By Fernando Ravsberg*

This cafeteria, run by self-employed Cubans, is proof that the cultural challenge should not be underestimated. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz
This cafeteria, run by self-employed Cubans, is proof that the cultural challenge should not be underestimated. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

HAVANA TIMES — One of the greatest challenges the Cuban nation will likely face in the future involves the sphere of culture. The normalization of relations with the United Sates – a cultural force to be reckoned with – involves great benefits but also enormous risks.

Around the world, people appear to have a sense of this and are stampeding towards the island to see it “before the Americans get there,” before McDonalds begin to replace pork sandwiches and yachts begin to block the view of small fishing boats.

Cubans, however, won’t be taken by surprise. They’ve grown up watching Walt Disney cartoons, and adults have long been consuming US television series, films, documentaries and music videos (which Cuban television airs without paying for any distribution rights, courtesy of the embargo).

Cuba has the advantage of an impressive cultural reservoir: good cinema, excellent ballet, great visual artists and prodigious musicians. It also has brilliant intellectuals and a religious community that survived the Catholic colony, the influence of Protestant capitalism and atheistic socialism.

A show of this cultural prowess is the fact that, no sooner have the first barriers been torn down than Cuba has made its way to Hollywood with “Cuban Quartet,” a series based on the crime novels of Cuban author Leonardo Padura, starring Antonio Banderas.

That said, there are still challenges that individual cultural consumption habits cannot adequately “filter.” Learning to separate the trash from good film and television will be as important as avoiding the temptation of feeding our children junk food.

The “Inefficiency” of Censorship

Poster for Strawberry and Chocolate. For 20 years, one of the best films made in Cuba could not be shown on television, even though they had been screened at Cuban theaters. Photo: Raquel Perez Díaz
Poster for Strawberry and Chocolate. For 20 years, one of the best films made in Cuba could not be shown on television, even though they had been screened at Cuban theaters. Photo: Raquel Perez Díaz

The Communist Party’s Ideological Department plays the role of Big Brother, telling Cubans what programs they can watch. In the course of history, it has banned music by Celia Cruz (because of the singer’s anti-Castro views) and even The Beatles, without any clear explanation as to why.

There’s little they can do, however, with the cultural avalanche that’s coming – it’ll be simply uncontrollable. There’s no clearer proof of this than the fact censors have already been beat by “the package”, about one terabyte of materials which reaches millions of Cubans every week without passing through any official filters.

As though unable to grasp reality, they continue to censor television, the radio, newspapers, movies and plays. While they’re busy banning shows by comedians on the island, people watch comedians from Miami in the package or from illegal TV from satellite dishes.

They live in the 19th century: they ban a baseball documentary for 5 years, take years to approve the script of Cuba’s best animated film, take plays off the stage and prohibit a music video by Buena Fe because it shows a “sinful” kiss between two women.

For 20 years, they kept the film Strawberry and Chocolate away from the small screen, and Guantanamera is still banned from television. In both cases, a large part of the population is being denied access to the best of Cuban cinema.

If the government does not hold back the extremists, the cultural cost will be very high. Nothing weakens the nation more today that a censorship apparatus that ties down culture, keeping it from unfolding its wings while forcing some of the country’s best talents to emigrate.

Freeing the Country’s Cultural Forces

The “package” has outwitted censorship, reaching 5 million Cubans with foreign contents which do not pass through the filters of the Defenders of the Faith.
The “package” has outwitted censorship, reaching 5 million Cubans with foreign contents which do not pass through the filters of the Defenders of the Faith.

At the beginning of the revolution, Cubans were told: “do not believe, read.” Then came the Stalinists, determined what could be read and buried the most brilliant intellectuals in basements, steel factories or ostracism.

They wanted to create a “revolutionary culture.” At the time, Julio Cortazar wrote Fernandez Retamar: “Could you imagine a man of the complexity of Alejo Carpentier transforming the thesis of his novel (…) into an implacable combat slogan? Of course not.”

The times have changed and, today, the strictest censorship is powerless before ubiquitous new technologies. The control over what Cubans consume culturally is a battle that has already been lost, even though the people who make a living from this do not want to accept it.

For years, thanks to satellite dishes and the package, the selection of these materials has become an individual process, but Cubans have two powerful weapons on their side: a high educational level and a live and deeply-rooted culture.

Broader Internet use, coupled with greater freedom to navigate the web, appears to be a good means to learn. Cybercafés and public Wi-Fi areas are already operating and the “dangers” announced by the soothsayers have not materialized.

Cuban culture can stand up to any foreign influence, but it can’t do it with its hands tied. It needs to free itself from the mediocrity of censors, those who are suspicious of everyone because they do not understand the codes of intellectuals and artists forged in Cuba’s educational system.

The nation has invested many resources to give its children a good cultural education. It must now trust Cubans to take on the best of universal thought without thereby losing their roots. That is what will allow Cuba to continue evolving without losing its identity.
—–
(*) Visit the website of Fernando Ravsberg.


4 thoughts on “Cuba and the Coming Cultural Battle

  • Lots of foreigners have luxury craft in Cuba. I know a retired Italian married to a Cuban who keeps a boat in Varadero. He has Cuban citizenship and owns a pizza restaurant in Varadero.

  • Fernando, the social media revolution will allow you and your fellow Cubans to make whatever changes you deem necessary for a better life. Just today, on Wall Street, major Cable companies
    stocks crashed because those under the age of 30 are no longer watching TV. The corporate news
    channels ain’t working anymore because we get our information from all areas of the world. This revolution allowed Ireland, at one time the most backward country in the western hemisphere, and I’m Irish, to vote allowing gay’s to marry. The first country ever to do so. That would never have happened without the internet. Most who post on this board are old, I’m over 30, 35 years over 30
    so what we think is not important. You hit it right the right note! We’re just observers, you’re on the stage!

  • I have wondered a few times about which Cubans are members of the Havana Yacht Club. You may recall an American writing once in HT about a regatta they held. I don’t doubt that Fidel has yachts to go with his two island retreat, but still wonder who are the others?

  • Fernando’s fears are misplaced. The onslaught of Americans as tourists and possibly as investors in Cuba will not challenge Cuban culture. On the contrary, Cuban culture will go the way of Hawaiian culture. More Hawaiians learned to ‘hula dance’ as more Americans visited Hawaii. Likewise, more Cubans will dance and teach casino salsa as more Yumas visit the island. All things uniquely Cuban will be more popular not less. In the meantime, there is nothing wrong with more foreign yachts docked in Mariel Port or in the cayos. Fidel shouldn’t be the only one with yachts in Cuba.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *