‘Looking at Cuba’ from All Angles

Yusimi Rodriguez

Ahmel Hechevarria Pere

HAVANA TIMES, April 14 — Ahmel Hechevarria Pere, a 1974 mechanical engineering graduate, is a talented Cuban writer, the winner of major awards, honors and national grants, including Cuba’s Premio David and the Pinos Nuevos Award. Added to this, he has had two books published: Esquirlas (2005) and Inventario (2007).

However, we didn’t talk about his literary career when we got together at the Onelio Jorge Cardoso Center for Literary Education, where he graduated and now works as a web master for the institutions page. In April 2011, Ahmel and his friend Bernardo launched a new website off into the Cuban blogosphere: Vercuba.com.

HT: There are already many websites and blogs on Cuba. Why create another one, and what makes “Vercuba” (“Looking-at-Cuba”) different from the rest?

Ahmel: I wanted to collect together all the reviews and interviews I’ve done onto one blog. I talked with Benardo and he proposed doing something bigger, because it was technically possible for him to provide me that platform. So we decided to create this “opinion cooperative.”

Sure, there are lots of sites where writers and intellectuals talk about Cuban cultural, economic and political occurrences. We’re trying to bring together several writers and journalists to generate the greatest number of views about what’s happening in Cuba.

Over time, we invited writers who don’t live here to give us their vision about what’s happening abroad, how they see things in terms of nostalgia, literature and life in general in the world, but from the perspective of Cubans.

It doesn’t matter if they live in Norway, Philadelphia or Spain. They have a way of incorporating their way of being (which will change over time), and how they interact with a society that’s different from ours.

HT: Is it required that the collaborators be Cuban?

Ahmel: No. I might meet a foreigner who writes in Spain in a clear and lucid manner. What interests us is that they live or have lived in Cuba.

The good thing is that the project wasn’t defined from the very beginning. Over time we’re transforming and adapting it since we think of it as something alive and living. We may have points of contact with other sites, but perhaps the difference is that here there’s absolute freedom to write about and to focus on the issues.

The only limitation is the quality and objectivity of the writings. Naturally, objectivity goes through the subjectivity of the author and those of us who administer the site.

In contrast to sites that we use as references, we don’t deal with fiction or poetry. We’re only interested in opinion pieces, and it doesn’t matter if they’re long. The themes are varied: literature, music, film and visual arts – the big bag that makes up society. This is the content that it has up to now. It’s like a varied billboard, and with all modestly, I think it’s pretty good.

Regarding “Havana Times,” sometimes I feel that the articles are too short. I think that mandatory brevity can leave out interesting elements of an analysis. At the site “Isliada.com,” they deal only with Cuban literature; they don’t touch on music, the cinema… There’s also “Cuba Literaria” and “La Jiribilla,” which might be said to approach what we’re doing – but they include the news, while we don’t.

We don’t want Vercuba to only be about Havana; rather, it should be national. It’s a constructive process that requires more collaborators who wish to join.

HT:  In the context of the Internet — where users seek short writings, ones that are quick and easy to read — don’t you run the risk of scaring away readers with works that are so extensive?

Ahmel: We want to take that risk. It’s true that over time the individual-text relation has changed; digital text and books have entered, the speed of life. Apparently, the ratio has declined, but I’ve found people who are avid readers without necessarily being writers or academics. Some have Internet access while others don’t, though they have email.

Only a few people in Cuba have Internet access, but lots of them have email. So they send information, attachments, essays and reviews of more than one page in length. I’m very interested in this informal distribution of articles that appear on the Internet. I think Vercuba could also circulate through that means.

Also, I have faith in those readers who still prefer to stop their daily rhythm to sit down and read more than three or four pages, though not all the writings on our site are so long. The ones that are long are published in two or three parts, this way the dialogue can be sustained without overwhelming the reader. We’re taking this into consideration and playing around with both approaches.

HT: You have several talented writers who provide you with original materials. One of the characteristics of the site is that there are almost no “re-warmed over” articles. How are you able to do this without paying the writers?

Ahmel: I can’t say that all of our writings have been originally written for the site. Over time, the amount of original material has grown; principally personal blog entries. Of the remainder, many have appeared in other sites, but with the uniqueness being that I’ve told the authors that I don’t want to put “taken from” on those pieces. I talk with them and tell them that I’m interested in their work. That’s another approach to bring together talented writers who don’t only do fiction – those who look at reality with a precision that makes me jealous.

HT: But these are people writing blogs, which requires a degree of regularity. How have you succeeded in obtaining these without being able to pay them?

Ahmel: That’s true and it amazes me, because what might appear far-fetched to many is actually happening. I have the good fortune of meeting many writers who would have been allowed access to many readers but they have burned that bridge, which is Internet. Many don’t have or haven’t mastered the technical resources to do so.

Others have gotten excited about participating in a community and have been gaining readers. There aren’t millions, but three, five or twenty loyal readers are enough for us. There are more and more people who have confidence in and trust our project, like you for example, who have given me original texts (“La otra ceguera”and “Reverdecemos”). To me, your confidence in us means a lot. Those few readers who follow us represent the potential of the project.

HT: You have links to Granma and The Washington Post, publications with very different interests. Is that a way of not taking sides?

Ahmel: Not taking sides is taking sides for something. We don’t want to play on both sides of the tennis courts. What we call the truth about a particular issue doesn’t have a single point of view. If the reader has a wide range of views about an issue, that’s an advantage. We can offer these through RSS and links to people who invite us. If we carry this on our opinion-focused web site, that would be much better. Each person who reads Vercuba will find different views about what’s happening with Cuba and Cubans.

HT: What’s yours?

Ahmel: That’s a broad question. In the history of this country, over the past 53 years of revolution, there have been many achievements, but dialogue is necessary to improve these. Many things were done with love, but these too are suffering. It’s necessary that the social and political system actually invite the participation of everyone so that we can all do something to improve things. I’m not a statesman, nor do I know if my thinking is correct. I’m trying to see what I can contribute to what needs to be done. Only we Cubans can do this – here and abroad.

HT: I said we weren’t going to talk about your writing career but I tricked you. Last year you won an international award for a novel. Some people called it a political award. What do you think? Were you aware of the political and competitive character of that strategic text?

Ahmel: It was an award from Novelas de Gaveta Franz Kafka, convened by Cuban writers through the FRA publishing house in the Czech Republic. The competition is designed for books whose publication is somehow impossible in Cuba, so it does have a political connotation.

HT: Was that the case with your book?

Ahmel: I wrote it with full knowledge of the content. But at the same time I’m interested in Cuban readers. I sent it to national competitions. First I won Beca Fronesis Prize from the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz in 2007. As a book, it was also the only one that received a mention between twenty contestants for the UNEAC Prize in 2008; but for those works that are merely mentioned, there’s no commitment to publish the work. Nothing happened with the book in other contests, though this doesn’t mean it was censored. It’s likely that the award-winning books were simply better.

You know how difficult and expensive it is here to even print a manuscript. The copies you send might get lost. Just like with other competitions in which you can send materials by e-mail. I sent mine to this one; I decided to participate, and I won. I’m satisfied with the award beyond the possible connotations. The editors have been very respectful. Once it’s published I’ll circulate it among Cubans here.

So far literary quality is what seems to be most important in this competition. I can attest to at least the last two books published by FRA — one by Ernesto Santana (the winning writer for the 2002 Alejo Carpentier Prize for his book Ave y nada) and one by Orlando Luis Pardo (whose book published by FRA consists of stories, some of which were winners of major Cuban awards). There are other writers who have received significant national recognition who are interested in participating in this contest.

HT: To what point do you think it’s possible for a writer or editor of a web site to distance themself from politics?

Ahmel: It’s complicated. You can’t think of culture as a space that’s free from the guiding principles of politics. If you’re referring to the Cuba-US dispute, the tension of the Cuban State towards those who disagree with the way they do and think, you have to be careful that your articles, fiction or whatever isn’t demagogic.

You have to be objective, even taking into account the subjectivity that writing involves. If you’re objective, sincere and authentic, there’s no problem. I think it’s a duty as a citizen. One is a citizen before being a writer, and you’re within your rights to express your opinion.

I’m careful to say that I’m an editor, though I’m probably doing this with a lot of nerve since I didn’t graduate in the arts or humanities. I use the tools of a writer who lives in Cuba and I have to read everything so as not to be naive, not everything is like it seems. You have to stay on top of things so you don’t get fooled.