HAVANA TIMES, March 24 (IPS) – The wall had to be torn down anyway. Scrawled on its white surface had been the words “opportunism,” “mediocrity,” “bureaucracy” and similar words that were gradually fading under the force of sledge hammers and the beat of music.
This symbolic action, which took place in Havana this past November to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, was given direction by the youths of the Critical Observatory Leadership Network (La Red Protagónica Observatorio Crítico).
That spirit was also present in a forum held this month in the Havana town of San Jose de Las Lajas in which IPS participated. The group analyzed Cuba’s past and present, but not from the usual position of complacency or triumphalism; instead, they examined the island’s wide range of contradictions.
A few years ago, the Haydee Santamaria Critical Thought and Emerging Cultures Collective organized a forum titled “The Other Legacies of October.” In it they analyzed “the experiences of socialism in the 20th century, including Stalinism and the degeneration of the left,” explained researcher Dmitri Prieto.
The Haydee Santamaria Collective has been included since 2005 as a socio-cultural project of the Criticism and Research Section of the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz (AHS), a national group of young creators. In turn, the Collective created the Critical Observatory in 2006 as an annual mechanism to allow for the confluence of research efforts and alternative proposals.
Since then, various socio-cultural self-management representatives and initiatives have built up the network, which has facilitated the exchange, coordination and the promotion of joint actions of social impact that break with those of the “dominant dynamics” existing in every society.
“We learned how to dialogue in a country where there’s no culture of dialogue. We were sharing and creating a common collection of readings, experiences and polemics. Gradually, the focus turned from more universal issues to the specific problems of Cubans,” affirmed Ramon Garcia Guerra, one of the founders of the Haydee Santamaria Collective.
Citing another of the promoters, Garcia noted that “the observatory was becoming a setting that created other settings.”
Looking for a path
“Youth are not lost, nor do they want to be lost. Youth are looking for their path in a context marked by a crisis of societal models at the global level and by a crisis of references that should give security to the next generation,” said Carlos Simon, a professor at the Superior Institute of Art and another founder of the initiative.
“We have to ask ourselves what we want for Cuba. There are traditions of the past that are not worth rescuing. I would never attempt it,” Simon added during a debate that emerged concerning two works about the loss of cultural traditions in an old batey (various facilities in a sugar refinery) and in the eastern province of Santiago de Cuba.
The issues of the rescue of traditions, memory and history arose on the first day of the Fourth Socio-cultural Forum of the Critical Observatory of Cuba (held on March 13 and 14 in San Jose de Las Lajas, 25 miles from the capital) with the participation of intellectuals from seven of the fourteen provinces of the country .
In a relaxed and participative atmosphere, a wide variety of “urgencies” were tackled, such as university autonomy, the expansion of very limited opportunities for the creation of cooperatives, racism, ways of life respectful of nature, the center-periphery contradiction, diasporas and immigration.
The Observatory’s forum coincided with another one sponsored by AHS in the heart of Havana. Titled the Pensamos Cuba (Thinking Cuba) theoretical-cultural forum, it included round tables on participation and work, the art of criticism, the vision of the country in audiovisual work of the young generation and the writer in the face of social reality.
For Hiram Hernandez, a professor at the University of Havana and one of the coordinators of Pensamos Cuba, the coincidence in the timing of the two forums was not accidental. To her it was evidence that “we’re connected with reality, and that’s why we’re having similar events with similar audiences,” she said.
Observing while doing
With the premise that reality has to be observed, thought about, criticized, and also constructed, the Critical Observatory Leadership Network concluded 2009 as a year of active presence at the community level, but also in different cultural forums and in debates that continue to be carried out concerning Cuba today.
“Down with the bureaucracy, up with the workers, more socialism,” could be read on a banner carried by Network members in the May 1 International Worker’s Day march. Members of the group also participated in a march against violence and on November 27 were among those who paid homage to the five black heroes forgotten by history.
The network is comprised of a group of initiatives and people who work in the community in a self-managed manner, generally as volunteers. Among the other initiatives are El Guardabosque, Socialismo Participativo y Democrático, El Trencito, Ahimsa (meaning “no to violence” in Sanskrit) and El Grupo de Estudios Culturales Nuestra América.
The participating initiatives offer free services for digital publications, free “software,” tree planting and reforestation, animal vaccinations, ecological monitoring and children’s recreation. The Haydee Santamaria Collective has a mini book library and a public media library in its central office in Havana.
At the culmination of the first theoretical Digital Media and Culture Forum, organized by the cultural initiative Esquife in December, a letter was drafted and presented to the Ministry of Culture rejecting certain “obstructions and prohibitions against social and cultural initiatives” that occurred in 2009.
The message, which was signed by several initiatives and 77 people, called attention to the “increase in bureaucratic-authoritarian control” and the need to counteract that trend through “promoting dialogue” and “respecting the autonomy” of initiatives and people that emerge in current Cuban society.
“It is not so much about demanding, its about us doing things for ourselves, contributing to Cuba. Although it’s legitimate, we don’t believe in the usefulness of a position that solely accuses and criticizes. In addition to pointing out the problems, it’s necessary to project toward future realities that have an emancipatory character,” summed up Dmitri Prieto.