attracted by all things foreign and tend to undervalue local culture.

On the street, we see people wearing T-shirts, caps, belts, kerchiefs and wallets bearing the flags of the United States, Great Britain, Spain, Italy and a whole series of other countries. It is becoming more and more difficult to run into someone wearing something that invokes Cuba as a country.

Young people imitate foreign customs and throw Halloween-styled parties. Girls refer to sleep-overs as “pajama parties” and want to put together cheerleading squads. Teenagers go out to private discos where DJs and electronic music replace casino dancing.

Cuban society is straying from its traditional customs. Boys and girls are given foreign names like Jonathan, Jordan, Christian or Stephanie. In a country with such a limited and restricted access to the Internet, people are increasingly interested in owning sophisticated, cutting-edge wireless technologies – sometimes only to boast about it.

In a country where saving any money is a true ordeal, people are buying expensive pets, throwing ballroom parties for Sweet 15 celebrations and arranging pompous weddings (with a master of ceremonies and all), invoking a “high life” which the revolution was meant to have abolished, a lifestyle that appears to rise from the ashes like the Phoenix.

At home, families prefer to pay for the so-called “weekly package” and watch these shows on their DVDs than to sit through Cuban television programming.

Why is this taking place?

It’s simple, Abel Prieto. This “Americanization” of society or “cult of the foreign”, whatever you want to call it, is the logical response to the many years of politicization of Cuban culture.

What respect towards local culture can one expect from a country that decided to impose Pello el Afrokan on people and forbade them from listening to the Beatles? It’s not that the Afrokan had no merits as a performer, but to deny people the greatest musical phenomenon of the past century was a sacrilege and a blatant show of ignorance.

A lot of literature, cinema and music could not be read, seen or heard in Cuba for decades, only because these were produced by artists who did not support the government or, worse still, because the government didn’t like them. On the other hand, those in line with government policy were promoted, even when they were mediocre artists, as was quite often the case.

Has Abel Prieto forgotten that, in the 70s and 80s, Cuban culture was sovietized? That the T-shirts of the time had photos of Yuri Gagarin or pictures of Misha the Bear? That more than half of the people from my generation are named Alexei, Mikhail, Vladimir, Natasha or Nadia? That I know more than two black men named Volodia?

Yes, it’s true that young people today prefer to wear T-shirts with the shields of Spain’s Barca or Real Madrid soccer teams, or with images of the New York Yankees or St. Louis Cardinals, rather than put on a shirt with an Industriales, Pinar del Rio or Santiago baseball team logo. This is so, first of all, because the former have better designs and are of better quality, and one’s money is better spent on these than on second-rate items sold at hard-currency or peso stores at exorbitant prices.

The communist government senselessly repressed everything it considered a throw-back to bourgeois culture, such as beauty contests (calling these “puerile competitions”), events that were nothing less than social customs in pre-revolutionary Cuba. Cuban women went from wearing cosmetics, putting on fancy clothes and strolling down the cat-walk to heading up mountains to teach people to read and write, going to countryside schools, doing volunteer work and practicing their aim at shooting ranges, to defend the homeland against any aggression by the enemy.

Entire generations grew up surrounded by political slogans and propaganda (present at all sporting, artistic and cultural events), and this has made people reject these almost involuntarily. As Marx said, the law exhausts itself through its compliance, and all things forbidden bid their time, waiting for the moment to resurface. What was forbidden has returned like a boomerang following Cuba’s so-called “social liberalization.”

The worst part is that this wave brings bad things along with the good. People in Cuba may know how to read and write, but their aesthetic education is fairly questionable. That is why a fair number of people opt for the banality of Mexican and Venezuelan soap operas, Colombian TV series, where the main character is always a drug dealer, reality shows, silly game-shows, sensationalist news programs and other demons.

Though we cannot deny that a good part of Cuba’s television programming aims at the didactic and the promotion of the arts, the precarious set-design and lighting and the cursed intrusion of political messages everywhere have made these programs lose much of their audience.

The specter of political subversion and the fear of individual wealth have been the pretexts and reasons invoked to take down highly valuable cultural projects. Let us recall the case of poet Heberto Padilla and his forced confession more than 40 years ago, or, more recently, the closing down of the Pedro Pablo Oliva Visual Arts Workshop – or the shutting down of baritone Ulises Aquino’s restaurant and cultural venue El Cabildo, to name only a few cases.

Cubans face an uncertain future. Social uncertainty and political crisis are translated into the search of an identity that was distorted.

Now the president’s advisor, Abel Prieto, fears the “Americanization” of culture, but, following the Words to Intellectuals, what we had was the “Castroization” of culture. Then came the sovietization of culture. Today, some talented people of good faith are creating art. Others lose themselves in mediocrity and mimicry. Both, in their own way, are reinventing our culture.

4 thoughts on “Reinventing Cuban Culture

  • Really? Most kids dont buy European football shirts because of a design aesthetic but because it plugs them in to the rest of the world. It shows that they have a vision beyond Cuba. That does not mean to say that they dont love Cuba but when the place you come from to all intents and purposes alienates you from the rest of the world, you will try to overcome the restrictions. They are aware that so much of the Western world is joined up and they are not part of it; so cultural choices in terms of music, clothing, even food is just the way they can demonstrate that they are also part of it. It is a political statement not simply a response to politicization by the government. And all over the world, the poor spend disproportionately on ‘frivolous’ things to show the same thing – that they are part of the system, that they exist, that they can. To be visible.

  • Your culture is deep within your human make up, it has been ingrained into your genes. You are a Cuban, past, present and in the future.

  • Culture is not something that can be engineered. People need to own it from the inside out. Attempts to restrict and control thought can back fire. We are living in the age of socialized information. From all economic walks of life, we all have more information available to us at near zero cost if we have Internet access.

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