Cuban Culture Gets Foreign Boost

By Patricia Grogg

HAVANA TIMES, Nov 20 (IPS).- In Cuba, international aid is promoting the advancement of cultural projects, adopting an approach that enriches the traditional perspective on development with a dimension closer to the needs of the human spirit.

With that aim in mind, two European organizations, the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (COSUDE) and the Dutch Humanist Institute for Cooperation with Developing Countries (Hivos), have kept up their aid efforts in this Caribbean island nation, along with other initiatives by multilateral bodies, in spite of political and diplomatic changes.

“Foreign development aid goes directly to enhance the spirit of the population,” Yoanny Sarmiento, director of the Casa de Cultura cultural center of Jamaica, a town located more than 800 kilometers east of Havana, told IPS.

In Jamaica, the second-biggest town in the province of Guantánamo, a project that began in 2006 aims to revitalize the community’s social and cultural life, backed by financing from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which has supplied technical equipment to cultural centers.

“There has been a huge increase in the number of appreciation workshops and the quality of artistic products has improved enormously,” says Sarmiento, a 33-year-old music instructor.

“We don’t support art for art’s sake, but rather for the social and cultural role it plays,” Susana Rochna, coordinator for Central America and the Caribbean for Hivos’ Art and Culture program, based in San José, Costa Rica, told IPS.

Hivos, a Dutch non-governmental organization inspired by humanist values, is active in 30 countries around the world, working with local organizations in a range of fields, including culture, where it supports independent artistic initiatives

“This marriage between cooperation and its concern for development and art has an interesting effect, because it helps raise social awareness,” said Rochna. “We support art that is quite avant-garde and anti-establishment, that stimulates reflection, generates change and awakens the best in people.”

Of the 800 non-governmental organizations that are backed by Hivos’ Culture Fund, 150 are located in Latin America and the Caribbean. Through its program “Making Civil Voices Heard”, the organization’s cultural assistance also extends to the use of technology, promoting access to information and communication technologies (ICT) and the mainstreaming of ICT tools.

In its Art and Culture program, Hivos puts a priority on the artistic quality of the proposals, the search for new “languages,” the dissemination of the products to broad audiences, and the social commitment of the artists.

In Cuba, Hivos has made a decisive contribution to the development of a number of cultural institutions, like the Pablo de la Torriente Brau Cultural Center, the Retazos dance company, the International Low Budget Film Festival organized by Humberto Solas, and the Onelio Jorge Cardoso Centre, a literary workshop.

“Hivos gave us the start-up funds to open the Centre,” Ivonne Galeano, head of the governmental Onelio Jorge Cardoso Centre, told IPS. “We had the approval and the support of the Ministry of Culture, but we didn’t have the money to buy the initial equipment.”

In its creative writing courses, the Center, founded in 1998 by Cuban short-story writer Eduardo Heras León, has taught more than 500 young students from cities, towns and remote villages, thus transforming the island’s literary map, which had previously been dominated by the large cities.

Thanks to foreign aid, the Center was later able to set up a computer lab, furnish the main office, and establish the publishing house Caja China, which has released short-story anthologies and puts out the quarterly “El Cuentero” literary magazine.

In March, the Center took its work beyond Cuba’s borders, with the first International Young Writers’ Festival, which drew more than one hundred representatives of Latin American and Caribbean literature, and was made possible through the support of Hivos, COSUDE and Cuba’s cultural authorities.

The two international aid agencies also organized a Cultural Cooperation Workshop on Nov. 6-8 in Havana’s Neptuno hotel, with the coordination of the Centre for Exchange and Reference on Community Initiatives (CIERIC), and the assistance of cultural projects from four provinces.

“I believe financing is key, because it basically allows people to produce and bring to life their ideas,” Rochna said.

According to Rochna, Hivos has a budget of some 100 million euros (US $118 million), of which approximately five percent go to the Art and Culture program.

“We try to maintain our support long enough to ensure that certain capacities are built and there is an infrastructure in place, providing the foundation for them to continue working,” she said.

“When our support ends, the people are left with greater prestige, experience and technical resources, as well as a professional team,” Rochna added.

Since the European Union and Cuba broke off relations in 2003, following diplomatic sanctions imposed by the EU for mass “dissident” arrests, Cuba has received no official aid in the area of culture from the EU as a bloc or from most of its members, with the exception of Spain and Belgium.

But this situation could change now that the EU and Cuba renewed ties in late October.

Cultural aid is aimed at stimulating artistic activity throughout the country, promoting creative production, preserving the cultural heritage, conducting research and developing human potential.

In late 2007, Cuba received aid from 39 countries, 110 local governments, 102 non-governmental organizations and 20 private funds. This year, the projects underway include more than US $109 million in financing