Award for a Unique Cuban

By Dmitri Prieto

Desiderio Navarro
Desiderio Navarro

Desiderio Navarro is a singular individual.

About 60, born in Camagüey Province and gray-haired, he never finished his university studies. He lives in a building in a remote municipality of Havana Province-“in the country,” as we Cubans usually say.  His apartment resembles mine a little.

Nonetheless, Desiderio Navarro is a legend.  I’m not sure how many languages Desiderio speaks, but they’re quite a few.  He’s translated Russian, Hungarian, Bulgarian, French…15 different languages in all-making him probably one of the most competent and industrious translators in Cuba.

Desiderio is also a cultural theoretician.  When no one in Cuba knew what post-modernism was, Desiderio was already versed in the subject and capable of analyzing it in depth; that was in the 1980s.  Many writings by him have become immediate classics once published.  Among them is his essay “In media res publicae,” dedicated to criticizing the cultural policies of the Cuban Revolution since its 1959 victory.

But none of that is sufficient to characterize Desiderio, who on September 2nd received one of the Prince Claus Awards, granted by the Dutch foundation of the same name.  Valued at around 25,000 Euros, he has already announced that he would use it “for his work”.

The Foundation specifies: “Honored with this award is, Desiderio Navarro for his passionate dedication to the dissemination of critical intellectual knowledge on cultural theory, for his penetrating analytic literary work, and for his outstanding contributions to freedom of speech and cultural development in Cuba.”

This was in view of the fact that Navarro is the founder and prime force behind the socio-cultural magazine “Criterios” (Opinions), which has been in existence for more than 37 years and possesses a unique status in the history of Cuban culture and intellectual life.

“Criterios” (in plural) is a harpoon aimed at the monopoly of the bureaucracy and the ideological censors of the 1970s.  It was a window open to the winds of change that swept around the world in the 80s, and has been a source of indispensable theoretical assessment for a great many students, researchers and critics since the 90s.

 Desiderio Navarro speaking at the symposium “The Other Legacies of October,” organized by the Haydée Santamaría Autonomous Collective in March 2005.
Desiderio Navarro speaking at the symposium “The Other Legacies of October,” organized by the Haydée Santamaría Autonomous Collective in March 2005.

Today “Criterios” is a magazine, but there was a time in which it was only a single page in another publication put out by UNEAC (the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba).  It could not be more than that at that time.  The very use of the plural (the final ‘s’) in the title of the publication used to be harshly attacked by the ideological bureaucrats.  Throughout the whole period of its existence, “Criterios” has published more than 300 essays and articles by 197 outstanding authors from 30 countries.  Very few of those writings are accessible in other publications; and keeping in mind the still precarious situation of the Internet in Cuba, the indispensability of Desiderio’s effort is understood.

Recently Desiderio produced a CD for students titled “1001 Texts,” which was distributed for free to a hundred Cuban institutions.  Twice the number of those writings can be copied freely onto flash memories at the Criterios Theoretical-Cultural Center, which has finally found a physical setting in the Cuban capital, occupying one of the floors of ICAIC (the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry).

A while ago I attended a presentation by Desiderio at the Casa de las Americas, where he made available to the public a wonderful translation of a dictionary of mythology compiled in the former Soviet Union (USSR) under the direction of the famous semiotician Yuri Lotman (one of Desiderio’s constant references).

Desiderio recalled his experience in the daily struggle against the bureaucracy, and compared the fate of his undertaking with that of the magazine that Lotman directed in the former Soviet Estonia.  Each edition was published conscious of the risk that it could be the last one.  That same spirit, according to its principal advocate, was shared by the few specialists involved in the writing of “Criterios.”  That militancy was at once felt by the hundred people in the hall who made that moment theirs, some with applauses and others with tears.  Notwithstanding, a room packed with people is not the same thing as finding oneself alone in front of the offices of a shrewd and double-dealing cultural bureaucracy.

The small staff of the project coordinated by Desiderio continues with determination in its complex work.  But it is his unique personality that has been the guarantee.  If in some place in the world someone happened to ask me the unlikely question of whether a social movement made up of a single individual could exist, I would respond with conviction in the affirmative. Fortunately such a situation can exist in Cuba.  Unfortunately we have also learned of the unbearable need for the existence of such a movement in Cuba.

Desiderio Navarro is one of the most competent specialists with regard to cultural policies under “real existing socialism.”

I hope he surprises us with many more works: as much with his own writings as with his translations, or with new editions of much needed writings on cultural theories and practices. In this way he will continue demonstrating to us that academic titles in themselves are not worth anything; what values are commitment and diligence, and especially the desire that more people like Desiderio emerge. I’m sure this would be his greatest award.