Getting Cubans to Think and Talk

Patricia Grogg interviews psychologist MANUEL CALVIÑO, host of a popular Cuban TV program

Manuel Calviño. Photo: Patricia Grogg/IPS

HAVANA TIMES, May 20 (IPS) — “I talk to deal with problems. In Cuba, there is too much formal, repetitive discourse and not enough directed at people, with their anxieties and joys,” said Manuel Calviño, the host and writer of a television programme that tries not to add to that deficit.

Calviño, a psychologist, university professor and excellent communicator, uses his weekly Friday programme, “Vale la pena” (“It’s Worth It”), to provoke his viewers and make them think about issues that impact the individual, family and society.

But what is most important is “what happens after the programme, when people begin thinking and talking to each other,” he says in this interview with IPS.

About 3,000 people of all ages attended the recent launch of a book by the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Centre publishing house, Caminos, containing dozens of Calviño’s programmes in the form of articles. The first person to be surprised by the large turnout was Calviño himself.

“I think it is a result of a historical and cultural need of Cubans, who like to philosophise about life, values and friendship,” he speculated.

“The programme has been an accomplice to that need and an attempt to provide the kind of discussions about life that people want,” he added.

Q: Twenty years is a long time to manage to keep a programme like “Vale la pena”, which often addresses issues that cross the line into “controversial,” on the air in Cuba. Have you had to overcome resistance involving official information policies?

A: Any professional practice, at least within the social sciences, struggles against resistance; it is inevitable, a necessity inherent to change. It obliges you to develop ideas, look for better ways of doing things.

I have had to overcome both personal and institutional resistance.

Sometimes we get confused and we think that everything that people who lead an institution do, think, decide and say is the institution, but that’s not always the case. There are many people who attribute themselves rights because of the position they hold.

Q: “Vale la pena” was one of the first TV programmes to address homosexuality, and from a position of vindication. How did you come to this issue?

A: One of my first patients (as a psychologist) was a homosexual. It was the early 1970s, and I said to myself, “I have to help this kid be a man.” I considered it a risk factor for happiness, because the denial, violence and rejection of society create unhappiness.

I looked at it as a very difficult way to be, until the young man told me one day, “Doctor, you haven’t understood me. What I want is to be happy as a homosexual and in this country.” That had a radical impact on my life.

Q: Is homophobia just a cultural problem or is it more part of official policy?

A: We have an authoritarian and vertical tradition. We are bearers of prejudices, of past eras. The policies established at a given moment by government institutions with respect to homosexuality were a result of not knowing how to differentiate a more advanced social and cultural way of thinking.

The official documents of the first Education and Culture Congress (1971) say homosexuality is a disease that must be fought. That is published in the Casa de las Américas magazine. Sometimes we deceive ourselves, and we don’t recount history the way it was.

At certain points in my youth, I was instigated to persecute homosexuals as a member of the Young Communist League (UJC). It was done based on the mistaken conviction that it was the right thing to do.

More than one person must have suffered because of that; it is a burden that I carry. Now, I talk about both the errors of the past and the need to say that it can never happen again.

Those who did it (persecute homosexuals) were young people of the UJC, government people. We must admit that it was an unforgivable error. Sometimes I feel that there are only limited spaces for acknowledging this reality, but if we do not admit our errors, we cannot overcome them.

Q: Today people talk a lot about the need for a change in mentality. Do you believe that’s possible?

A: In the first place, I am a thinker with dialectical foundations. In this sense, I am obliged to say that mentalities don’t change without conditions changing first. Also, I think that any modification of mentality necessarily involves a stage of disintegration and questioning. I am not sure that our institutional structures are clear on that.

A change in mentality is not an individual development but a political one. We have to favour a reencounter with the community, with the value of consensus, so that this new mentality will be a collective experience.

At the same time, though, I do not rule out the personal factor. The first thing is to give the new mentality more of a central role, and under that influence, everybody can find a light to guide them on how and in what direction to change.

Q: For whom would that change be easier?

A: It is more possible for young people than for those of us who are older. I believe in the natural flexibility of youth.

Q: Based on your experience as a university professor, do you have confidence in young people?

A: History does not allow me not to be confident. How old was Fidel (Castro) when he took on the leadership of this country? He was very young when the Revolution triumphed, and as he himself has said, he must have made a lot of mistakes.

At the same time, though, that confidence is a trap, because it assumes that young people are going to do what we, the older ones, think they should do. That’s not the case. They will do what they understand, need and demand to do with their lives and their country.

If you were to ask me if they are going to maintain what we have, I would say I hope not, because if people who are 18 years old now are going to live like those who are 60, we would be bringing the country to a standstill. They are going to keep essential things, but they are going to change a great many.

The way I see it, the question is not just one of continuity, but also of a rupture between what they want and what we can give them.

Q: Many young people choose to emigrate. How does this phenomenon impact Cuban society?

A: I think one of the greatest fears is that the migration process has a very negative impact on people’s sense of belonging.

In my personal opinion, the idea of migration in the popular imagination is very dangerous, because it has a profound effect on the concept and notion of belonging.

I think the solution, though, is not more political discourse, which unquestionably should be rejuvenated, not only in its content but also its age orientation. I think that the future is not what I may be capable of doing, but what young people are already doing.

The future almost always emerges out of a process of continuation and change. That is why I think it is key to have generational analysis and young people playing a leading role, and it is key to have an analysis of the migration processes occurring in the country.