Debate Resumes over Cuba’s Past Cultural Policy


HAVANA, Sep 4 (IPS) – After an interruption of over a year, the Criterios theoretical-cultural center has resumed a series of lectures analyzing the impact of the Cuban government’s cultural policy on the arts, one of the tangible outcomes of the debate that shook society here in early 2007.

The lecture program will address filmmaking, music, visual arts and theatre, focusing on the so-called “five grey years,” a period in the 1970s marred by censorship and intolerance of any form of artistic expression that differed from the official orthodoxy.

But only a few dozen people attended the first Criterios meeting in this year’s cycle. It was advertised by e-mail, and on a single web site: the Cuban Book Institute’s (ICL) portal, Cuba Literaria.

“The cultural and general purpose mass media give no coverage at all to news about these lectures,” the head of Criterios, Desiderio Navarro, told IPS.

“Such hermetic silence is a cause for concern: we do not know whether or not the people who have decided to hush it up are in agreement with the ideology of the ‘five grey years’, which the lectures criticize,” Navarro said.

Navarro, a writer who became the informal coordinator of the polemical discussions among Cuban intellectuals last year, said that the series of lectures had been on hold because he was keen to engage speakers of the highest quality, and because he was busy editing a book, “La política cultural del período revolucionario: memoria y reflexión” (Cultural Policies in the Revolutionary Period: Memories and Reflections), a compilation of the lectures presented in 2007.

The book was launched in February and documents the reflections and testimony of distinguished intellectuals: Arturo Arango, Ambrosio Fornet, Mario Coyula, Fernando Martinez Heredia, and Eduardo Heras Leon, who was a victim of the cultural purges of the 1970s.

At that time, strict guidelines were imposed on cultural workers and educators and subjected their sexual preferences, religious beliefs, connections with people abroad and other aspects of their personal life to intrusive scrutiny.

In practice this policy, which was confirmed after the 1971 National Congress on Education and Culture, meant that homosexual artists were ostracized, cultural influences from capitalist countries were considered ideologically unsound and therefore banned, and official links with the art of Cuban émigrés were broken off.

When Luis Pavón, the head of the National Culture Council from 1971 to 1976 and the main implementer of these repressive policies, appeared on a television program on Jan. 5, 2007, intellectuals feared an imminent return to those policies. This led to the outbreak of the intense debate dubbed the “e-mail war.”

According to the lecture given on Tuesday by film critic Juan Antonio García Borrero, the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (ICAIC) refused to fall into line with the policy, in large measure due to the stand taken by its director and founder, Alfredo Guevara, a personal friend of then President Fidel Castro.

Garcia Borrero said that ICAIC had gained prestige in the 1960s by taking part in intellectual controversies at a time when there was a balance of forces in the cultural world between “dogmatics” and “liberals”, according to Guevara’s definitions.

But in the 1970s, external pressures forced the Cuban film industry to give in to the demand that it produce more historical movies, in the didactic style of art prevailing in the Congress on Education and Culture, which criticized the program of films screened by ICAIC for being an unhealthy influence on the country’s young people.

The premiere of the film “A Day in November” by Humberto Solás, the director of memorable films like “Lucía” (1968), was postponed for six years because it clashed with the vision of reality required by those in charge of cultural policy at the time.

Attacks on ICAIC for ideological rather than artistic reasons continued throughout the 1980s after the screening of “Cecilia” (1982), also by Solás, and ultimately “Alicia en el pueblo de Maravillas” (roughly, Alice in the Town of Wonderland) by Daniel Díaz Torres (1991), which was removed from movie theatres in Havana after only four days.

On Feb. 24, 1998, in a speech to parliament, Castro lashed out at films that portrayed certain “counterrevolutionary” ideological currents, in an allusion to “Guantanamera” (1995) by the late Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, who also directed “Memories of underdevelopment” (1968) and “Strawberry and Chocolate” (1994).

Former President Castro’s words provoked a minor disagreement with Guevara, who in a public statement said “my soul is torn, but I hold more firmly than ever to my revolutionary socialist convictions.”

The next meeting Criterios is organizing will address the effects of the cultural policies of the “five grey years” on music, including the prohibition against radio broadcasts of The Beatles songs, and harassment of rock fans.

Navarro stressed that the lectures will continue, in spite of criticisms of the initiative made during negotiations with the non-governmental Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) and the Culture Ministry over the “e-mail war”.