HAVANA TIMES, March 8 — The Cuban government “released from his post” of minister of Culture, Abel Prieto Jimenez, and in his place named Rafael Bernal Alemany, who until two days ago held the position of first deputy minister within that same institution.
Prieto had been key to harmonizing the government’s relations with intellectuals, first as the president of the Cuban Association of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and later as the minister of Culture, a position he held for 15 years.
The former minister had requested to step down from that office for some time to deal with health problems and to resume his work as a writer – in fact he published a new novel this year.
He was one of the few ministers left from the government of Fidel Castro. Most were removed from their posts, some discreetly, others transferred to different functions, a few receiving public accusations and at least one winding up in jail.
THE CRITICAL YEARS
Abel Prieto took on the presidency of UNEAC in 1991 – a critical moment. As the island’s economy was suffering its worst crisis, the Cuban intelligentsia collided with the Ministry of Culture, as that institution tried to cling onto mechanisms that it could no longer finance.
Until that time the government had paid the salaries of artists and intellectuals, and bought their works; however the disappearance of the Soviet Union left the government without funds. Nonetheless it refused to give up its monopoly over the cultural market.
The reaction was immediate. Musicians, writers and painters stopped returning from their travels abroad, while on the island protest groups were born as artists reflected in their works and in open letters the discontent they festered.
The response from the ministry of Culture was repressive, professionally “re-accommodating” the most critical of these individuals. One of them, a professor at the Superior Institute of Art, ended up employed as a customs clerk, while others joined dissident factions and many others simply left the country.
A KEY PERSON
From his position with UNEAC, Abel became the channel through which creators expressed their demands for adapting to the difficult times they were experiencing. Thanks to his efforts, they were allowed to travel, sell their creations abroad and keep the money.
Painters, musicians, actors and writers were also able to live abroad for years without losing their Cuban residency. Soon this sector of society became one of the most prosperous in the country, and the political conflicts lessened.
When the former minister was dismissed in 1997 and Prieto was then appointed, the intelligentsia applauded, though the measure did nothing more than institutionalize a role and the power which in reality he had already held for several years (while at UNEAC).
An indication of the sympathy that even today Abel Prieto arouses among Cubans is that the vast majority of comments from people (on his leaving his post) that appear on the government’s Cubadebate website are directed toward recognizing the role he played over the past 15 years.
NOW ON THE OUTSIDE BUT CLOSE AT HAND
In the times of Fidel Castro, the cultural front was — along with the military — one of the few that initiated reforms to adapt to new realities. Stated in a more official manner, they already were “updating” the model.
According to sources from the ministry, President Raul Castro refused to replace Prieto despite his repeated requests to step down. The president did accept to take him off the Politburo but insisted on keeping him as the head of Culture.
Apparently the government couldn’t decide who would be able to replace him and guarantee harmony with Cuban artists and intellectuals, especially in a time of so many changes in the country.
At the beginning of the Raul Castro government, a protest broke out among intellectuals (“the e-mail war”) following a TV program that praised three members of the former censorship apparatus. This was the entity that had been responsible for monitoring the sexual and ideological purity of culture, as well as punishing offenders by ostracizing them.
Prieto resolved the crisis by meeting with most of those who were indignant, assuring them that the appearances did not reflect official policy and issuing a public statement that disassociated the government from any resurrecting of those despised figures.
All of this explains why President Raul Castro doesn’t want Abel Prieto to stray too far and therefore appointed him as an advisor, bringing the work of the new minister in some way under the supervision of his former boss.
CHANGES IN THE CABINET
With Prieto now out of the cabinet, 20 ministers have been replaced. There are only two from the previous Fidel Castro government: Manuel Marrero, the head of tourism; and Interior Minister General Abelardo Colome Ibarra, the head of domestic security. The latter is a man is very close to the president.
Some of the others — former guerrilla fighters that included ex-Minister of Health Jose Ramon Balaguer and ex-Communications Minister Commander Ramiro Valdes — now play other roles after running into serious problems in their ministries.
Among the most notorious public cases were those of Vice President Carlos Lage and Foreign Minister Felipe Perez. The minister of the Food Industry, Alejandro Roca, was finally sentenced to 15 years in prison for corruption.