As in medieval times, when music, painting and other artistic expressions were under the wing of the Catholic church, in Cuba culture is sponsored by the State. But artists don’t knock on the doors of cathedrals nor present their projects to the despot, since there is a network of institutions that rule and control film, the performing arts, the plastic arts, books and literature, architecture and even the media.
I was thinking of the subjection of culture to the State on Monday, August 23rd, as I enjoyed the concert offered by Zenaida Romeu and her Camerata before the power elite, in honor of the 50th anniversary of the Federation of Cuban Women, created by the former First Lady to empower the females of the country.
Zenaida’s words as she presented each piece caught my attention. With delicacy and precision she spoke of music as an expression of liberty. I suppose that General Castro and his entourage did not notice that detail. Enveloped in the interpretive magic of these women, they were not attentive to these subtleties.
Many of our creative people sometimes act on stages that reaffirm the relationship between art and power. The Universal Hall of the Armed Forces, the steps of the University of Havana, the Plaza of the Revolution or the Black Flags Park on the Malecón, in front of the United States’ Interests Office, are only some of the ritual places.
It is almost impossible to control the manifestations of art and literature, since creation is a natural need of man as a social being. The predominance of the State can achieve, at most, that an intellectual elite, docile and well-trained, direct culture toward political ends.
With the revolutionary process started in 1959, culture continued its march, but its rhythm was changed. In half a century of messianic populism, several components of daily life and tangible and spiritual elements of the social dynamic were altered. There are reversible damages and representative faces of “revolutionary art”.
Upon the disruption of the social order, the sociopolitical scheme was changed. The association with the socialist model led by the former Soviet Union made way for the development of official organizations that monopolize each area of artistic creation. The Instituto Cubano del Libro (Cuban Books Institute), the Centro Nacional de la Música (National Music Center), the Instituto de Arte e Industria Cinematográfica (Institute of Film Arts and Industry), the Consejo de las Artes Escénicas (Performing Arts Council), the Instituto de la Radio y la Televisión (Radio and Television Institute), the Centro de Artes Plásticas y Diseño (Plastic Arts and Design Institute) and other groups direct the artistic production according to political and government interests.
The commissaries dictated standards, demanded fidelity, and imposed mass culture through control of the radio, film, education and the media; but the creative universe of the island went into crisis around 1990, with the fall of the socialist allies that provided the resources for the country, accelerating the exodus of artists to other countries. But the bureaucratization of culture was maintained, intent on tying the creators to the network of State centers that instituted censorship and submission through awards, publication, recordings and travel, favoring opportunists and excluding those who defy the doctrine of the power holders.
Many public shows take place in this context of political schemes, as in the times of praising and singing to the Lord, when music and other artistic expressions revolved around the cathedral and the artists were dependent on generous patrons.
Translated by: Espirituana
On Tuesday, June 15th, I ran into Juan Juan Almeida in the International Legal Office on 21 24, El Vedado. As we said goodbye, he told me he was starting a hunger strike on that day demanding the exit permit to continue his medical treatment outside Cuba. I visited him twice at his apartment on 41 and Conill before August 23rd, when he suspended his fast at the request of the Archbishop of Havana, who interceded on his behalf before General Castro’s government.
On Monday, August 23rd, Juan Juan seemed like the shadow of his shadow. In 69 days he went from 230 to 150 pounds. If it were not for his lucidity and good humor, I would have thought I was in the presence of a zombie. We talked for 20 minutes and I left before the arrival of his sister Glenda, who lives three blocks away and was keeping an eye on his hardships.
As I walked along Tulipán looking for the bus that would take me home, I thought again about this striker: extraordinary, cheerful, making jokes, the enemy of any type of inflexibility, able to listen even to the delirious fantasies of the State Security agents who have been breathing down his neck since he lost the protection of his father, a comandante of the revolution with an artistic vocation and a passion for power.
During his hunger strike, Juan Juan made statements to the foreign press accredited in Cuba, spoke with several bloggers and independent journalists, went out with signs to public places two or three times, received friends and people who oppose the regime, was the subject of controversy and attacks and political asylum proposals from governments in Europe and America.
For a great part of the world it is difficult to understand that a man would begin a hunger strike because he is not allowed to leave his country to continue the treatment he was receiving in Europe. It has a certain logic, since adults decide what to do with their lives, except in the case of Cuba and North Korea, where the State attributes to itself the authority to decide who enters or leaves the country.
For a segment of Cubans in exile, Juan Juan Almeida is loathsome due to his paternal origin. He has Castroism’s stamp of origin; he was educated as an officer of the Minister of Internal Security in the former Soviet Union and practiced his profession until he fell into disgrace. Perhaps he´s not forgiven for the publication of a book in which he satirizes his own life and the errors and horrors of the demigods who took hold of power and devour their own children.
I don´t think he worries much about the conflicting opinions of those who judge him through a political lens. Juan did not distance himself from the power circle in order to climb in the opposition. As I listened to him on Monday, August 23rd, I thought that this charismatic and cheerful down-to-earth Cuban believes more in the smile and the handshake of those who greet him than in all the slogans and hallelujahs he heard since he was born.
P.S. Congratulations, Juan Juan! We are all happy for your liberation
Translated by: Espirituana
As August progresses, as if the summer sun and rain weren’t enough, the official press is punishing us with news that tests the boundaries of even the complete joke represented by the newspaper Granma, the Communist Party organ, and Juventud Rebelde — Rebel Youth — the newspaper for the younger generation, two sides of the totalitarian coin, accustomed to embellishing statistics, interviewing “leaders” and courtesans, pointing their magnifying glass at events in the United States and giving a pat on the back to allies like Iran and North Korea.
As each edition reiterates the twisted perception of the world versus the wonders that happen on this island, these media beat us over the head with the little story of Comandante-Saviour-of-the-World and the disasters in other latitudes that confirm his prophecies. To the worst leader in our nation’s history they dedicate poems, art works, celebrations for his 84th birthday and comments on the 896 page tome he wrote when he was seriously ill; it can’t be topped, right?
In this satirical operetta is inscribed the interview published by Mayte María Jiménez, on Saturday, August 14, in Juventud Rebelde, of Maydel Gómez Lago, 23 from Cienfuegos, who is a recent graduate in Pedagogy and the designated president of the FEU (Federation of University Students). If anyone would like to see Maydel’s teeth and to know “What Cuba dreams of in the future?”, I suggest you get the newspaper or ask Google the title “Creative and in love with life” (Creativos y enamorados de la vida).
As we know how they fabricate these puppets converted into leaders of this or that organization, I am not going to question this girl’s biography nor repeat the questions and answers. Maydel seems less intelligent than Carlos Lage and nicer than Felipe Pérez Roque, two men who ascended the ladder to the top tier of the Cuban government years ago from the little position now occupied by her. Lucky girl!
The girl spoke, of course, of the ideological political work and the academic plane, of being more creative to strengthen the Revolution, of giving continuity to the leadership of the FEU, which Julio A. Mella and José A. Echeverría gave their lives for, and bet on “an eternally socialist and revolutionary Cuba,” Come on! The same as always. Nothing about the autonomy of the university nor how to extract the FEU from the clutches of despotism.
On Tuesday, August 17 Juventud Rebelde provided one of its pages to another young official. His name is Jesús Lara Sotelo and he emerged by drawing Fidel Castro, to whom he dedicated his most recent work, “The Triumph of the Prophecy,” now exhibited at the Hotel Nacional, and displayed on August 13 at the Cuba Pavilion, where the celebration With Fidel and For Peace was held. We know through the journalist José Luis Estrada Betancourt, whose interview appeared on page 6 under the title of the picture.
Rather than a marionette, Lara Sotelo seems more like a pygmy with a brush in front of a colossal and ancient David. In his responses to the reporter, the new Painter of the Olive-Green Court could displace Alexis Leyva (“Kcho”), who encouraged him “through a mutual friend.” Thanks to the push (or the order, who knows?) from other celebrities of the eternal army, like Alex Castro, who presented him with photos of his father; Armando Hart, ex-minister of culture, and the pianist Frank Fernández, who blessed him with a homonymous work.
As a reward, the new portraitist of the tyranny left on a trip to the Basque Country, where he will exhibit his mural, “Haiti is another Guernica,” in the Make Bacon salon. The young palace decorator is clever and manipulative, right?
As a teenager I imagined that writers were wise, sensible, creative, focused and responsible people. For me, a poet was a chosen of God in communion with men, capable to singing to the moon, describing encounters with the stars, and shouting the word freedom before the rifles of the tyrant. With the passage of time I met several literary types and discovered the human profile of some poets and writers.
I didn’t imagine, however, that there was a trafficking in praise, a commerce in applause, and even poems and stories made to order. Perhaps in exchange for prizes, publications, trips, and positions at cultural institutions. So I thought until I read an August 14 article in the daily paper Juventud Rebelde — Rebel Youth — by José Luis Estrada Betancourt, “The Poets Are on This Side.”
Incredible but true. The writer starts with a fragment from Declaration of Love by Carilda Oliver Labra, National Literature Prize of 1997, who read this work, and continues with her Song to Fidel, in the recent fair at the Cuba Pavilion where she participated with other literary celebrities in the recital, “With Fidel and For Peace,” organized by the Cuban Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) the previous day, on the occasion of the Island tyrant’s 84th birthday.
In reviewing the evening, the journalist set out the certainties around the peace of the figures assembled with Carilda Oliver, who came from Matanzas to receive the Youth Teacher Prize, awarded by the Asociación Hermanos Saiz and given out by Abel Prieto, Minister of Culture. The writers lists the names of the other personalities, quotes the worlds of novelist Miguel Barnet, president of UNEAC, and ends with a poetic apology by Nancy Morejón to the despot who calls for world peace after half a century of shooting off canons.
As it never rains but it pours, on Saturday night I saw on the National Television News the faces of Fernández Retamar, César López, Barnet, Carilda, Pablo A. Fernández and other scribblers with more excuses than published books, all attentive to the orders of the Caudillo, ever ready to grab a stick and frighten the sparrows.
If Carilda Oliver re-read her old Song to Fidel, Miguel Barnet repeats the pacifist chant Coma Andante, and Nancy Morejón described the fortune of being loyal to Fidel, it’s all consistent with the Juventud Rebelde reported who affirmed without blushing that “The Poets Are on This Side,” as if the island had only one shore and the mission of the rhapsodies consisted of denigrating a nation enslaved by its enlightened ringleader.
Although time has taught us that some poets sell their verses and write tributes for a crumb of power, we know that on other shores of the island’s geography there are dozens of writers without prizes nor choruses, sensitive and creative people who suffer for a geranium, discover the beauty of the rain, and challenge the campaigns of the despot who convenes the debased.
From the silence, the impunity, and with the same contempt for the activists who promote human rights in Cuba, the political police triggered the arrests and threats in Havana and other cities in the country, between July 10 and August 12, which coincides with the resumption of activities by ex-president Fidel Castro and the official celebration of his birthday, on Thursday, August 13.
As the press is an area where the real world and that world designed by the ideologues of power meet, it is enough to compare the newspaper Granma and the official media who display the tyrant’s need to be in the limelight on the island, with Cubanet and other pages from exile, that report the daily events from alternate sources, without censorship or half-truths.
To illustrate the repression it’s worth some examples of arrests, threats made to people in their homes and at police stations, beatings behind bars, “persuasive conversations” in offices of the “apparatus,” statements, written denunciations and unusual outbursts, like that of Colonel Samper to Alfredo Guillaume (age 82), to whom he said, “It’s not worth wasting a bullet on you, but we would save resources.”
A reported dated July 26 and signed by Joel Lázaro Carbonell Guilar, leader of the group Human Rights Free Cubans, illustrated with names and recent violations the Articles 3, 9 and 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Articles 9 (sub-paragraph a), 58 and 59 of the Cuban Constitution. According to the activist: “They include acts of genocide and torture against members of civil society, victims of detentions, threats, mistreatment, kidnappings on the public street and being besieged by mobs organized by the political police.” He adds that, “the events remain unpunished and the damage to the injured is not repaired.”
Yoel Lázaro Guilar refers to the cases of Lilvio Fernández Luis, leader of the Comisión Martiana, taken from his house to a cell in Villa Marista; Alfredo Fernández Silva, president of the Partido 30 de noviembre, taken by force from his home and help in a distant place for 10 hours; Juana M. Oquendo Gómez, executive of the Partido Liberal Ortodoxo, detained and threatened in front of her son, whom they detained to pressure her; and the kidnapping of the elderly man Alfredo Guillaume.
The arrests gained intensity on July 12, before the anniversary of the sinking of the tugboat 13 de Marzo (resulting in 41 deaths, including children); the days before the July 26 anniversary, celebrated in Santa Clara; the lead up to the August 5 anniversary of the Maleconazo riot in 1994; and August 12 as a gift from the Minister of the Interior to Fidel Castro on his 84th birthday (August 13). Activists calculated that there were more than 100 arrests on August 5.
Ricardo Medina, a theologian and representative of the Liberal Catholic Church was arrested on August 4 together with the activist Hugo Damián at the Pinar del Rio bus station, where he was to greet the layman Dagoberto Valdés. He was taken by an official from State Security with Ricardo’s dossier, and freed two days later.
The arrests in July on the Malecon in Havana and on August 5 in the Park at Calzada and K in Vedado, added the names of journalists and independent librarians who enlarged the list of opponents interrogated in Santa Clara, Holguín and Guantánamo.
The siege against human rights defenders in mid-July and August coincided with the release of a dozen prisoners of conscience, and with the media role of Fidel Castro, who retakes the ideological reins of the regime and announces universal catastrophes.
A friend from Miami told me over the internet last Friday, that in July he saw two theatrical works representing the island in festivals in the United States, “where there is a real invasion of Cuban artists, including orchestras, troubadours, reggaetoneros, and dance and theater groups, almost all very good, although some are irritating due to the ambivalence of their music or the statements they make, not thinking that here there are no issues of ‘enemy propaganda’ or ‘ideological diversionism’.”
The theater groups representing Cuba in the United States were El Público and Buendía, both revitalizing collectives due to their way of making and conceiving of theater. The former performed The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, shown as part of GLBT Performing Arts Theater’s “Out in the Tropics,” at the Colony Theater of Miami Beach. The latter performed their versions of The Visit of the Old Dame and Charenton, premiered in Havana and seen now at the Latino Festival of Theater, organized each year by the Goodman Theater of Chicago, from where they went on to perform at the Manuel Artime Miami stage.
I won’t tackle the three proposals, whose focuses, montages, and spell-casting strategies reveal the plurality of Cuban theater, marked by universal and local themes, austere stage settings, and dialogue that implicates the audience, whose eagerness is visible in Havana’s halls.
I’ll focus on The Visit of the Old Dame, a cruel and stark comedy rewritten by Flora Lauten (director) and Raquel Carrió (adviser) based upon the original by the German author, Friedrich Durrenmatt. The original plotline is preserved, but with a smaller cast that condenses characters and changes some details of language and narrative style, which suits its proximity to our Cuban reality.
With The Visit of the Old Dame, Buendía offered a theatrical metaphor of Cuban daily life, marked by confinement, misery, and intolerance. After decades of exile, now wealthy Clara Zajanin returns to the impoverished town of Gula, where she’s received as a prodigy child and future omen. She evokes her shadowy and frustrated past, the betrayal of a young-lover-turned-town-mayor, who will be the target of her vengeance, while the townspeople who once detested her now flatter her in hopes of loans and other favors.
Such an expansive scenic view would seem a pretext to create a dialogue with the public about the problems that erode human existence, recreated by the magic of theater, with excellent performances, live music that enhances the nostalgia in Martha Strada’s mythical voice, and illuminating references to the island’s context. For Buendía‘s cast, it’s as if foreign plays serve to support our imaginariums and utopias, the way to deal with that which is mythic and ordinary and to polemicize the present and future.
There’s an overflow of charm and splendid performances upon that altarpiece of scenic passions, where comedy wins the bout over tragedy and the masks reveal something of the mythic and the ordinary, without evading the problems of the present and future.
Those of us who follow the island’s theater scene know that Buendía Theater, founded in 1986 by the actor and professor Flora Lauten, is grounded in an intelligent selection of works, whose versions reach the public and speak to them of the issues, challenges, and circumstances that can move their lives.
The favorable reception by the public and critics in Chicago and Miami of The Visit of the Old Dame and Charenton, Buendía‘s recent works, will likely stimulate the further creative research of this drama collective, with their headquarters in the Coptic church on Loma and 39th Streets, in Havana’s Plaza municipality, where their sessions are held, along with their Research Workshop and Center for the Education of Actors, Directors, and Technicians.
Translated by: Yoyi el Monaguillo
On Saturday, August 7, Cuban television aired another chapter in the media tragicomedy of Fidel Castro Ruz, who chaired the special session of the so-called People’s Power National Assembly, to which he spoke about the disaster that will be triggered in the Persian Gulf if the U.S. government dares to underestimate the threats of Iran, whose government is developing a plan of nuclear weapons, destabilizing the region.
The parliamentary track became a pre-scripted session of claiming the limelight. Castro resumed his role of universal guru and the deputies confirmed their loyalty to the tyrant, interrupting him with applause, complacent questions, and congratulations on his 84th birthday. Without moving from his chair, the former leader showed off his dramatic poses, enhanced by his raving verbal and mental excesses; meanwhile, the entourage of fawningly servile adulators, avidly listened to the Caudillo’s prophecies.
More than a conclave of national interest, the Saturday assembly between the despot and his legislators, became a meeting of shadow plays that accentuated the desperation. Neither the yawns of the Caudillo’s brother, multiplied by zero among so many blunders, nor Alarcon’s caution in conducting the “debates,” justified the irresponsible diatribe of the aged commander, sick from power and prominence.
In this role play of Fidel Castro he fired his last cartridges against the people of Cuba, suffocated by half a century of totalitarianism. Castro, like Stalin, Mao and Franco, intends to rule until the end of his days, with the the reins of power in the hands of his worshipers, whose veneration and servility are beyond doubt.
Castro fought his own war against our island, though disguised his legacy of deaths, mass exoduses, economic devastation, collective misery, generalized corruption and external dependency; camouflaged in speeches from his own barricades of the Cold War, when he was exporting the Socialist Utopia and destabilizing the countries in the region.
The cynicism of the cacique and his vassals elicits guffaws more than sympathy. His recent public interventions, the “reflections” that his amanuenses write in his name, and the 800-page tome on the strategy of his victory, represent his closing mutterings.
In reviewing the Parliament session of August 7, the foreign correspondents accredited in Havana will be respectful and circumspect. Perhaps Patricia Grog, Andrea Rodríguez and Fernando Ravsberg will show their admiration for the island patriarch and describe the warnings against the United States, which now “seeks to humiliate the people of Iran,” whose ayatollahs are Castro’s allies.
Cubans, weary of tragicomedies and verbal bombast, know that Castro’s prophecies of war and the applause of his legislators, are one more branch on the tree of cynicism. More of the same from the pit of inertia.