HAVANA TIMES — When working with the multidisciplinary cultural group Omni Zona Franca back in 2007, I read an essay about the phenomenon of graffiti. Someone in the group had the outlandish idea that such an effort set to prose could be done in the lobby of a twelve-story building in the Alamar neighborhood – in the middle of the noise from the wind, the cries of children and the residents’ indifference.
My stage fright that day was justified. I felt so absurd in the middle of the performance, where in trying to speed up the reading I began to skip words, sentences and even whole paragraphs of the text.
I was convinced that there was no one there interested in what I was reading. However, after concluding the ordeal, a pretty foreigner who looked frail but had a sweet voice came up and asked me if it would be possible to provide her with the essay so that she could read it. She said the environment hadn’t allowed her to hear it in full, though she was very interested.
That was Marie Laure Geoffray, a French woman who at that time was doing research in Cuba on alternative movements. Later I learned that in her travels around the island she had met several groups with very promising cultural and social initiatives.
She had also taken on the difficult task of ensuring that those who were involved in these efforts were known to each other. With inevitable setbacks, this pipe dream finally materialized in a meeting through which emerged the idea of ??creating a “project of all projects,” or a network that would integrate these groups for their common goals. This would be called Voltus V.
I didn’t attend the first meeting, but in the second I was able to get a glimpse at the complex Cuban intellectual potential in dealing with our long tradition of intolerance, in an attempt toward understanding and collective action.
HT: How did you begin to relate to Cuba and why?
Marie: My relationship with Cuba is a story of politics and love intertwined. I had a communist boyfriend with whom I argued a lot about the need to reform society, in France as elsewhere. He always ended the discussion by pointing to Cuba as an example of the new society we needed.
I had some doubts about that because I thought that achieving social equality shouldn’t mean limiting freedom of expression, opinion, movement. So, I decided to go to Cuba to see that society with my own eyes. I didn’t go as a tourist, but to do an internship with the cultural department of the French Embassy. This allowed me to interact with Cuban cultural sector, and I thought there I would have more of a chance to meet people who were perhaps more open.
HT: What impression did you get from your first visit to Cuba?
Marie: I was struck by the energy of Cubans, despite the limitations in terms of consumption and freedom of expression. I made friends with young people with whom I talked with a lot concerning the Cuba of today, yesterday and tomorrow. Many of them were quite critical. But after two months, I hadn’t succeeded in understanding how that society functioned.
Things would appear in houses and nobody could say where they came from. They came “from out there, you know, from under the table”. One person might tell me something at home and then, suddenly in a party with friends, they would be telling me something else about the same thing, and then something different on the street.
One police officer — after a burglary — said they couldn’t investigate the house where the robbers were hiding because they lived with his aunt, who was a member of the party…. This difficulty I had in understanding how things functioned was one of the reasons why I decided shortly thereafter to start a PhD on alternative efforts in Cuba.
HT: How did your impressions evolve?
Marie: I’m not even sure I understand Cuban life that much more now! But I have come to understand certain logics and links between people, institutions, practices and discourses. I realized that there were many micro-spaces of free expression and debate where people could experiment with artistic creation, as well as social practices (more horizontal relationships, initiatives that were more popular). However, these spaces were tolerated only when operating in the periphery, on a small scale, but not when they became too visible.
At the same time, it’s always difficult to analyze the reasons behind the tolerance or intolerance of the Cuban authorities, given that there are many different authorities with different points of view, and sometimes the decisions they make are difficult to understand. It seemed like they didn’t have any logic behind certain decisions.
I also realized that repression was often a light repression. It works best with individual pressure, disguised censorship, failures to respond (after a request to use a room, for example, all activities in the room might be cancelled for “logistical reasons,” and so on). But there are also mysteries: Why would the G2 (State Security) visit or call in certain people and not others? Why are activists who call themselves “revolutionaries” more pressured than activists who openly reject that social and political identification?
HT: What do you think of the alternative movement in Cuba?
Marie: I don’t know if today one can speak of an “alternative movement,” because there’s a great deal of plurality. Previously there were three major centers: political opponents, critical artists and intellectuals, and alternative collectives (often created by independent artists and young intellectuals). The collectives had a very specific nature: not only did they debate among themselves but they did things. They tried to generate new civil, social, artistic practices and politics for themselves and their audiences. They wanted to show that it was possible to live and think differently.
Today the situation has changed considerably. There appeared the bloggers, who often aren’t “new players,” despite what many people say. Orlando Luis Pardo, for example, created alternative literary projects before becoming a blogger. At that time he was related to several groups, including being part of the Voltus V project. Claudia Cadelo was the wife of Ciro Diaz, a member of punk rock band Porno para Ricardo, which also had many connections with these groups and all of the alternative cultural scene in Havana.
I believe that these movements have grown. They’ve become more pluralistic and have more connections between them. What is being created as a genuine anti-authority movement in Cuba capable of uniting many segments and fragments that couldn’t connect before.
HT: Why do you think Voltus V became diluted?
Marie: Voltus V was one of the first attempts at coordination between alternative groups. There were previous attempts such as FramOmUno (with Omni and Zona Franca — which at that time were two different collectives — and Grupo Uno, the group that created the Rap Festival) and Jonas project with the same actors but also with what is now the Haydee Santamaria Collective.
These attempts were pioneers (in the first half of 2000, and 2007 with Voltus V) and therefore they had difficulties. Back then, there weren’t even good coordination tools (cellphones, email access).
There was also still a lot of fear and dissension. About being socialist or not? Being revolutionary or not? Being political or not? Saying things openly or not? These discussions continue to take place today but there’s more tolerance for the plurality of positions. Fear has lessened with the successful outcome of the Gorki case(*) and with the fact that bloggers aren’t being put in jail.
Perhaps there were also too many expectations of unity at that time, while diversity is valued more today. And perhaps there was a sense of urgency that engendered tensions and misunderstandings. But Voltus V was probably the cradle for subsequent convergences because all of the Voltus activists realized the importance of joining forces to influence their situation, and most of them are still active today in a multitude of projects.
HT: What alternative groups seem most representative and influential? And why?
Marie: It seems difficult to talk about representation in today’s Cuba where you still don’t hear many voices, although the number of people expressing themselves has grown a lot. Nor can a good measure be made of which groups are the most influential. I think there are different types of influences in different areas. For example Yoani Sanchez (along with other bloggers) has changed the perspective of the Cuban diaspora and many people who are interested in Cuba from the outside.
The same thing happened with the Ladies in White. These women have shown that other things can in fact be achieved in Cuba, even things that were seemingly unthinkable a short time ago. But the media coverage achieved by certain people shouldn’t hide the influence of other groups.
The Critical Observatory has done an excellent job for many years working in neighborhoods to encourage citizens’ initiatives from below. It also works with marginalized social groups like the Abakuas, fights against racial discrimination and intervenes in the cultural/intellectual sphere in environments such as the Juan Marinello Center, the Felix Varela Center, etc. where everyone knows and respects their work – to the point of imitation.
As for Omni Zona Franca, it has succeeded in transforming the image people had of Alamar as slum into a space of cultural, civil and social experimentation. They have also sought to forge links and solidarity with all other alternative projects, without discrimination. Their annual “Poetry Without End” festival was always a space of convergence for many people, with it being more or less revolutionary, more or less politicized, and more or less legitimate in the cultural sphere.
HT: Do you think it’s possible for governmental institutions to cooperate with these groups?
Marie: Some institutions have already worked with these groups. In fact, Omni Zona Franca worked at a workshop in the Fayad Jamis Gallery in Alamar and negotiated many of its activities with the Municipal Department of Culture. The Critical Observatory has also acted in coordination with local authorities, with the Asociacion Hermanos Saiz and various research centers. But these partnerships aren’t easy to maintain, as evidenced by the expulsion of Omni Zone Franca from the gallery in 2009.
I have the feeling that today there’s more confrontation between competing projects and institutions. This is why now everyone’s trying to work completely independently – without asking to be lent facilities or given logistical support or any funding whatsoever.
HT: Tell us a little about your research (your book), what it’s called, its aim, where it will be published…
Marie: My book is called Contester a Cuba (Protest in Cuba). It was put out by the French publishing house Dalloz in March 2012. It’s my doctoral thesis in which I sought to understand what were the alternative groups and what were their specific modes of protest in post-Berlin-Wall Cuba.
There appear three groups: the Haydee Santamaria Collective, Omni Zona Franca and the hip hop movement. I analyzed the social backgrounds of their members and their civil, cultural and political approaches to protest, while trying to understand how their relationships with institutions functioned.
HT: Is it possible it will be translated into Spanish? Could it be published in Cuba?
Marie: I would love for it to be translated but I would need a translator and funds. I imagine it would be difficult to publish in Cuba right now, but I would like to try.
HT: What changes would you propose for Cuba?
Marie: I think the future of Cuba will come from all Cubans. I’ve only tried to make today’s Cuba more understandable for a foreign audience, especially the rebellious voices and practices, which are somewhat concealed in this period.
As a foreigner I can only hope. I hope Cubans will listen to each other better — which will end the dogma and intolerance — and try to build a new society where there’s discussion, not insults; where there’s respect and not below-the-belt attacks, and where there’s inclusion rather than social and political exclusion.
(*) “In August 2008 (Aguila Gorki, the leader of the punk rock group “Porno para Ricardo”) was arrested by the Cuban police with the charge of social dangerousness, which allows them to detain people whom they think they are likely to commit crimes. The charge carries a penalty of up to four years in prison. He was eventually ordered to pay a $30 fine (two months’ salary) for the lesser offense of public disorder, after prosecutors dropped the more serious charge following intense international pressure after broad media coverage.” (Source: Wikipedia)