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Culture and Power, Together and Restless / Miguel Iturria Savón

August 29, 2010 Leave a comment

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

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A Rebelious Offspring / Miguel Iturria Savón

August 27, 2010 Leave a comment

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