Contributing to Social Debate in Cuba

Dalia Acosta

At this year's International Book Fair. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, March 11 (IPS) — The 19th International Cuba Fair Book concluded on the seventh of this month with little recognition of the event’s contribution to debate in current Cuban society, as attention was centered on honored individuals and Russia, the guest country.

Appearing on the broad program, which began on February 11, were issues such as the decades-long silencing of the nation’s reality, book anthologies that were once accessible only to a minority of intellectuals, and social movements and authors who have emerged and “grown up” in the margin of officialdom.

The 28 days of the fair unfolded in a countless number of parallel worlds.

In addition to the Russian cultural program, there were presentations with governmental backing as well as activities that exhibited an opening in Cuban cultural politics.  Some exhibitions received press coverage, while others “didn’t exist” in the reporting of the media.

Regarding Russia, there was “Too much food, which wasn’t bad, but too few books, few copies, and a not very Russian ambiance – they lacked traditional “matrioshka” dolls and Cossack dances for this to have been an authentic Slavic festivity,” said Cuban writer Jose Miguel Sanchez (better known as “Yoss”), who was disappointed with the limited selection of Russian literature in Spanish.

Cuba's Int. Book Fair. Photo: Caridad

Nevertheless, the fair —which travelled across the entire country— was as always “a meeting place for editors, authors and friends and a major cultural fiesta,” noted Sanchez, who has closely followed the influence of Soviet era culture on Cuba.

The public, which according to official figures surpassed 2.6 million people, turned to the large sales areas in search of novels, children’s literature and a moment of leisure for families. It was all blended with a wide food selection considered affordable in the national context.

More than 2.5 million copies were sold during the encounter; a figure considered significant by the Cuban Book Institute given this is a country of 11.2 million citizens.  However, observers consulted by IPS agreed about the need to promote editorial policies that —more than quantity— emphasize quality and selection variety.

The fair gathered memorable moments, such as the presence of South African writer Nadine Gordimer, Nobel laureate in literature (1991); an homage to Cuban historian Maria del Carmen Barcia, and the granting of the 2009 National Literature Prize to essayist Ambrosio Fornet.

Devoted to Barcia and the Cuban writer Reynaldo Gonzalez, the annual edition of this literary encounter had among its central activities a meeting of historians on the racial question in Cuban social science, an interesting contribution to the growing debate over the persistence of racism in this Caribbean country that has a large population of African origin.

The non-government-sponsored Centro Memorial Martin Luther King Jr. presented its anthology Raza y racismo, a 388-page work that collects texts such as “Desafíos de la problemática racial en Cuba” (Challenges of the Racial Problem in Cuba) and “Nuestra ceguera blanca” (Our White Blindness), by Cuban authors Esteban Morales and Yusimi Rodriguez, respectively.

One of the most awaited cultural media events was the presentation of issue number 36 of the magazine Criterios, which included studies on the circulation of ideas in the public sphere, censorship, the “re-politicalization” of art, intercultural philosophy and post-communist modernity.

The Centro Teórico Cultural Criterios, directed by translator and essayist Desiderio Navarro, also presented an anthology of Russian cultural thought, which included 33 of the 115 theoretical texts published in the past 37 years by Criterios on literature, cinema, theater, visual arts, aesthetics and the “culturology” of that European country.

The 2010 Book Fair in Havana. Photo: Caridad

Playing an important role in the debate on Cuban cultural policies, Navarrese said Criterios can be proud for having devoted its “modest resources and energies” in the 70s and 80s toward translating and presenting Russian works that defended open, anti-dogmatic and advanced concepts.

Other important contributions were made by Publicaciones Acuario, of the non-governmental Centro Felix Varela.  Among its publications this year is the work Familia y pobreza en Cuba. Estudio de casos (Family and Poverty in Cuba: Case Studies), a psycho-social inquiry by historian Maria del Carmen Zabala.

That same center also presented the digital version of Desigualdad y políticas sociales. Una lectura del caso cubano en clave compleja (Inequality and Social Politics: A Reading on the Cuban Case in Its Complexity), by sociologist Mayra Espina.

This text exhibits the effects of the crisis, subsequent reforms of principles of the previous decade, re-stratification and new inequalities that arose over that time.

The opening up to these issues was limited by the scarce number of copies of some works, the absence of some titles considered indispensable and the silence, in most cases, of the major media, which is in the hands of the State in this Caribbean nation.

The situation experienced in Havana was repeated on a large scale “almost to the letter” in the provinces , but “in smaller settings,” commented Pedro Manuel Gonzalez, a literary promoter with the Provincial Book Office in Santa Clara, 242 kilometers from the Cuban capital.

“While at one time some 30 authors from the rest of the country came, this year we could only invite 10.  The affects on the budget were also felt in the quality of printing of some books and in the shortage of copies,” said Gonzalez, the author of Vidas de Roxy, from Editions San Librario, of Colombia.

However, “justice will be done” with contributions such as the presentation of the book Narrar la nación” (Narrating the Nation), a collection of essays by Fornet; and the realization of “controversial events,” among which stood out the celebration of the anniversary of Criterios magazine, Gonzalez concluded.