Cuba’s Cultural Policy: Reaping What You Sow

Fernando Ravsberg*   

The Cuban government has decreed the immediate closure of 3D home theaters. Photo: Raquel Perez
The Cuban government has decreed the immediate closure of 3D home theaters. Photo: Raquel Perez

HAVANA TIMES — I don’t doubt Cuba’s Council of Ministers thoroughly evaluates its decisions before taking any concrete steps, but, sometimes, it does not clearly explain these decisions to the public. Many of us are still struggling to understand why the government thinks it necessary to “immediately” shut down 3D home theaters or computer game locales.

Nowadays, people’s reactions are not as silent as they were some years ago: now, there are hundreds of blogs expressing support for or discontent about the government’s measures. Cuban journalist Elaine Diaz’ Polemica Digital (“Digital Debate”), for instance, is anything but diplomatic:

“The Executive Council of the Council of Ministers, exercising the faculties vested upon it and the ones it takes upon itself thanks to our enabling silence and tolerance, realized, months after these businesses were opened, that they constituted a source of employment and a space for cultural recreation – that they were outrageously illegal and could not be regulated.”

It’s true these private home theaters were never authorized by the government, that they were a spontaneous initiative by the people, in view of the absence of a State offer in this connection. The same thing happened with blacksmiths, but the government’s reaction then was to legalize the trade and sell them the supplies they needed.

Turning citizens into consumers and promoters of their country’s culture and the best of the world’s culture. Photo: Raquel Perez
Turning citizens into consumers and promoters of their country’s culture and the best of the world’s culture. Photo: Raquel Perez

3D cinemas, however, have more powerful enemies than do blacksmiths. The Chair of Cuba’s Film Institute, Roberto Smith, was categorical on this issue: “I don’t believe a commercial activity that violates the revolution’s cultural policy can ever aspire to legal recognition.”

Vice-Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas, however, made clear that “our aim is not to restrict these offers, but have them promote cultural products of a higher quality”, as these movie theaters screen materials of “extremely poor taste.”

Up until that point, it seemed as though there existed a balance between those who called for the prohibition of private 3D theaters and those who sought to legalize them and regulate their activities in order to guarantee the screening of films with a certain degree of cultural, esthetic and recreational value.

The Seed of 3D Film Theater Programs

I have a goddaughter who frequented 3D movie theaters and, from what she told me, I know that many of the films shown there were cheap trash, but certainly not any worse than some of the violent and frivolous movies aired on national Cuban television.

Cuba’s cultural policy would first need to be applied to the country’s mass media. Cuban television itself fed into the demand for that type of frivolous cinema by broadcasting Hollywood movies for decades (and only because it can do so free of charge).

Now, as was to be expected, it’s paying the high costs of this. The founder and director of Cuba’s Film Institute, Alfredo Guevara, used to say Cuban television was so bad that, in order to change into a vehicle for culture, it would first have to commit “suicide.”

What’s more, the island’s radio stations never grow tired of playing salsa songs with lyrics like those that advise young women to look for an old sugar daddy who’ll take them shopping. This is just one example of what is being sown, culturally.

In addition, pirated movie “banks”, where Cubans rent films and television shows from around the world, have existed in Cuba for many years. Who controls whether these materials promote ethical values or, at least, trivial but healthy forms of entertainment?

The promotion of cultural values is a task that transcends the academic instruction received at schools. Photo: Raquel Perez
The promotion of cultural values is a task that transcends the academic instruction received at schools. Photo: Raquel Perez

Many families in Cuba pay to receive cable programming picked up by illegal satellite dishes, to watch programs made chiefly in Miami, including high-budget, poorly-scripted soaps, vulgar talk-shows and news programs that run puerile, anti-Castro pieces.

Young Cuban journalist Javier Ortiz stated he “had no idea private 3D home theaters could make our authorities worry so much” and added that if the government “wants to shut something down because of its inconsistencies, it best shut down its own cultural policy.”

Intellectual Victor Fowler has warned us about the dangers of a cultural policy that ought to be public and at the service of the people but which “becomes autonomous and becomes an end in and of itself, hovering above the changes that have taken place over time.”

Cuba would do well to adopt a more coherent cultural policy that is “at the service” of the nation, a policy which, instead of forbidding certain things, should spread to all aspects of life to promote ethical and aesthetic values, both common and those that are specific to different generations of Cubans.

There is no shortage of intellectuals capable of creating many different magnets that can attract citizens, from a very early age on, and transform them into consumers and promoters of their own culture and the best of the world’s culture.

My wife was a poor, orphaned country girl who was brought to and educated in Havana. When she was 10, they took her to the Garcia Lorca Theater, where she cried her eyes out during a performance of Giselle. That first show was enough to make her a ballet lover for life.

My kids, by contrast, have only received academic instruction. At some point in time, we stopped sowing the seeds of culture, and that’s not something you can revert in one fell swoop. We have to furrow the earth, spread millions of seeds and care for them patiently and regularly, until the nation can reap the harvest it longs for.
(*) An HT translation of the original published in Spanish by  BBC Mundo.

4 thoughts on “Cuba’s Cultural Policy: Reaping What You Sow

  • Famed US civil rights activists, Fannie Lou Hamer is quoted as having said that she was “sick and tired of being sick and tired” and decided to fight against a system of racial discrimination in the US that had lasted more than 150 years. She had only an elementary school education and was dirt poor. Yet, despite her disadvantages, decided to stand up for herself. As she stood up, others stood with her. Ashamed? Hardly. I am proud! Because of people like Fannie Lou Hamer, my life is less hard. But my late grandmother, a contemporary of Ms. Hamer, had a life far worse than any Cuban. She also had the “cojones” to stand up for herself. Cubans could gain much if they learned more of the struggle that African-Americans waged against a powerful and racist government.

  • It amazes me that you can compare the townspeople in Footloose to a country of people that have been repressed, for over 50 years now, through the use of violence and imprisonment. They would face far worse consequences if they chose to protest or rebel. Not to mention the fact that it’s not exactly as easy to ‘ban together’ an entire country of people, or at least enough to achieve their goal, who live under a Communist Dictator as it would be in ‘a small Midwest town in the US’. To sit there as an American citizen, with all of your rights and freedoms, and judge these ‘milquetoast Cubans’ who have NOTHING compared to you, living a life that is so much harder than yours, is disgusting. You have no idea what it is like. You should be ashamed.

  • Estimado señor Fowler, perdone. No estoy acusándolo en avanzar principios capitalistas, pero la realidad es que la sociedad capitalista se define en gran parte por su cultura. Por lo tanto, el consumo cultural de sus ciudadanos es exactamente cómo el Estado regula las actividades económicas. Usted simplemente no entiende las raíces de la revolución cubana que tocan el árbol capitalista.

    Henry Delforn

  • While governments everywhere have done stupid things, the Castros seem to continue to do stupid stuff without consequence. The true story, which inspired a movie during the 1980s, of a small Midwest town in the US that voted to ban dancing is an excellent case in point. The local youth, joined by their parents, banned together to protest the new law and ultimately prevailing in bringing dancing in public back to town. It continues to amaze me how milquetoast Cubans seem to appear in their response to the Castros stupidity.

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