HAVANA TIMES, Dec 21 (IPS) — The legendary Scheherazade has exchanged her enthralling tales of “One Thousand and One Nights” for a compact disc with 1,001 academic articles, essays and books, giving Cubans access to materials that would otherwise be very difficult to obtain.
The initiative of the Criterios Theoretical-Cultural Centre is to provide “the greatest amount of international information that for economic or cultural- political reasons does not circulate, and is not in the bookstores or libraries” of Cuba, director Desiderio Navarro, organizer of “One Thousand and One Texts in One Night,” told IPS.
After several months of preparation and mass e-mailings of lists of materials, organized by topic, Criterios distributed CDs, free of charge, containing texts on literature, art, cinema, theatre, music, dance, television, architecture, anthropology, race, religion, semiotics, sports, the Caribbean, and more.
Of particular interest in this edition are materials on gender and lesbian and gay studies, as well as theoretical approaches to the cultural impacts of communication and information technologies.
With the CDs that came out in 2007 and 2009, Criterios has so far made 3,003 texts available that would have been nearly impossible to find in Cuba. The articles appear in languages including Spanish, French and English.
Among the authors represented on the CD are French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and Indian Homi K. Bhabha, a leading theorist of post-colonial studies.
In the words of the project’s mastermind, the CDs are “massive injections” of contemporary international cultural thought.
“I don’t aspire to fill all of the existing gaps: that is utopian. I just want people to have a bit of an idea of how much they don’t know,” said Navarro, who is also an art critic. Most of the works included in the initiative are sent directly to the editor by their authors, and the value of each ranges from six to 28 dollars, he said.
FOUR DECADES OF ‘SOCIALISING’ KNOWLEDGE
“One Thousand and One Texts in One Night” has been advertised since September as one of the activities leading up to the 40th anniversary of Criterios in 2012. What started as a section in La Gaceta de Cuba magazine over the years turned into a project that is considered unique in Latin America.
Navarro, who translates 15 languages, has weathered economic crises and lack of funding to publish more than 350 groundbreaking essays on culture, literature, and the arts, by more than 200 authors from some 30 countries, including from the former socialist bloc.
In 2007, arising from an e-mail debate about Cuba’s political culture in the 1960s and 70s, Criterios organized a series of conferences about the cultural impacts of what is known as the “quinquenio gris” (five-year gray period), the effects of which are still being felt today.
“History cannot repeat itself,” was the underlying message in the analysis of the conditions that led to censorship of art, the ostracism of more than a few artists, and the removal of many individuals from education and cultural jobs because of their sexual orientation or religious beliefs.
For Navarro, “cultural thought is a value to be raised before those who believe that it’s better if people don’t think so they don’t get confused, if they know less so they don’t make mistakes… that it is better to give them knowledge that has been pre-chewed, pre-digested, pre-selected.”
The sole condition for getting one’s hands on a “One Thousand and One Texts” CD was to bring in a blank disc. This made it easy for many — mostly young people — to benefit from what Navarro says is similar to the free, non-commercial services of a library.
“In these three years, the audience has been primarily young and from the university,” said Navarro, who lamented that older generations had shown less interest.
Rosa Pérez, head of cultural policy design at the Provincial Cultural Directorate of Havana, told IPS, “This is an important medium, because we only rarely have up-to-date texts in some academic courses. This approach is not a daily occurrence because of the lack of resources in Cuba.”
Meanwhile, Marco Antonio Díaz, a theatre student, said the Criterios initiative to share digital texts has been very effective. “It is a viral way to spread information and disseminate culture and knowledge for young people in particular,” he said.
According to the Cuban National Statistics Office, just 1.4 million of the country’s 11.2 million people had telephones in their homes in 2008, just 630,000 had computers and only 13 percent were connected to the Internet.
An estimated 240,000 people have access to the worldwide web.
The Cuban government says the reason that offices and research have priority in Internet access is because of the technical limitations and lack of connectivity resulting from the U.S.-imposed economic sanctions against the country. This is why, for example, the Cuban population cannot make purchases online.
“Today people say, ‘everything is on the Net.’ The good news is that there is Internet. The bad news is that nearly everything good on the Internet has to be paid for, and it is usually expensive,” commented Navarro.