Intellectuals, Absolute Truths and the Cuban Revolution

by Maykel Paneque

Fidel, juventud rebelde
Fidel Castro dictates the cultural policy of Cuba back in 1961. Foto: juventudrebelde.cu

HAVANA TIMES — Yesterday, the neighbor opposite me shouted, from his doorway, for me to switch on the TV. “Don’t miss the latest act of the Cuban Comedy show.” The TV program Mesa Redonda (Round table) was remembering, on its eve, the 55th anniversary of Fidel Castro’s meeting with artists and writers back in 1961, which was then baptized “Words to Intellectuals”.

Back then, author Virgilio Pinera had raised his hand to say “I’d like to say that I feel very afraid. I don’t know why I feel this fear, but that is all I have to say”, and he was right somehow: this “Words to Intellectuals” speech, which was immediately drafted up into a written document, would define and outline cultural policy in the country from that moment onwards.

How can one man believe he’s capable of outlining the cultural policies of an entire nation and not fail in his attempt? Being absolutely certain that he’s always right, but if that’s so, doesn’t he at the same time lose his rightfulness? I mean to say reason, of course. It’s clear to deduce therefore: the whole hour the program was on was just so panelists could praise the achievements of this cultural policy. Not a second was spent on trying to explain some of the instances of terror that Piñera foresaw.

“We are not forbidding anybody from writing about the subject they want to. On the contrary… We shall always evaluate their creation through the prism of the revolutionary crystal”. “What are the rights of revolutionary and non-revolutionary writers and artists? Within the Revolution: everything; against the Revolution: no rights at all.” “Because if someone thinks that there is any desire to eliminate or to stifle it, we can assure him that he is absolutely mistaken.” One thing’s for sure. “Within the Revolution: everything; against the Revolution: nothing.” These are some fragments taken from the “Words to Intellectuals” meeting.

How did the documentary PM criticize the Revolution? What did Heberto Padilla, Anton Arrufat, Cesar Lopez and Abelardo Estorino, Jose Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera himself write against the Revolution, to cite a few? What was it that they wrote against it that they were ostracized like so many others and had to wait over a decade to see their books published and their work represented once again?

It’s important to remember that they were also dismissed from their jobs and stuck in others in order to purge them of their sins. There are so many testimonies in this regard. It’s shocking to read their books and not find any crimes to charge these authors of. They weren’t wrong to think that they wanted to “stifle” and “eliminate” them. They were right, very right, in being suspicious of “the prism of the revolutionary crystal.”

It wasn’t a mistake that the 45th anniversary of the disastrous First National Congress on Education and Culture, the direct result of the “Words to Intellectuals” meeting, wasn’t celebrated. It was better to silence any memories about this Congress which was held between the 23rd and 30th April in 1971, which was called to find solutions to the problems existing in education and culture, and which only created more. Political ostracism and marginalization, and it’s best not to go into further details.

Of course, these were also direct results of the “Words to Intellectuals” meeting, as much as this first event doesn’t want to assume responsibility for them. You have to read Fidel’s closing ceremony speech to fully understand the nightmare that was going to become a living hell for writers and artists from that moment onwards. Furthermore, you have to remember that whilst this Congress was being held, Heberto Padilla, after his imprisonment, declared his repented mistakes which would make so many follow in his footsteps, at the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. As we already know, this self-criticism was accompanied by farce and policing language.

Photo: http://mesaredonda.cubadebate.cu
Photo: http://mesaredonda.cubadebate.cu

Yesterday, Miguel Barnet in his intervention on Mesa Redonda said that the “Grey Years” (1971-1976) was the result of a misinterpretation of Fidel’s ideology. That’s the first I’ve ever heard about that.

Who interpreted his ideas wrongly? And why weren’t they stopped in time? Once again, the idea that he is always right surfaces. Or rather: the belief that he’s always right.

Not five, not ten years, it was many more, and the chromatic scale has even reached the black notes, as Cesar Lopez would say. Fidel broke culture in the ‘70s to such an extent that it still hasn’t recovered. It would be wrong for us to forget that censorship still exists today. And its reflection too: self-censorship.

This is the main legacy today of the “Words to Intellectuals”: the different forms of fear, the feeling that comma or an elderly person’s breathing, written down, could be referring to the Revolution. Censors remain well-paid even today, where they want to update the words which sing in tune with the sinister anthem: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.”


34 thoughts on “Intellectuals, Absolute Truths and the Cuban Revolution

  • July 9, 2016 at 10:27 am
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    I agree. Either that or he works for the Propaganda Ministry and sits in a room in Havana with a 7 year-old computer in front of him being paid 23 cuc a month to troll Cuban pro-democracy websites.

  • July 8, 2016 at 11:11 pm
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    Based upon his garbled contributions in these pages I don’t think that CErmle has ever been to Cuba.

  • July 5, 2016 at 7:21 am
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    Nice try. Sooo Trumpite of you.

  • July 5, 2016 at 7:16 am
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    Your attempt to shut me up is very typical of right wing enthusiasts who are closed to the thoughts and opinions of others. You must be a disciple of Donald Trump or ? Your opinions, to which you are entitled, is a minority one, but don’t try to shut the rest of us up. You must simply accept the fact that not everybody is going to fall into line with your ideology. You will be challenged from time to time by those who feel you are off the wall.

  • July 4, 2016 at 4:33 pm
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    Many years ago Moses we had a donkey. Delphi was a lovely animal who even to our amusement used to enter the kitchen and seek a treat. But he remained a donkey.
    CErmle reminds me forcibly of Delphi, for him it is treat to eat the crumbs of illogical thought off the kitchen table of Fidel and he is indeed obviously grateful for them. But he like Delphi has his limitations for when he opens his mouth he can only bray!
    CErmle wants to be seen to supporting the repression of the CDR and thinks that I ought to be a target for them for expressing my views. All the time however he personally seeks the safety and security offered to him by the capitalist free world.
    As for the “idiotic comments”, an ass is an ass is an ass!

  • July 4, 2016 at 4:01 pm
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    I have answered that question from you previously. Perhaps you read what I wrote, but are not gifted with a retentive memory.
    I am in favour of the freedom of the people to exert their choice – for you that must be a revolutionary thought!
    As you think differently, it is you who is the counter-revolutionary.

  • July 4, 2016 at 11:21 am
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    At this infamous meeting between Fidel and the Cuban writers, the Comandante entered the room, placed his revolver on the table in front of him and sat down. If there had been any doubt as to the attitude of the Revolution towards the arts, there was no more. The Revolution would rule the arts with an iron fist.

    Why do totalitarians fear artists and writers? Because artists think for themselves. Because writers ask awkward questions which those in power do not want asked. Because they write from the individual heart, and the individual is always an enemy of Totalitarianism.

  • July 4, 2016 at 11:08 am
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    You are mistaken: the casinos were a small part of the Cuban economy. Batista took his cut from them, but the gangsters did not rule Cuba. Fidel turned to the Russians first. The US didn’t act against Fidel until after he had seized US property. By that time, the Cubans were already in the Soviet camp. Fidel also seized the property of Cuban citizens. Why?

  • July 4, 2016 at 7:17 am
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    You write “There is no dictatorship in Cuba.” In an earlier post you comment that there is no prostitution in Cuba. My question to the editor of Havana Times is why isn’t the “idiotic comments” filter working?

  • July 3, 2016 at 10:21 pm
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    You have a very small and probably irrelevant circle.

  • July 3, 2016 at 10:19 pm
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    As Informed Consent has commented, the Castros do not permit personal opinions that disagree with the Revolution to be expressed publicly. Only those that agree with the dictatorship can be expressed.

  • July 3, 2016 at 10:14 pm
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    Christmas. My family is there 3 times a year.

  • July 3, 2016 at 9:34 pm
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    Thank-you, Mr. Michaels, for a very balanced view point of Cuban Arts and Culture without having it being politicized. It is so refreshing to read about your first hand unbiased experiences in Cuba. I have been to Cuba several times, only as a tourist, and from my limited experiences I feel that the Cuban people generally do support their Government. I feel that once the US Economic Blockade is removed the economic situation will improve. I have grown to have a deep affection for the Cuban people. I’m looking forward to my next trip.

  • July 3, 2016 at 9:22 pm
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    A threat huh? How sad for you. You’re day is coming my friend. It must pain you to see the hundreds of thousands of Cubans- millions of Cubans – who have fled, and continue to flee, Cuba. They’re voices cry to the heavens.

    It must pain you to see Cubans succeed in countries outside Cuba, knowing they would have accomplished noth8ng were they to have remained in Cuba.

  • July 3, 2016 at 9:15 pm
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    Well, CErmie, he probably doesn’t want to be thrown in prison. …That’s what happens in totalitarian countries.

  • July 3, 2016 at 6:46 pm
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    Carlyle: I can just accept the communist regime without criticism because the Cubans where I live do so. Contrary to what some write here, I see Cuban people happy with their government. Sure they would like a better economic situation but I see that here in the US and every other country I have been to.

    Being completely open, I have no concerns about the CDR. They can get complete information from Cuban State Security who has a complete file about me and our relationship. Being with a highly visible mid level manager in the government, she got called in after our first date which was out of town. After being called several times, she proactively gave them everything they would ever want to know about me including passport copy, bio, a copy of my book of photographs of Cuban people completely translated into Spanish, answered every question they had, and offered for me to come meet with them if they chose. Now my relationship with state security is not totally rosy but we have no major problems with each other. And I never have to worry about them finding out something that I try to keep hidden.

    I think we actually are in agreement about musicians, that they primary source of income is not their state salaries but what they receive from tourists.

  • July 3, 2016 at 2:31 pm
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    Have you discussed this with the CDR? They will be glad to sit down with you and have a very fruitful discussion. No need to hide. There is no dictatorship in Cuba. You do not understand the system the Cuban people have created for themselves, a system they wholeheartedly support. Respect the will of The People, please. Why don’t you just have a friendly little talk with the CDR? You might learn something.

  • July 3, 2016 at 2:24 pm
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    If you are telling the truth, why do you stay there? The CDR would be glad have a conversation with you about these things. Now, IF you are a counter revolutionary that’s another matter.

  • July 3, 2016 at 2:23 pm
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    1957: 21years old. Working in a Corporate Art Department in Dallas TX. Half of the young artists had spent their honeymoons in Cuba. When the news that Fidel Castro had overthrown the Cuban government, the entire office stood up and cheered! I was totally not into geo-politics but they all explained to me that the Cuban government and the Casino owners RULED! The working class got the crumbs. Then, when the US sided with the moneyed elite, Fidel turned to the USSR. No surprise – money and the adage ‘If you frighten people badly enough, you can lead them anywhere.’

  • July 3, 2016 at 2:19 pm
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    OR you are spreading disinformation. When was the last time you were in Cuba?

  • July 3, 2016 at 2:18 pm
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    Since you are so anti-Castro and anti the Revolution why don’t you go directly to the government and express your opinion, or are you one of those people who talk one way in the homeland and another online? You appear to be on a dis-information campaign. Why?

  • July 3, 2016 at 11:19 am
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    The old man is a narcissist of worse kind. There will be a few things that history can point to as beneficial, but the price of his leadership was horrendous for the country. The present generation is already moving beyond the system he built. In 25 years little will remain as memories fade.

  • July 3, 2016 at 10:32 am
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    I understand your point of view although finding it difficult to comprehend how one can just accept the communist regime without criticism.
    I had noted your naming your location and your other half’s occupation. Because I am open in my views and opinions about the repressive operations of the Castros, I refrain from similar action to protect my wife and family, as you may have noted, I am fully aware of vthe declared purpose of the CDR. Such actions are unnecessary in free societies, but if everybody in Eastern Europe and those from outside – Pope John Paul 11 being a prime but far from sole outsider, had just acquiesced those Eastern European countries and their peoples would still be in bondage. Now they know freedom and for Fidel Castro in particular, that freedom and freedom of expression must be a source of anger, for in 1968 he said criticizing Alexander Dubcek as leader of the Czechoslovakian uprising:

    “certain measures were taken such as the establishment of a bourgeois form of freedom of the press. This means the counterrevolution and the exploiters, the very enemies of socialism, were granted the right to speak and write freely against socialism.”

    Obviously our chosen attitudes and reactions to such expressed oppressive opinion differ. My background makes acceptance of such an arrogant view unacceptable. But at least, we both recognize the merits of Cuban arts and culture.
    One correction, for the majority of the musicians who perform in the trovas it is their prime source of income, not secondary.

  • July 3, 2016 at 9:16 am
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    Yes, paintings of old US cars and the Bodeguita del Medio and people with big cigars in their mouths could be considered non-political. In music, maybe many love songs could be considered non-political. But how about playing at a concert for a dictator’s birthday? How about a reggae song that criticizes oppression? Would those be non-political?

  • July 3, 2016 at 8:55 am
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    Like you, I have an extended Cuban family of sorts as we consider ourselves family. But politics is not a part of their daily life so I do not interject it.

    Musicians as well as most in art and culture are simply part of the majority group of Cubans who are dependent on a secondary source of income. Nothing unique there.

    I do not even discuss politics at home since my personal views and those of my significant other differ. We share many common things but simply respect this is an area where our beliefs are not the same.

    No, I do not believe that not expressing views implies acquiescence. There are a number of topics besides politics, such as religion and sports, where one’s silence is not construed as agreement. Many understand that because I lead a totally transparent life using my real name and actual locations everywhere that my lack of comment means no more than I choose not to get embroiled in controversy.

  • July 3, 2016 at 8:12 am
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    I believe that art and culture are inherently non-political but can be made so. I strive to keep that from happening within my circle.

  • July 3, 2016 at 12:55 am
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    Bob, in as much as you live in Cuba you know as well as I do that art and culture IS political. Were that no so , you would have no reason to keep your mouth shut.

  • July 3, 2016 at 12:15 am
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    Ah Bob, there is the difference between you and I.My home is in Cuba and I am related to almost 70 Cubans. It is in consequence impossible for me to take the withdrawn academic approach.
    Whereas I recognize the talents instilled for example by Alicia Alonso in the ballet and the merits of the Youth Orchestra, I have learned to recognize the purposes of the support given to them.
    The music that is the soul of Cuba is that which one hears in the trovas – which inevitably are run by Artex as a subsidiary of GAESA. Artex pays nothing, making the musicians dependent upon tips and the sale of CDs.
    I too have learned to keep my mouth shut if in a group, and only discuss politics when at home on a one to one basis as the CDR is ever lurking in the background.
    As the Godfather of a Cuban child, I am constantly concerned that she has in her future the opportunity for freedom of expression and access to the full spectrum of the arts, not merely that which is acceptable to a communist regime.
    I note you saying that you don’t express political views, but don’t you think that that implies acquiescence?

  • July 2, 2016 at 10:03 pm
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    Moses: I cannot disagree except to point out what you are talking about is political and my comment was about art and culture. Once again, you have turned a discussion so that you can once again re-express your political views.

    BTW, have you ever noticed that I express no political views? Some assume they know my political ideas using the “if you ain’t against ’em, you must be for ’em” erroneous logic. But the reality is that Cuba is not my country even though I live there part time, so I keep my mouth shut.

  • July 2, 2016 at 9:48 pm
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    Carlyle: Yes, I have ventured into many libraries that are available to the ordinary Cuban. I live with the director of a mid sized library system in Cueto, Holguin.

    “Triumph of the Revolution” is the Cuban term for when Batista fled the country. It is not my description but theirs.

    I totally disagree that the reason the Ministry of Culture hosts artists and academics is seeking foreigners to praise the regime. Their motive is cultural based. Most simply, I see that directly serving as conduit in cases while you are speculating.

    Now I will agree there is some censorship but what I see is political will a minor spillover into culture. As I said before, one can find fault with the government.

  • July 2, 2016 at 6:21 pm
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    Put simply, censorship is still applied. Boris Pasternak and Dr. Zhivago being unknown to Cuban schoolteachers as it was banned. So Bob Michaels, how accommodating do you find that?
    Have you ventured into the libraries around Cuba – no, not showpieces, but those which are available to the average Cuban?
    What you describe as “the Triumph of the Revolution” resulted in Cubans being subjected to the repression of censorship. Yes, if you go into the library of our town in Cuba, you will find thirty seven copies of “Lenin” all in Pristine condition and a dozen copies of “History will Absolve Me” along with numerous copies of Dr. Ernesto Guevara’s “Guerrilla Warfare”. Such is the support for the arts by the Castro regime.
    As you are probably aware, Cuba has a “National Museum of Humour” located if you don’t know, in San Antonio de Los Banos. Try finding a single cartoon there that is in anyway critical of the Castro family, the Communist Party of Cuba or communism. In your country, criticism of your Government is a daily occurrence and cartoons poking fun at or savagely attacking the authorities are a dime a dozen. What about Cuba?
    There is much art in Cuba and particularly in the field of music – where else in the world can you find a Professor of Drumming? But that support of the arts of which you write is not without purpose for it keeps people occupied and away from consideration of politics.
    The Cuban government is happy to host those academics from the free world and to explain to them the merits of their system hoping that they will subsequently praise the regime.

  • July 2, 2016 at 4:12 pm
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    Oh yeah? Try to sell a book in Cuba, let alone publish it, that is in any way critical of the regime. Try to get radio time, or TV airing of a video that makes fun of the revolution or the Castros. Paint a painting or draw an unflattering cartoon caricature of a Castro and try get it posted anywhere on the island. You are either naive or uninformed.

  • July 2, 2016 at 2:53 pm
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    The chickens are slowly coming home to roost!
    Maykel Paneque writes of Fidel Castro: “Being absolutely certain that he’s always right,”
    My own description of Fidel Castro in ‘Cuba Lifting the Veil’, includes:
    “In searching for a way to try to save the soul of Fidel Castro Ruz the Pope as a priest has much to overcome to provide absolution. For the undeniable full legacy is there of multiple affairs, of executions, of persecutions, of hatred, of the insatiable thirst for power and control, of pursuit of nuclear conflict and of that over-whelming arrogance that brought about the boasted conviction that:
    “History will absolve me'”
    The Pope has spoken of “The balm of mercy.” but in considering Fidel Castro he is examining a man who has never shown any. When eventually able to access al the facts currently hidden behind the veil, freed Cubans will undoubtedly fail to share Fidel’s self-satisfied egotistical opinion or indeed the Pope’s enthusiasm for forgiveness.”
    Slowly but surely, Cubans are beginning to realize the truth about Fidel Castro. Maykel Paneque writes only of his effects upon the arts and culture but his avaricious thirst for total power and control has entered every aspect of the day to day lives of the Cuban people.
    It will take a long time for all the effects of Fidel Castro to be fully understood by a people who for fifty seven long years have been subjected to propaganda in the home through TV and the pernicious laws which punish parents who within their home teach their children anything that is counter to communist ideology, who have as they walk through their communities been subjected to all the banners and hoardings extolling the virtues of ‘Socialismo’ with endless quotations of Fidel, Raul and ‘Che’ Guevara and who have been denied the opportunity to learn about the wider world by censorship and no access to any literature that runs counter to Fidel Castro’s own opinions.
    There is an old saying that: “Eventually, truth will out.” It cannot happen quickly enough for the people of Cuba who have suffered the Castro family regime’s repression for far too long.

  • July 2, 2016 at 1:32 pm
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    It is undeniable that in the early years following the Triumph of the Revolution that the Cuban government had a negative impact on some artists and culture.

    But moving forward 50 years, it is a totally different situation. I, a US citizen, have ongoing involvement with the Cuban Ministry of Culture and find the government very accommodating. Even to the point to proactively reaching out to US citizens to attend and participate in events to the point of inviting US artists to exhibit in different disciplines.

    One can find fault with many aspects of the Cuban government but their support of art and culture is not one of them.

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