Rene Vazquez Diaz: Cuban Forgettings / Intellectual Debate

See here for background information on this series of posts.

René Vázquez Díaz, Sweden, 2007 — Last year, during a period of several months, personalities committed to the politics of cultural repression during the 1970s were interviewed on various Cuban television programs. The reappearance on the small screen of odious characters who call to mind the ferocity of mechanisms geared against creativity, art and human dignity, culminated this past 5 January with a five-minute interview of Mr. Luís Pavón Tamayo, who led the National Cultural Council between 1971 and 1976, and who the majority of Cuban writers believed was physically and politically deceased. continue reading

Opaque, astute and without scruples, Pavón was a powerful official who implemented a dogmatic political culture and who shamelessly condemned homosexuals, plunging intellectual life into what came to be known as “The Five Grey Years,” and condemned to ostracism first-rate writers like Antón Arrufat, Pablo Armando Fernández and César López. These individuals have all been recognized for the mark of creativity and beauty that they have left on Cuban culture.

In all countries there are issues of national importance about which, for long periods of time, silence is kept by tacit agreement. In Sweden, it has been the vigilance and surveillance carried out by the secret police on so-called “security risks,” which eventually affected more than 300,000 persons, many of whose work lives were ruined.

In France, it is the outrages of the genocidal war in Algeria. In Spain, it is the silence regarding Franco regime figures at all levels, from low-life torturers to businessmen and personages such as Fraga, whose television appearances never provoke revulsion in Spain.

Upon understanding that Pavón’s surprising reappearance entailed his public rehabilitation–and also a regressive movement in which Cuban intellectual life would lose a space for activism that had been steadily growing–numerous intellectuals freely and indignantly protested. Immediately, meetings were called of the Writers Union, the Institute of Radio & Television, and the Ministry of Culture.

Soon it was seen that this was not about a conspiracy, nor an attempted institutional coup to revive those bygone times of the Pavonato.* Nor was it about trying to damage the current politics, represented by the Minister of Culture Abel Prieto, and the majority of the intellectual community on the Island. But the emerging controversy offers some history lessons.

The first is that there needs to be a rigorous study of that period, and that in Cuba there are still functionaries who remain nostalgic for dogmatism and obstinacy. With sectarian spirit and a notable ahistoric sensibility, and taking advantage of the lack of culture inherent in the little world of television around the globe, somebody wanted to try out the possibility of taking a stab at current cultural politics. The sword was a wooden one. The reaction on the part of the intelligentsia and the authorities demonstrated that this past has no possibility of returning.

Another lesson is that the intellectuals who live and work in Cuba are involved in a productive process of changes, and appear to have much to defend. Their protestation, open and constructive, arose from the territory of responsibility, and a feeling that their dignity had been wounded, along with the dignity of the Nation. In turn, the reactions of many exiles were characterized by an exercise in selective forgetting, which drags them down to writing from the territory of revenge or of gratuitous mockery. One wrote that there exists an amnesia of the past and of the present; another said that the 1970s were a decade of horror. This requires a separate analysis, to contextualize the horror and open the shutters of amnesia about the past and the present.

How did that decade start out? On 17 April 1970, a group of Cuban exiles, armed and financed by the US, disembarked 22km from the city of Baracoa, killed four soldiers and gravely wounded two others. On 10 May, another group of exiles attacked two ships from the Caibarién Fishing Cooperative and kidnapped 11 crewmembers, who were left to their fate on a small island in the Bahamas.

On 12 July 1971, the same year as the Padilla case and the Education and Culture Congress, a group of exiles declared themselves the perpetrators, in Miami, of a terrorist act in Guantánamo that caused a railroad catastrophe, with a death toll of four Cubans and 17 others injured. In October, an armed motorboat from Miami attacked the small town of Boca de Samá. They killed the citizens Lidio Rivaflecha and Ramón Siam Portelles; there were four others gravely injured, two of them minors.

On 4 April 1972, the same year that I went to Poland to study naval engineering, a plastic bomb went off in the Cuban Commercial Office in Montreal. The employee Sergio Pérez del Castillo was blown to bits, and the so-called “Young Cubans Association” in Miami claimed responsibility. On 3 August of the following year, a member of the terrorist gang “Acción Cubana” [Cuban Action] died in Abrainville, near Paris, when a bomb he was preparing to fling at the Cuban embassy in Paris detonated in his hands. The explosion totally destroyed six rooms of the hotel where he was staying.

On 13 February 1974, a postal package addressed to the Cuban embassy in Madrid exploded in the La Cibeles central office, injuring an employee. On 22 April 1976, a highly destructive bomb was set off in the Cuban embassy in Lisbon and killed the functionaries Efrén Monteagudo y Adriana Corcho. On 9 July of that same year, a bomb that had been placed in a suitcase that was about to be transferred onto a Cubana de Aviación plane in Kingston, Jamaica, exploded on the ground because of a delay in the flight’s departure, thus preventing, by pure chance, the plane blowing up in full flight.

How did The Five Grey Years end? Stained in blood. On 6 October 1976, the Cubana de Aviación CUT-1201 plane blew up during a regularly-scheduled flight between Barbados and Havana, killing 57 Cubans, 11 Guyanese, and 5 Koreans–73 persons total–in the first terrorist attack on civil aviation in modern times. [Luis] Posada Carriles, the terrorist responsible for that monstrous act and much more, today enjoys absolute impunity in the US, while none of the Cubans who write for the US-financed media have called for his extradition.

That era of horror cannot be analyzed with a sense of civic responsibility that is relativistic, opportunistic and selective–as the majority of Cuban exiles have done who say that they sleep with a clear conscience, while they write for a magazine such as Encuentro, which is financed by the same State that sponsors the horror of the so-called Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba. The dangerousness of this document should unite all of us Cubans, independent of the position we hold regarding the Revolution, in a common humane and ethical effort to ensure a peaceful future for our compatriots.

With that project, which is counter to international law and the dignity of Cuba as a nation, the US State Department is codifying the future of the Island and secretly preparing a period of post-Castro violence, during which it will be necessary to “prepare to keep all schools open during the emergency phase of the transition, so that children and adolescents will be off the streets during that unstable time.”

What instability are they talking about? Cuban exiles will be able to claim their properties and displace the residents who today own their houses, or charge them rent and even raise it. The US will require its transitional government to shutter existing security agencies, and quickly process officials of “the previous regime” who appear on a long list of functionaries against whom they will seek “revenge.”

Because such measures (according to the report) could provoke violence and social disturbances, “the internal food supply, transportation, infrastructure and warehouse systems,” according to the State Department, “could be interrupted by the chaos that results from a power vacuum.” But, because the transfer of power would have already occurred, and because there would be no chaos or power vacuum because no Cuban wants this, Washington has announced that there is a secret addendum** to the plan that sets forth a plan to manufacture that chaos.

I propose that this secret addendum be entitled, “The Horror Clause.” For, not only is it enough to appoint an espionage mission against Cuba, and a proconsul named Caleb McCarry who, with full authority (granted by a foreign power!), will direct the reconquest of Cuba. They also have in hand that secret plan, which cannot entail anything other than a military intervention against the people of Cuba.

To disregard these facts while analyzing the difficulties and outrageousness of that [Five Grey Years] era and the one we’re living in today–speaking of Cuba as if it were not a country exposed like none other to criminal policies such as the blockade [embargo] and the Helms-Burton Act–is a way of reproducing the propaganda that the US promotes to justify its aggressions. But it will never be the honest exercise in historical introspection which we Cubans need, within and outside of Cuba.

René Vázquez Díaz, Sweden

Translator’s Notes:
*”Pavonato” is Cuban slang coined to refer to Pavón’s years at the helm of Cuba’s National Council of Culture in the 1970s.
**Former US Diplomat in Havana Wayne Smith uses the term “secret annex” to refer to this.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison and others.

Message From Juan Antonio García Borrero / Polemica, The 2007 Intellectual Debate

See here for background information on this series of posts.

Your message to Desiderio has motivated me to add some ideas to this debate, which, to my taste, has left us with an excess of words in the middle of a desert of actions. Compared with the richness of ideas and reflections that have been heard, the last UNEAC declaration borders on the outrageous, due to its greyness and shallowness. On the other hand, I think you are the only one from the critics’ guild who seems to have gained a level of sensitivity regarding the controversy, such that I am grateful that in your writing you make it clear that what you call civic responsibility also concerns those of us who are trying to be mindful about Cuban cinema.

I wish to ponder a couple of the things in your reflection. Those that are not concerned with the anecdote, but rather to that way of assuming our lives which has become for us something natural. I think that a hundred years can go by and still no Cuban (be he or she from Havana or Miami, Camagüey or Madrid) will ever leave aside that Hollywood-style vision of life, where those who don’t agree with our own opinions are the villains, and only the ones who think exactly like us are the only ones to be trusted. We all know that this is nonsense, but we have become hardline with regard to that concept. It is almost an addiction. continue reading

I would like to speak, as you have, of Cuban cinema. I think it is still a pristine terrain for discussion. Generally, we discuss with more vigor the pertinence that Forrest Gump obtained so many Oscars, rather than discussing the effectiveness of our own cinema. This does not mean that it is not important to talk about the Oscars, as long as it is examined from a critical perspective and as a cultural phenomenon. Gratuitous Oscarphobia is as harmful and petulant as Oscarmania.

I still insist that Cuban cinema is studied much better outside of Cuba (for example in France or the United States), than in our country. This is because to speak critically about the history of Cuban film means to subject to physicalization the relationship that this artistic expression maintains over nearly five decades to the political vanguard. And from Cuba, that’s quite complex to undertake, because it can upset that vanguard. You mention the case of “Alice in Wondertown,” but you have to go back to “PM”* and even take into account “Memories of Underdevelopment,” and the reaction of certain political commissars when, in the height of the pavonato, “A Day in November” was made, but only released six years later. Or, equally, you can talk about “Glass Roof.” Or of “The Enchantment of Return,” never shown despite having won the Caracol Prize or something like that.

The example of the Cuban cinema during the Five Grey Years is no less paradoxical. It is true that a film like “A Day in November” was held for six or seven years without being released, because it  was completed in that time when the cultural politics represented by Pavón (notinvented by him) became natural law, and the first charge that since the “First Congress on Education and Culture” was assigned to the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC) was still sounding, which is the increase in historical films that would help legitimizethose hundred years of struggle for national independence.

A story like that of [Humberto]Solás, for all its more edifying end, seemed doomed not to fall within the permissible parameters of the censors, who were more attentive to the protests of the intellectuals in the case of Padilla, that the potential criticism could come from within. Only Titón [filmmaker Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s nickname] was shrewd enough to turn the storyline of “A Cuban Fight Against Demons” into a contemporary analysis of what could be ideological intolerance; and the same with The Last Supper,” in which one can see a portrait of something that we have never shaken off: the double standard. Titón himself would later say, during one of his final interviews, that because the Church and the Party had so many things in common, the story of “The Last Supper” could be extrapolated without much effort.

I believe that the responsibility around this lack of debate about Cuban cinema in the country is a shared one. In this, I could seem incendiary. But it’s not just about those who do the censoring on television, even though the responsibility borne by these individuals is certain. There is also much responsibility borne by critics and filmmakers, who may have preferred to ensure our next book or shoot before discussing ad nauseam what is obviously an outrage: the censoring of national films on our own national television.

I recall that I once took part as a delegate in one of the UNEAC Congresses, and the point that I wanted to make was precisely that: the absence of Cuban cinema on television. The official in charge of the event at the time told me that there were more important things to discuss, and suggested “other problems” to highlight. I also remember that during this same event, Rolando Pérez Betancourt brought up the same issue, arguing in great detail and very intelligently every one of those matters you  outline. And nothing happened.

“Strawberry and Chocolate” continues to be excluded from our domestic television, although Cubavisión Internacional does broadcast it regularly. Somebody has decided that the Cuban television viewer (the domestic one) is an intellectual minor and, despite so much instruction and level of education, is not competent enough to view such a film. This way of thinking reminds me of an ingenious phrase by Julio García Espinosa, when he speaks of “cinema’s double standard.”

Even so, my question goes deeper: amidst all this, whither the Cuban filmmakers? We already know that the critics cannot schedule “Strawberry and Chocolate” to air on television, because rules are rules, and they must be followed. They are not in charge–although, of course, they do have a voice, and that privilege of public declaration that has been granted them should be exploited for reflecting on what is really lacking in society, and not about what the media bosses want discussed. All things considered, the existence of Cuban cinema within a television framework seems crazy, for it is as if two conversations in different languages were going on. On the one hand, television, with its inveterate celebratory tradition; on the other, Cuban cinema, with its tendency to show a more complex view of reality, and to humanize the image of a country which, as all others that I know, contains much that is of pain and laughter.

That filmmakers exert no real influence on Cuban media is obvious. What is not clear to me is to what point filmmakers appear determined to denounce this situation, to oppose it, and to not become accomplices to the absurdity. I have defended a viewpoint that has garnered me a plethora of detractors. Some time ago, I published a little essay that I titled, ” ‘The Confiscated Utopia’: From the Gravity of Dreams to the Lightness of Realism,” which, unmistakably sought to promote an “intelligent” discussion amongst filmmakers and critics. The essay was barely answered (considered) by a pair of producers (Arturo Sotto, Jorge Luis Sánchez), considering the many rumors and “hallway gossip” written, as I always say, on rolling paper. In my opinion, this was proof that intellectual organicness had been confiscated within Cuban cinema. And I speak not of common intellectual organicness, but that of the artist who, being heretical by nature, opts for silence, which is not a natural condition, but rather an imposed one.

The thesis of “The Confiscated Utopia” also spoke to the need of leaving aside those false divisions in which creators and critics see themselves as irreconcilable antagonists. As far as I know, this thinking is not exclusive to critics, and criticism can be creative. But this creative thinking starts at home, and perhaps this is a hasty judgment, but filmmakers in Cuba at some point gave up that common goal which used to be associated with a Titón, a García Espinosa or a Solás, so as to be able to face a more difficult survival.

The impulse to survive makes us selfish, because what it imposes is “every man for himself,” and measured thinking is left by the wayside. I still insist on the thesis, then, until such time I am convinced otherwise.

I admit that what I’m saying is no more than a personal impression. The grave matter is that almost nobody in Cuba is interested in discussing this. In our collective imaginary, the ICAIC continues to be an island within the Island, which influences even the way in which filmmakers conceive their works.

No few of these films still use the same model of portrayal that was in vogue in the early ’60s. As if time had stood still. As if it were Robinson Crusoe filming himself. Or as if 1959 were around the corner. Nor is it about trying to make another “Memories of Underdevelopment” or “Lucía,” but rather of feeding from that same heretical animus that mobilized production during that decade, that impulse that went beyond the ideological function to transform itself into the paradigm of a cultural phenomenon (the new Latin American cinema), which lives on in memory.

Outside the country, many criticize the ICAIC because they consider it a mere propaganda machine for the system, but the demand for a national cinema was already present in the ’50s, and it was that combination of yearnings (aesthetic and ideological) that facilitated the rapid ascension of our cinema to a position of leadership in the continent. Today that leadership is non-existent. It is enough to compare the gross of more recent Cuban films with Latin American films that are currently at the top of certain innovative movements, and one will see to what degree we have remained isolated in this domain, too. Not even good political cinema (such as the documentary by Santiago Alvarez), nor innovative cinema in the esthetic sense.

The only way to recapture that creative animus of yesteryear is having dialogue ad nauseam, deploying the narrative arsenal, converting the hallways of the ICAIC into a mobile cinematheque wherein people live cinema, not live off it. And above all, learning to debate each other, because amongst ourselves (filmmakers and critics) there still predominates that primitive feeling that makes us think that any disagreement is a personal problem, if not a political one.

Although I am interested in the culture of polemics, I do not like gratuitous argument. I believe that there are many people living off that ancient tool which is the insult flung at he who does not think like you. That is not the case with us. Your piece has made me think, and that is what matters. Unfortunately, the controversies surrounding Cuban cinema have swirled around other interests besides those of cinema itself. And almost always they have ended silenced by circumstances that tomorrow will cease to exist, while influencing too much the actual lives of filmmakers.

Nobody can give back to Daniel Díaz Torres (not the filmmaker, but the human being) the peace that was taken from him during those bad times of “Alice in Wondertown,” just as nobody can return to Titón and Tabío their tranquillity after Fidel’s public criticism of “Guantanamera.” Or to Solás for his disagreements following “A November Day,” or “Cecilia.” That is perhaps the saddest thing that happens with those “cultural policies,” designed with apparent good intentions, policies that speak much about collective principles, and very little about flesh-and-blood beings. They are policies which, as all such policies do, eventually dehumanize art and its reception by the public.

Because I am still interested in supporting the idea of critical thinking on the inside (which, for some, is symptomatic of the most decadent naiveté), then I want to applaud your text as one of the most lucid connected to Cuban cinema that I have read in a long time. And I am gladdened that it comes from someone who works within the ICAIC–that is, from an artist who can think. Would that this be the prelude to that day in which debate in Cuba (the nation, and not just the physical island) will become what it should be: the way to our common betterment.

A hug,

Juan Antonio García Borrero

Another Message from Juan Antonio García Borrero, to Gustavo Arcos Fernández-Brito:

My Dear Gustav:

Like everything in this life, the Internet has its indisputable advantages, but also its dark side. If, on the one hand, thanks to the Internet, the public sphere appears to recover some of its autonomy (as is demonstrated by this debate that right now keeps us occupied and which, fortunately, nobody can control or maneuver towards an expressed end), on the other it runs the risk of total dispersion. I admit, then, that it has been error to say that Colina is the only Cuban critic showing himself to be sensitized to the matter. I should have said that he was the only one I knew, and thus avoid that simplistic vision that I myself have tried to combat with the previous writing. I would appreciate, then, if you would send me Luciano’s thoughts, those of Frank, and yours, which surely will be most useful to me. As the best philosopher to have ever peeked out from a screen has said, “Nobody’s perfect.”

Another aspect that I should qualify is that reference to critical thinking “on the inside.” It is a statement that appears to say that those of us who inhabit the Island have the monopoly on truth, when, in fact, there are all kinds in the Lord’s Vinyard. There is one who lives in Miami and has never left the pre-revolutionary Vedado district. There is another one who lives in Upper Mayarí and who from there can perceive with much more clarity what the current state of the world is, especially when he goes to a grocery store that is nothing like the ones in Vedado.

But there is one who lives in some uncertain place in the Cuban nation, not the physical but the imagined one, and he knows that this is not a movie about good guys and bad guys, but rather something more complex. Critical thinking (if it is real and tries to adjust to the rigor of contrasts) surely benefits adversaries, and causes them to discover completely new areas of controversy, be it in Havana or Madrid. In the end, nobody makes an argument to impose a vision for life, but rather so that those who come later will achieve a superior point of view.

But, let us speak of cinema, which is what interests me right now (even when I know that cinema is not the most urgent problem that this country needs to solve). I see that on his blog, Duanel Díaz argues against my vision of revolutionary cinema. His is a view I respect, even though I don’t share it. I don’t want to be too naive, but neither do I want to be ungrateful. I admit that no film is no film is innocent, and since “Juan Quin Quin” up to today, passing “Strawberry and Chocolate” and reaching “Havana Suite,” Cubans of my generation have been trained by the worldviews articulated in those films.

And I am grateful for this, because it has allowed me to take part in a cinema that is not simple evasion, that is not a substitute for that trash that they try to uncritically sell us on “The Saturday Movie,” and which rather than stimulate a critical sense in the spectator, what it does is contribute to his alienation. I don’t have anything against entertainment, for without this insurance we would go straight to suicide, but what does leave me unsatisfied is this attitude on the part of national television, which on the one hand hurls invective at imperialism on The Round Table, and two hours later, on the same channels, shows the worst of “the Enemy’s” cinema? Or that censors the films of the ICAIC, and converts into a “free zone” of the most questionable Hollywood ideas the majority of its film timeslots (there are always exceptions, and we know of colleagues who insist on promoting another type of cinema, be it Latin American, Iranian, European or North American).

I have defended and will continue to defend the cinema of the ICAIC, because films have been made under its auspices that will endure beyond our isolated conflicts. Because in many of their narratives can be found the uncertainties of an age, and not only the strict anecdotes of a Revolution that, as do all, leaves in its wake winners and losers, joys and sorrows. Those who insist on attacking the cinema of the ICAIC for its ideological suppositions are losing sight of the fact that we speak of a production that was (is) conceived by human beings, and not by machines that say “yes” or “no” to everything. A simplistic apologia for the system? Then where would we leave the irreverence of Guillén Landrián? The disturbing questions posed by Sara Gómez in those documentaries about “An Island for Miguel”? The banishment of Fausto Canel? The absence of Alberto Roldán? The uninhibitidness of “Memories of Underdevelopment”? The existential doubts of the main character in “A Day in November”?

If this had been only a reaffirmative production, then the cinema produced by Cubans in the diaspora would have had better results, taking into account that it has enjoyed a greater freedom of expression. But what has happened is that the cinema of the ICAIC has been produced with another kind of intentionality: the ideological was converted to the aesthetic from the moment in which it coincided with a time that demanded these changes, and more. The cinema of the ICAIC was one more within that cinematic group (such as the Polish cinema, the “Free Cinema,” the “Cinema Novo,” or Solana and Getino’s “Third Cinema”) which intended to blow up the more-usual model of portrayal. It is true that the ICAIC’s cinema with a violent rupture in the political sphere (the Revolution), but even before then, the dissatisfaction with the Cuban cinema of yesteryear was well-known. Even “PM” was part of this desire to experiment with the language of film.

To attach the ICAIC solely from the ideological point of view reduces the analysis to just the backing that its production has had from the State. The thing is, this backing has not been so transparent, if we review the relationship that this institution has maintained with the political vanguard: at least three or four films have caused major disagreements (think of “Cecilia,” “Alice in Wondertown,” or “Guantanamera”)–while others, such as “Parting of the Ways,” “Supporting Roles,” “Glass Roof,” and “Think of Me,” have incited more than one official resentment.

On the other hand, to judge Titón’s body of work–to mention one–only from the standpoint of political militancy, is to lose what is human about that creation. Whoever reads his letters knows that Titón posed the same questions during the 1950s, because he was already interested in the finiteness of being; thus the almost constant presence of Death in his films. But upon ignoring that matter it could be that the interpretation [of his work] leads to the political observations we already know from “Guantanamera.”

I think that within this cinema of the ICAIC, many times, beyond ideology, it is possible to detect the behavior of the more common mentalities; while at other times I have noted that it’s necessary to speak of Cuban cinema in general, and not only that of the ICAIC, because in this underground cinema not mentioned by Colina, which is ommitted on television (and to which Belkis Vega makes reference in her reflection), we can also sense many of the hopes and dreams of the Cuban.

I do not doubt that the ICAIC has its questionable aspects, and that some of its films militate for the most Manichean viewpoint, but I don’t believe that this has been the rule. Actually, what should be most of interest right now to the historian of Cuban cinema is exploring those hidden tensions between the individual and society, and which have made possible so many films that have more than one message. This will to explore is yet unseen, perhaps because prudence is outweighing defiance. Or because that deceitful and often visceral message is predominating that alerts us that, still, “now is not the time.”

Even so, the urgency of this necessary debate about our cinema has been postponed vis-a-vis the evidence of a mystery that I confess is really absurd: What is the exact motive that impedes that a good portion of Cuban cinema is not broadcast on national television? For those who have systematically attacked the Revolution for what it represses, it is clear that the issue is a problem of freedom of expression. I refuse to believe that it is something this vulgar, because it is obvious that these films are not counterrevolutionary. I mean to say, they are not, “Bitter Sugar” or “The Lost City.”**

However primitive might be the mentality of a bureaucrat in power, he knows that this is not the best way to protect the Revolution–or, at least, he will have advisers sensitive to cultural matters who will bring him up to date on those international prizes won by “Strawberry and Chocolate” and “Havana Suite” [by Fernando Pérez], which makes it a true blunder to make into hostages of the shadow these things are so well-known internationally.

It is true that these functionaries have the power to make decisions, but I also like to remember that when the dissolution of the ICAIC was announced almost by decree following the “Alice in Wondertown” brouhaha, it was those very filmmakers (on the inside) who rejected that decision, which had come from very high levels. One proof that the power of reason cannot always be silenced by reason of power.

My suspicion is that right now, filmmakers and critics are divided over questions of survival more than of thinking, and that is something that the bureaucracy knows how to exploit. Everyone pursues his own interests, because it is more important to obtain financing for the film itself than to support, at any cost, a national cinema project (because only the showing of our films on television would confirm that this film project exists). And, after all, this does not fall within the priorities of a filmmaker anxious to demand that our films be shown to the public for whom these works have been originally conceived: for the domestic audience. Neither does fostering spaces where thought and systematic debate will make life intellectually impossible for that bureaucracy. It’s a matter of a time, they’ll tell me, and this is true. An ICAIC production center is no longer essential to propel a project. Because, although production has been democratized, showings have not.

Filmmakers who are not from Hollywood still depend first on festivals, then on the support of their respective countries (filmmakers outside of Cuba don’t enjoy much of this–just look at the case of Cuban filmmakers in the diaspora), and finally, on the television channel interested in broadcasting that type of product. Therefore, the problem is a really important one that has to do with our audiovisual memory (wherever Cubans may be), and which would be worth discussing by those who examine “political cultures” in general, or by political antagonists who try to invalidate each other because of irreconcilable differences. It cannot even occur to us to believe that Cuban television could not be proud to show on its screens that which in other places is assumed to be part of the revolutionary culture. In fact, it will be difficult to explain to our grandchildren why a film such as “Strawberry and Chocolate” took more than a decade to be seen on television, despite the Revolution’s fervor for the national [film] project. If it seems absurd, in five decades it will seem pathetic.

I’m sure I’ve left out a thousand things, and I don’t doubt that opinions will emerge that will try to discredit what I’ve expounded-on here to you. But as I think I told you in another message, I am not interested in uttering ultimate truths, only in sowing a few concerns surrounding this that we barely know: the history of Cuban cinema. This is only my version of the problem, one of many which, according to the moral of [the Kurosawa film] Rashomon, could explain the matter. New opinions will surely improve it, and hopefully more than one colleague will feel inspired to participate.

Another Hug,

Juan Antonio García Borrero

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison, and others.
Translator’s Notes:
* “PM” is “Pasado Meridiano,” a 1961 documentary of Havana nightlife which, among other factors, provoked Fidel Castro’s “Speech to the Intellectuals“. 

** Both of these films were made by Cubans in exile.

Message from Jorge Luis Sanchez / Polemica, 2007 Intellectual Debate

This debate seems far more serious and interesting than the candles feeding the shadows of study, in this I agree with Arturo ArangoI have no time to sit and watch TV, I saw the little programAnd I doubted, for when the pavonato took place, I was a child and didn’t suffer it directlyIt touched others, more recentin the eighties.

But this man of the seventies, I hadn’t seen his face. It drew my attention that whomever make the report skirted around, olympically, the fact that Pavón was the President of the National Council of CultureNor did the narrator’s voice dare to name the charge! continue reading

Maybe for the younger generation, a word as undesirable as “parametrado” doesn’t disturb our memory. I wrote this and circulated it on the night of the 6th, after reading Desiderio and Arturo, now add that I agree with all this fruitful debate. That it should not be only the responsibility of those affected. Nor of those who lived through the nonsense. It should not the responsibility only of those affectedOr those who lived through the nonsenseMy grandmother used to say this refrainIf you saw me I was playingif you did not see meyou‘re fucked. When ignorance and malice unite!

Count on me for anything.

Jorge Luis Sánchez

Another message from Jorge Luis Sánchez


A group gathers inside, to discuss and analyze.

A larger group, from outside, follows — with more or less computerized information — the result of what those inside discussed.

As in those bad American movies of the “Tanda del Domingo” (Sunday Show) TV series, it would seem that with the statement by UNEAC (Cuban Writers and Artists Union) all is resolved. It is subtly conclusive. It does not satisfy me. I do not feel represented by it, even though I am not a member of that organization.

Meanwhile, TV — which, full of incoherencies, censures Strawberry and Chocolate, among other films produced by the current political culture, a film that it contributed, not just to the culture, but to all of society, making us less medieval — our TV continues its particular Political Culture which in general is no more than the historic application of the not-Political Culture. Remember that what does not appear on television in this country simply does not exist. It is not.

Meanwhile, on the wound (the conflict), a band-aid (the Declaration) is applied, which lacks the demand for an efficient solution, thus it becomes a palliative, or something like a methodologically antique response, inefficient and unsatisfactory. I think that the UNEAC should have demanded, and TV should have responded. In this case, TV responded via the voice of the UNEAC, so that one should be left positively frustrated, and more confused.

Once again, the screwed-up practice is repeated of publishing a Declaration which, for the people, is incomplete, destined to be interpreted by clairvoyants, being that it omits any amount of data, and it dissolves in its generality.

In Centro Habana they have asked me what happened, and it tires me to summarize what has been happening all these days, all these years, all these decades. A paradox, this, because the majority of Cubans — for whom their existence is designed to be lived attached to the television set — don’t know what happened in the three television programs mentioned in the Declaration.

Serenity should not be related to the application of old solutions to old, and new, problems. I quickly tuned in, in case anyone said, publicly (more or less), that the Revolution is already tired of justifications.

Never will a clumsy move be resolved by another clumsy move.

At least unless a better outside sign of tranquility is desired, lessening the focus on the inside–another old practice.

Since I was born all the great and essential debates about the culture of my country continue to be postponed, with the conservative, monotonous and worn-out argument, “It is not the right time.”

So, when will it be the right time?

The Declaration might have been a better sign. It is not enough that they write that the Policy of the Revolution is Irreversible. To which provisions can one appeal when that guarantee is threatened? To which historical figure? Where? To a Declaration? To a Self-Criticism?  Well? All right, then, it must be that sorrows beat up on each other, and Sindo said this is why they are not lethal.

Shall we eternally be children of contexts? Naively, someone told me that, between the 80s and the start of the 90s, it caused plenty of headaches for artists. Remember the film, Alice in Wondertown.*

*Translator’s Note: This film, which satirized Cuba’s bureaucracy, caused the early retirement of the then-director of the ICAIC, Julio García Espinosa.

Jorge Luis Sánchez.

January 18, 2007

Translated by Regina Anavy and Alicia Barraqué Ellison 

Message from Maritza Corrales / Polemica, The 2007 Debate

It isn’t possible to accept this kind of “indiscretion and naiveté,” to name it euphemistically, in times like the ones we are living in now. I know, as always, you will be profound, accurate, destructive and–as Marti was–with deaf ears. Count me as one more crusader.

The patient and very painful reconstruction of cultural ruins, but above all human ruins, that we found ourselves forced to live through and try to overcome, cannot have been in vain.

Backwards, brother, as one of our revolutionary slogans reads, not even to regain momentum. Accepting that would mean, as Mayito says, regressing and this, to which we have given the best of each one of us, is a Revolution based and conceived on two simple and profound words: dignity and justice; and we must continue fighting for them.

Maritza Corrales

Translated by: Kathy Fox

The Five Grey Years: Revisiting the Term / Ambrosio Fornet

By Ambrosio Fornet / See here for background information on this series of posts.


It seemed as if the nightmare was something from a remote past, but the truth is that when we awoke, the dinosaur was still there. We haven’t found out — and perhaps will never know — if the media folly was a reaction to an insidious rescue operation, a whimsical expression of favoritism, or a simple show of irresponsibility.

It doesn’t matter. Seen from the perspective of today — the chain reaction it provoked, of which the cycle we are beginning is a link — it was a suicidal act. It threw down a challenge without having the slightest idea of the adversary’s level of expertise, nor of the solidity of a cultural policy that has reinforced itself like an irreversible phenomenon by means of practices that have been going on for three decades now.

This battle having been clearly won — I won’t say the war because the swaggering is not so much the expression of a political tactic as it is a world view based on suspicion and mediocrity — we can open a path to reflection telling ourselves, simply, that what is happening is fitting. We have proof of this in the decision of the Ministry of Culture to support Desiderio [Navarro]’s initiative, coinciding with Abel [Prieto]’s, insofar as filling the void of information and analysis which has prevailed up to now in the area of cultural — that is, anti-cultural — policy, since the first half of the seventies.

As incredible as it may seem, the person who directed the “Imprint” program dedicated to Pavon — whose script had been written by a friend — assured us that she didn’t know who the character was or, more exactly, that she didn’t know what “imprint” the character had left on Cuban culture during his term as President of the National Cultural Council.  Nor would she know it afterwards, because it was covered in a careful mantle of silence in the program. It wouldn’t do to mention a rope in the house of a hanged man. continue reading

Well, we had not left our amazement when a little voice began to hammer our ears: “And why so hard to believe? Why did the young director have to know? Have you, the old people who lived and suffered through that stage, written a book or pamphlet, published a series of articles, led a series of talks on the subject?

In recent years the reporting of individual violations of the perverse display of prejudice, the cynicism of the explanations has been made by the victims in interviews, articles, awards acceptance speeches, but the analysis of the phenomenon was being postponed as have been other things that deserved to be discussed, and for the same reason: to avoid jeopardizing the unity. Along with the historical validity of our national project, the unity is the only thing, in fact, that ensures our superiority over enemies and adversaries.

But just as we should not forget that in a place permanently besieged, as is our country, insisting on differences and disagreements equivalent to “giving ammunition to the enemy” …, it must be remembered that the covenants of silence are often highly risky, because they create a climate of immobility, a unanimous mockery that prevents us from measuring the true extent of the dangers and the integrity of our ranks, in which often slip loquacious opportunists.

We know these drills and maneuvers conducted in Europe and especially in the USSR, and in the latter case, I believe, because even our own militants, among them not a few heroes of labor and descendants of heroes of the war, had been definitively demobilized by the bureaucracy and routine.

Without being a specialist in the field, I dare ask the unfathomable question: “Why not go the workers, especially the communist militants, to defend the Revolution in the USSR?” Very simple: “Because no instructions from above were given.”

We need to stand firm in our trenches, which, of course, are not the best places to exercise democracy, but that does not mean we can afford to abandon the practice of criticism and self-criticism, the only exercise that can set us free of triumphalism and save us from ideological deterioration.


I would not want to weary you with ramblings and criteria that many of you share and that could get us away from our subject. This, as suggested by the title of my talk, proposed by Desiderio, aims at the reasons and practice of Five Grey Years.

I invented the label for methodological reasons, trying to isolate and describe that period so I looked at its dominant trait and featuring contrasts with the previous stage, characterized by its color and its internal dynamics (although not without, as we shall see, frustrations and surprises [1].

But before we go on I would like to make a couple of points clear. First, from where I speak, that is, from what life experience, from which ideological and political position I project my views and reviews on the subject, and in general on issues of culture, their production and reach, with an emphasis on literature-especially-narrative, which is the only field I know from experience. I quickly speak like this because I fear to say anything that seems incomprehensible or strange to some of the young people present.

I come, obviously, from a world that marked my position on many of these problems: the world of pre-revolutionary Cuba, the former republic. From a young age I wanted to write. I would not dare to say I wanted to be a writer because it was a job without a professional profile that could attract suspicion or derision.

“I did not tell anyone I wanted to be writer,” [2] José Soler Puig confessed to a friend, “because people laughed and even thought that was a job for feminine men”

And Virgilio Piñera, in a public message addressed to Fidel in March 1959: “… We, the Cuban writers, we are ’the last card in the deck’, we mean nothing when it comes to economic, social and even in the field of the Letters itself. We want to cooperate shoulder to shoulder with the Revolution, but this requires that we remove the miserable state in which we struggle.” [3]

As you can see, the level of self-esteem of the guild was on the floor. Perhaps the writers’ anecdotes, vain or boastful, irritated or amused his confreres in the corridors of Madrid or Paris, but here were tales of aliens, since the writer was literally outside the circle of his closest friends and the four cats who read Origenes [Magazine] (lucky cats, by the way).

It still seems a miracle that two years after the message of Virgilio I was already editing The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and testimonials of mountain children at the Ministry of Education, led by Herminio Almendros, and soon also Proust, Joyce and Kafka for the National Publisher, led by Alejo Carpentier.

From this perspective it became clear that we began to consolidate an alliance between political and artistic avant-garde. The Revolution — the real possibility of life-change — appeared to us as the political expression of the avant-garde artistic aspirations.

So when it began to show its hairy ear of homophobia and then masked the socialist realism, we felt quite confused. What did this have to do with phenomenon so deep, they really had changed the lives of millions of people, making the illiterate literate and feeding the hungry, not letting a single child go without a school, promising to sweep away racial discrimination and machismo, placing in bookstores, at the price of fifty cents or a dollar, all literature, from Homer to Rulfo, from Daphnis and Chloe to my uncle the employee … what did an event of these dimensions have to do with my sexual preferences or the pilgrim image of a virtuous and virile artist, always willing to sing the glories of homelands?

We, the young people whom we thought were the heirs and representatives of the artistic and literary vanguard could not communicate that vision … a serious problem, since in dogmatic circles gaining strength came the idea that aesthetic discrepancies concealed political differences.

Moreover, one could not deny that the new responsibilities also discovered their own shortcomings. If suddenly we had the opportunity to address the millions of potential readers, we could not help but wonder: What now, how to write or, in the case of publisher, to publish?

Is “what everyone understands, what the officials understand,” as Che ironically said? Do we have what “the people like”, thus leaving it stuck in the lowest level, or what I like, so that people refine their tastes and one day become as educated as I am?

Populism, paternalism, elitism, high culture, popular culture, and mass culture for the masses … ghosts of ideological dilemmas and, finally, beginning to traverse on our way, often taking us by surprise …

What I mean is that you have some patience, because it is impossible to speak of the Five Grey Years without referring to the origins of certain conflicts that were incubated in the late seventies. [4]

I will only refer to those who, as mentioned, touch us more closely, others, like the microfraction, for example, beyond the limits of our subject (although they continue to be associated with it because it was a bad sectarianism widespread among intellectuals and political cadres directly linked to the field of ideology).[5]


Socialist realism — literature as pedagogy and hagiography, methodologically oriented toward creating “positive heroes” and the strategic absence of antagonistic conflicts in “among the people” — produced in us, my petit bourgeois friends and I, the same reaction someone experiences when a fly is found in the glass of milk.

Among the Cuban narrators no one, as I recall, had accepted the invitation, but the newly established National Press published heavily edited Soviet novels (some respectable, indeed, such as Sholokhov and those of Alexander Bek — The Highway, by Volokolamsk and Men by Panfilov, actually two parts of the same epic — that accompanied many militants in the frequent demonstrations of the time).

In any case, I, as a young intellectual with no political ideology other than that of Fidel’s (I used to say at the time that I had become a Marxist by watching television, i.e. listening to Fidel), I had two things absolutely clear: return to the past? It was not going to happen. Accept as cultural horizon a manual by Konstantinov and normative aesthetics? No way.

But I would not want to fall into the same thing we criticize, and I know when it comes to defending our truth, our point of view, we tend to be as categorical and dogmatic as the adversary. Socialist realism was not “intrinsically evil”, what was intrinsically evil was the imposition of this formula in the USSR, where what could have been a school, one more literary and artistic current, suddenly became the mandatory official doctrine.

Of the various roles that plays or that literature and art can play — aesthetics, recreation, informative, teaching — the commissars moved the latter to the foreground, to the detriment of the other, what the people and particularly the working class needed was not just simply reading — opening new horizons of expectations — but to educate themselves, assimilate through reading the norms and values of the new society.

This admirable purpose — admirable in theory, and especially since its foundation dating back to the Enlightenment was not aware that “if art educates,” and I quote Gramsci for the umpteenth time, “it does as art not as educative art, because if it is educative art it ceases to be art and an art that denies itself cannot educate anyone.”

We did not even suspect that the legacy of scholastic Marxism was as strong among us, or at least among some intellectuals from the Popular Socialist Party, but one of our most brilliant and respected essayists, Mirta Aguirre, wrote in October 1963:

“Today, in the hands of dialectical materialism, art can and should be a form of exorcism: a form of knowledge that contributes to sweep the minds of men free from the Caliginous shadows of ignorance, a valuable tool for replacing the religious conception of the world by its scientific conception and quick Marxist resource of the defeat of the philosophical idealism.” [6]

One was tempted to ask: can and should art be all that? Or, with a certain nonchalance: is that all that art can and should be? If it had, it would not have taken long to discover that our bewilderment had a shady class origin, because what really happened was that certain ideas were “precarious and on their way to extinction; some intellectuals and artists, “instead of engaging to remove traces from themselves of the ideological remains of a collapsed society,” stubbornly insisted on justifying them. [7]

Actually, what we saw was that under that rigid and precarious artistic guidance model the line between art, education, propaganda and advertising was becoming blurred. The funny thing is that capitalism produced tons of publicity and advertising without mentioning it and even cleverly disguised it under the labels of information and “entertainment.”

But socialism was young and inexperienced; in the famous controversy of December 1963 between Blas Roca and Alfredo Guevara around the display of several films (the Sweet Life by Fellini, Accatone by Pasolini, The Exterminating Angel by Buñuel and Alias Gardelito by Lautaro Murua), Guevara pointed to the newspaper column of Blas Roca — a very respectable man, in other respects — as a column that so superficially addresses the problems of culture, art and film in particular, reducing its significance, if not its function to that of the revolutionary illustrators, seen by others in its immediate perspective. [8]

Needless to clarify, because in politics, as Marti said, the real is not seen — that these aesthetic disputes were part of a struggle for cultural power, for control of certain areas of influence. This became evident in 1961 with the controversy over the movie PM and the subsequent closure of the publication Lunes de Revolución, a measure that led to the creation of La Gaceta de Cuba, a literary publication from the Writers and Artists Union (UNEAC) that has lasted until today.

The movie PM turned out to be a historic controversy because it gave rise to “Words to the Intellectuals,” Fidel’s speech which fortunately has served ever since — except during the dramatic pavonato interregnum — as a guiding principle of our cultural policy.

PM was a modest free-cinema essay, a little documentary of Saba Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez Leal which had passed unnoticed by television in a program sponsored by Lunes de Revolución, i.e. by Carlos Franqui and Guillermo Cabrera Infante. The two — Franqui and Guillermo — had one great virtue: a vision of a modern and dynamic art, literature and journalism, as evidenced by the Revolution newspaper and its literary supplement, Lunes (Monday).

But both had also a major flaw, given the circumstances: they were anti visceral, and hated anything that smacked of the Soviet Union and the PSP. The ICAIC  refused to display PM in theaters, sparking the controversy. [9] One would say that at some point both the leadership and the intelligentsia ICAIC PSP rose to the top leadership of the government these dramatic questions: Who are the ones to make films in Cuba? Who are the ones to institutionally represent our writers and artists? The answers were falling from the tree.

But something had slipped from our hands, because during the second half of the decade events occurred that would have dire consequences for the normal development of revolutionary culture: the establishment of the Military Units of Assistance to Production (UMAP), for example — which lasted three years and left a few scars — and the institutional rejection of two prizewinning books from the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) literary competition (The Seven Against Thebes by Antón Arrufat, and Out of the Game, by Heberto Padilla), not to speak of passing stories, albeit symptomatic ones, such as the hostile climate aroused among certain functionaries by the appearance of Lezama’s Paradiso (1966), owing to its supposed exaltation of homoeroticism (it was said that copies had been ordered removed from some bookstores).

The unfortunate UMAP initiative, the idea of young homosexuals as well as religious people — above all Jehovah’s Witnesses, who by conviction rejected the use of arms — fulfilling their military service in work units, not combat units, seemed related to the male chauvinist vision of those bourgeois fathers who would send their most rebellious or fearful sons to military schools to “make men out of them.”

I remember having told the friend to whom I previously alluded, when he asked me about discrimination against homosexuals in Cuba, that this attitude had nothing to do with the Revolution, that it was coming to us from ages past via the dual track of Judeo-Christian morality and ignorance, but that perhaps the emotional climate of that permanently besieged place (Cuba) — which included the constant exaltation of virile virtues — as well as the obsession for straightening out so many twisted aspects of the old society, caused us to want to straighten or restore homosexuals, too, who not surprisingly had always been referred-to by euphemisms such as inverts or effeminates. [10]

I totally reject the idea, because it seems to me cynical and inexact, that this naive or stupid voluntarism has anything to do with the aspiration to form a “New Man” — one of the most cherished longings of man, preceding even Christianity — such as was articulated in our environment by Che and as we would ourselves repeat, alluding to Plautus’s homo homini lupus — so quoted by Marx — when we would speak of a society where man would not be wolf to man, but rather his brother.

Now, I am convinced that the pathological level homophobia, as institutional policy, during the Five Grey Years, is a subject of concern not so much to sociologists but to psychoanalysts and priests, that is, to those professionals capable of peering fearlessly into the “obscure abysses of the human soul.” It also would not be superfluous to reflect on those repressive or “disciplinary” methods invented by the bourgeoisie and so well-studied by Foucalt in some chapter of Keep Watch and Punish.


The prizewinning books by Padilla and Arrufat in the UNEAC competition were published with a prologue in which the institution asserted its disagreement with them: they were works that served “our enemies,” but now were going to be useful means to other ends, one of which was to “outline openly the ideological struggle.”

It was then — between November and December of 1968 — when in the magazine Verde Olivo (“Olive Green”) appeared five articles whose authorship is attributed to Luis Pavón Tamayo, an unprovable conjecture because the author used a pseudonym — the sadly famous Leopoldo Ávila — who has yet to be revindicated by anyone.

The first article expouned on the conduct of Guillermo Cabrera Infante who, just a few months earlier, in the magazine Primera Plana of Buenos Aires, had declared himself a fervent enemy of the Revolution…after having strenuously served it during several years as Cultural Attache’ in Brussels.

The two following articles dealt aggressively with Padilla and Arrufat; and the last two, with issues in the intellectual sphere, among them the level of “depolitization” from which, in Ávila’s opinion, our own writers and critics were suffering [11].

I don’t need to emphasize the tense climate that prevailed in those months, because already a group of colleagues — Cubans (Retamar, Desnoes, and I) as well as Latin Americans (Roque Dalton, René Depestre and Carlos Mari’a Gutiérrez) expounded our ideas on the matter in a round table of sorts that we held in May of 1969 and which was published, first, in the magazine Casa de las Americas (“Americas House”) and later in Mexico, by Siglo XXI (“Century XXI”), under the predictable title of The Intellectual and Society [12].

The ideological tournament announced by Avila was hinted at in occasional skirmishes, but had been gradually acquiring an increasingly international character due in part to the attacks on the Revolution that various intellectuals had made in Europe — Dumont, Karol, Ensensbert — and in part also because one of the panelists that had awarded the prize to Arrufat and Padilla, the English critic J.M. Cohen, decided to participate in his way in the debate.

To all this was added the appearance in Paris of the magazine Mundo Nuevo (“New World”), edited by the Uruguayan critic Emir Rodriguez Monegal; very soon thereafter his countryman Angel Rama, relying on reports in The New York Times, denounced the publication as a “cultural facade of the CIA” [13]. In the opinion of the specialists, Mundo Nuevo’s ultimate purpose was to dispute Casa de las Americas convening power and to undermine the image of the “committed” artist or writer that the Cuban Revolution had been proposing as a model for the intellectuals of our America [14].

It was this model, to be sure, that for us served as the reason or basis for the famous “Letter to Neruda” which towards the end of 1966 we caused to be circulated throughout all corners of the continent, and was also what prevailed a year later in the Preparatory Seminar of the Havana Cultural Congress, where it was revealed that a large contingent of our intelligentsia was working out, from Jose Marti’s thoughtand Marxist viewpoints, an anti-colonial school of thought, more in keeping with our reality and with Third World problems than with Eurocentric ideological currents running on both sides of the Atlantic.

The magazine Pensamiento Critico (“Critical Thought”) and the excellent catalog of social science publications that the recently created Instituto del Libro (“Institute of the Book”) was already promoting also fulfilled and important role in this bold process that we would call “consciousness raising” or “cultural decolonization”, and to which, for sure, none of the famous instructional manuals recently imported from the USSR, could contribute anything.

The Havana Cultural Congress was held in January, 1968, with hundreds of intellectuals and artists from the world over participating, in a climate of revolutionary optimism which objectively, nonetheless, was reduced to its minimal expression because hardly two months earlier Che had died in Bolivia — an event that was frustrating the nascent continental emancipation project that had started gestating in 1959.

Meanwhile, the international prestige of Cuban culture had grown thanks to the professionalism and creativity of artists and writers, on the one hand, and the work of cohesion and dissemination accomplished by the Casa de las Americas and the ICAIC on the other; there was the vigorous presence of the cinema, ballet, graphic design, theater, music (with the nascent Nueva Trova), the Conjunto Folklorico, and literature (this last manifesting two emerging modalities: the testimonial/novel and the Narrative of Violence). Observing such a panorama anyone could have said, alluding to Avila’s diagnosis: “If all this is the product of a depoliticized intelligentsia, may God come and see it”.


I would like to conclude this here with the general scheme of prehistory — viewed from a more or less fair perspective, more or less distorted by a participant who, as is natural, tends to bring his own perspective — but I’m afraid the rodeo isn’t over yet. There are still factors, as it were, objective and subjective, national and international that have to be taken into account to get to the point afterwards. So I ask you, please, a little more patience.

What occurred with Out of the Game following its publication we now see as the early stages of the “Padilla case”. He continued living a more or less normal life and announced (I don’t know if he actually gave) a recital at UNEAC of the poems in a book in progress that would have the suggestive title Provocacions — don’t be dirty minded, I was alluding to Arnold Hauser’s observation in the sense that works of art are, justifiably, challenging invitations to dialogue.

In December of 1968 Padilla even had a skirmish with Cabrera Infante in which, upon rejecting his support, he accused him of being a “counterrevolutionary who intends to create a difficult situation for anyone who has not followed his same path”…[15].

Because of a character flaw, Padilla could not remain for long in second place; he took advantage of a survey conducted by El Caiman Barbudo (“The Bearded Caiman”) to attack the editors because they were interested in Urbino’s Passion, the recently published novel by Lisandro Otero, while at the same time belittling Three Trapped Tigers by Cabrera Infante.

Every so often we would hear it said that he was very active as an impromptu consultant to diplomats and foreign journalists travelling through Havana, whom he would instruct on most dissimilar subjects: the destiny of socialism, worldwide revolution, emerging Cuban literature…

And one fine day in April of 1971 we received lamentable rumors, which later were confirmed as fact: that he had been jailed — for three weeks, according to some, or for five, according to others — and that he was going to make some public statements at UNEAC.

These turned out to be a pathetic mea culpa and a hasty list of accusations against friends and acquaintances, both absent and present. Knowing Padilla as we knew him, knowing that his long experience as a press correspondent in Moscow had turned him into an incurable skeptic, it is difficult to believe that his statement — so reminiscent of the shameful “confessions” in the Moscow trials — was not designed as a coded message, aimed at his colleagues all over the world.

Be that as it may, what is certain is that the message, the self-fulfilling prophecy, arrived at its destination. But already days prior, at his arrest becoming known in Europe, the process had been initiated which on this side of the Atlantic would result in the First National Congress on Education and Culture [16].


In effect, on the 9 April 1971, there had appeared in a Paris daily, Le Monde, an open letter which various European and Latin American intellectuals were addressing to Fidel to express their alarm at the arrest, which they saw as a possible new outbreak of sectarianism on the island.

It was like entering the lion’s den without taking proper precautions. I wouldn’t be surprised if it was that letter — and the unusual fact that among the signatories appeared Carolos Franque, now become zealous prosecutor of the Revolution — which precipitated the decision to convert the advertised First Congress on Education to First Congress on Education and Culture.This event took place in the conference rooms of the Habana Libre Hotel between April23-30.

In his closing address, Fidel would accuse as arrogant and overbearing those “bourgeois liberals”, instruments of cultural colonialism, that interfered in our internal affairs without the least notion of what our real problems were: the need to defend ourselves against imperialism, the obligation to attend to and provide for millions of children in the schools…

“One has to be completely crazy, infinitely unconscious,” he said, “disconnected from world reality” to think “that the problems of this country can be the problems of two or three lost sheep…”, or that someone, from Paris, London or Rome, could set themselves up as judge to dictate what we should do. Therefore, intellectuals of this type would never return here as judges in our literary competitions, nor as collaborators in our publications…[17]

Seen from the current perspective, this reaction might seem unmeasured, although consistent with a total policy of affirming national identity and sovereignty; in any case, what is certain is that the situation in its entirety marked a point of rupture or chilling between the Revolution and numerous European and Latin American intellectuals who up until then had considered themselves friends and fellow travelers [18].

It remains a representative document, as a revolutionary manifesto of that moment, which it certainly transcended to become a cultural manifesto of the Third World the essay by Retamar Caliban, written just two months after the closing of the Congress.

The country then was going through a period of accumulated tensions, among which stood out the death of Che, the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia, which the Cuban government approved, although with much reticence,, the so-called Revolutionary Offensive of 1968 — a process perhaps premature, perhaps even unnecessary of the expropriation of small enterprises and private businesses — and the aborted [sugar cane] harvest of ’70 or the Harvest of the Ten Million [tons], that despite being “the biggest in our history,” as proclaimed by the newspapers, left the country exhausted.

Forced to undergo the imperialist economic blockage, in need of a stable market for its products, especially sugar, Cuba had to radically define its alliances. There occurred a major coming together with the Soviet Union and with the European socialist countries. In 1972 the country would join the Council of Mutual Economic Aid (CAME), which would structurally link our economy with that of the socialist camp.


From the Congress on Education and Culture emerged, with Luis Pavon Tamayo at the helm, a transformed CNC, none of whose directors, as far as I can recall, had any natural ties to the avant garde. The links of continuity had been carefully broken or at minimum reduced. Judging from their actions, the “pavonato” was just that: an attempt to dispute the power, or rather, to remove from power those groups that until then had imposed their predominance on the field of culture and that apparently were not, save a few exceptions, “politically trustworthy”.

The only ones saved, although with their faculties greatly reduced, were those who belonged to autonomous institutions headed by prestigious figures, such as those cases already referenced from La Casa de las Americas and the ICAIC.

We know that in this type of conflict not only are esthetic disagreements or personal phobias resolved but also, and perhaps above all, questions of power, of control of processes and of the hegemony of ideologies.

It is enough to cast a glance at the situation of the publishing houses, the theaters, the magazines, the galleries, the artistic spaces, in short of the promotion and dissemination of artistic and literary culture in the ’60s to realize those groups that we considered the avant garde were the ones who, directly or indirectly, controlled the most important of these.

An obtuse bureaucrat could opine whatever he wanted regarding Farraluque or the theater of the absurd, but Paradiso and La Soprano Calva (“The Bald Soprano”) were there, right at hand; he could reject pop or Death of a Bureaucrat, but Raul Martinez and Titon remained there, engrossed in new projects.

In 1970, to celebrate Lezama’s birthday, his 60th, there appeared in Bohemia a long interview (reproduced in Cuba Internacional), a complete testimonial record in La Gaceta de Cuba and the volume of his complete poems (including the dates) published by The Institute of the Book it collection Letra Cubanas (“Cuban Letters”) [19]. That is, there were tensions and disagreements, but things were not so simple: what the publishers and magazines published, what the galleries exhibited, what the theaters released, what the ICAIC filmed served to show who it was (those of us) who pulled the strings of the “cultural industry”, even to where our ideology became hegemonic, despite the rejection and suspicion of it among those professional ideologists whom we would charitably call the “guardians of doctrine” (headed by a high-level Party functionary who, according to rumors, was Pavon’s political godfather [20].

If I had to summarize in two words what happened, I would say that in ’71, to our detriment, the relative equilibrium that had favored us up to that point was broken and, with that, the consensus on which the political culture had been based.

It was a clear case of before and after: following a phase in which everything was consulted and discussed, although the parties might not always come to agreement, came that of authoritarian order: a political culture imposing itself by decree and other such means, of exclusions and marginalizations, converting the intellectual field into a moor (at least for those carriers of the virus of ideological diversionism and for the youth with proclivities towards extravagance, that is, fans of long hair, the Beatles and tight pants, as well as the Evangelicals and the scapularies).

We were all guilty, in effect, but some were more guilty than others, as could be seen in the case of the homosexuals. Upon them weighed not only suspicions of a political nature, but also scientific certainties, proceeding perhaps from some positivist manual from the late 19th century or from some precept of the Cultural Revolution in China: that homosexuality was a contagious disease, a type of leprosy incubated in classist societies, whose propagation it was necessary to try to impede while avoiding contact — not only physical, but even spiritual — of the infected with the most vulnerable sectors (in this case, the young).

As incredible as it may seem to us today — in effect, the sleep of reason engenders monsters — it is not preposterous to think that this was the foundation, let’s say theoretical, that served in ’71-’72 to establish the “parameters” applied in those high-risk sectors of labor, as were the teaching profession and, above all, the theater.

It had been concluded that the simple influence of the teacher or the actor over the adolescent student or spectator could be risky, which explains that in a commission of the Congress of Education and Culture, upon tackling the issue of the social environment’s influence over education, it should be determined that it was not “permissible that through artistic quality known homosexuals should gain a prestige that would influence the formation of our youth”. Even further: “The cultural media cannot frame the proliferation of false intellectuals who pretend to convert snobbism, extravagance and other social aberrations into expressions of revolutionary art…” [21]

In centers dedicated to teaching or the theater, those workers who would not meet the requirements or “parameters” that would qualify them as trustworthy individuals — that is, revolutionaries and heterosexuals — would be transferred to other workplaces.

The purification or “parametrification” process would be done under the strict oversight of an ad hoc commissioner known from then on in our circle as Torquesada (who not too long ago, incidentally, appeared on another television program, although not as an honored guest).

It will please you to know that although at that time there were still no Marielas equipped to speak with accuracy and wisdom, there were, of course, tribunals to enforce the law. Through their respective trade unions and sheltered by Labor Justice law, the parametrized appealed to the Supreme Tribunal and it determed — in a historic, unprecedented case — that the “parametification” was an unconstitutional measure and that the claimants should be indemnified. [22]

I need not add that to the prejudices regarding sexual conduct were added prejudices about intellectual conduct itself, especially because many members of the “lettered city” [translator’s note: “law degreed professionals”] conceived of their social mission in their capacity as judges, as society’s “critical consciences.”

We know that from ancient times, writing and related activities correspond to the particular conditioning of societies divided into classes and castes, and that, therefore, as much as possible must be done, starting with teaching people to read and write, to at least reduce the resulting inequities; but to pretend that these inequities can be abolished with the stroke of a pen and, even more, that the functions performed by intellectual and manual laborers are interchangeable, makes one think of demagogueries or absurdities.

I remember a journalist around that time who would go around to the cane fields of the country exclaiming, with sincere or fake enthusiasm, “You should write, machete-wielders!” I would have given anything to see their faces and imagine a possible reply: “And you come and cut sugar cane, you scoundrel!”… because manual laborers also have prejudices, which tend to come out when they sense demagoguery or moral duplicity.

From the old society we inherited, some or others of us, the notion that the majority of intellectuals and artists — at least those who do not engage in any truly gainful activities — are a class of “parasites”. That a guiding center of the culture should contribute to reinforcing this prejudice was an unforgivable show of pharisee-ism and incompetence.

In any case, the CNS had made clear that the “old ones” needed to be corralled, including those of us who by then were hardly even 40yrs old… but therefore anyway we were already contaminated, so that the cultural power could be ceded to the younger generation, with the intent of them utilizing that power through experienced and politically trustworthy teams.

Very quickly there became established throughout the country a network of “literary workshops” charged with developing the new writers and the Amateur Movement was frenetically pushed. It was what the country folk, at least from my era, would call “to temper with carbide”. Everyone was in a hurry and the relay could not fail.


I believe that at last –  at last! –we are able to broach the topic suggested by Desiderio as the point of departure for this debate. The mountain can now give birth to its mouse.

In the avalanche of e-mails that were arriving these past few days was one from the storyteller from Santiago, Jose M. Fernandez Pequeno — who today resides in Santo Domingo — who helps me specify exactly an important fact: when did I begin to use the name The Five Grey Years to designate this phenomenon that today we also call the pavonato?

“I believe I was present at the defining moment for the crystallization of the label Five Grey Years,” says Pequeno, evoking the Storytelling Congress that took place in Santiago de Cuba in November of 1980 (and with which materials, by the way, I prepared a pamphlet entitled Forecast for the 80s). In Pequeno’s opinion, it had to do with conjuring the memory of that “unfortunate period,” still so present, so that we could continue to “go forward and grow as persons and as writers. We had to trace a dividing line, and in that sense “I believe that the name served its purpose” [23].

I recall that I would drop it here and there, along the way, at meetings and congresses of UNEAC and the recently created Ministry of Culture, and I further recall that it produced varying reactions, of acceptance or rejection, per the labor background of the individuals with whom I was speaking. But the first time that I used the term in writing was in 1987, in a literary criticism text published in the Casa de las Americas magazine. It said, in discreet footnotes: “Bureaucratic tendencies in the cultural sphere that manifested during the Grey Five years […] note that I don’t define the meaning of the term, as if it went without saying — but the brakes on, but did impede the later development of the various literary trends”.

And further on: “The Grey Five Years, with its emphasis on the didactic, favored the development of the police novel and literature for children and adolescents” [24]. These were elements that objectively, in my judgement, contributed to the grayness of the era, because the “emphasis on the didactic” placed literary creation in a subordinate, ancillary position, where there was hardly any room for experimentation, play, introspection and formal research.

But here I should insert a parentheses so as not to commit the sin, as the adversary would, of being dogmatic and simplistic. Supported by some university chairs, the CNC had let it slip into the ear of the young writers the malicious suspicion that socialist realism was the esthetic of the Revolution, an esthetic that dared not speak its name, among other things because it was never officially adopted in any instance by the Party or the government [25].

And because not all were young and not all was under the control of the CNC and its apprentices, the Five Grey Years, as a moment in time, was also the era of publication or gestation of some master works of our novelistic literature, such as Concierto Barroco (“Baroque Concer”) by Carpentier, and El Pan Dormido (“The Dormant Bread”) by Soler Puig. It was a son of the latter, by the way — Rafael who sadly died in a car accident — who would announce by way of two books of stories, riding from one era to the other, that something new was happening in Cuban storytelling.

And at the end of the decade some young people — I’m quoting a commentary I made at the time — “actualized the discourse” of our storytelling reinserting it in the line of development of Latin American storytelling, what with how they prepared the way for the works of the ’80s to be born with the mark of “that rejuvenating urge, at the discursive as well as thematic level” [26].

That is, already by then the deleterious effects of that normative esthetic that had been so diligently promoted by the workshops and university chairs had started to evaporate. I will go so far as to say that in 1975 the pavonato, as a project of political culture, was in its final throes.

But it is true, as I believe, that the defining characteristic of this era is he binomial dogmatism/mediocrity, the loss of power could not signify its total disappearance, because mediocre and dogmatic individuals are everywhere and they tend to turn into diligent allies of those political corpses that even after death win battles.

I have no qualms in asking the forgiveness of so many comrades who, having personally suffered the pavonato’s abuses – the cruelest of which without doubt was their civil death as professionals, at times for prolonged periods – consider that the term. Five Grey Years not only is euphemistic but even offensive, because it minimizes the degree of the wrongs perpetrated and therefore decreases the responsibility of the guilty.

The majority of those comrades — not all of them “parametrized ones”, for sure, some simply “punished” for their ideological divergences, the ones that would be corrected by working hard en agriculture or industry — proposed the alternative Black Decade [27].

I respect their opinion, but I was referring to something else: to the cultural atmosphere that I have been describing, in which in addition there was bred a revolutionary fervor and what had been searched for and a passionate cause became goals to be met. If the indicators change, it follows that the chronological markers and the coloring should change as well. If instead of defining the pavonato by its mediocrity I define it by its malice, I would have to view it as a dangerous and grotesque phenomenon, because there is nothing more fearful than a dogmatist bent on redeeming and nothing more ridiculous than an ignoramus dictating lessons.

There are events of the period — including the final days of the period – that can be considered crimes of perverted culture and even of perverted patriotism, as was the veto that in 1974 was imposed on the publication in Cuba of Ese Sol del Mundo Moral (“That Sun of the Moral World”), by Cintio Vitier, a Jose Marti-based and Fidelist essay that explains like few others why the immense majority of Cubans are proud to be so. As good guardians of doctrine, the censors warned right away that it was not a Marxist vision of Cuban history. So it appeared in Mexico before it did here; in fact, here it took 20 years to be published, I don’t know if because of dogmatic inertias or of simple editorial laziness [28].

Perhaps never in our environment a sigh of relief so unanimous been heard as that produced before the television screens on the afternoon of the 30 of November of 1976 when, during the closing session of the National Assembly of Popular Power, it was announced that a Ministry of Culture would be created and that the minister would be Armando Hart.

I believe that Hart didn’t even expect to take this position to start to reunite with the people. Old and young. Militants and non-militants. He didn’t ask if one liked the Matamoros or the Beatles, if he appreciated realist painting more than abstract, if he preferred strawberry over chocolate or vice versa; what he asked was if one was willing to work.

I had the impression that the confidence that had been lost would be quickly reestablished and that consensus would again be possible. I remember remarking to my friend Agustin Pi — the legendary Dr. Pi — how surprising was that sudden change in atmosphere, and while I expected that he was going to speak to me of Hart’s impeccable revolutionary path or of his intellectual merits, I heard him say, with a vocabulary that already at that time had fallen into disuse , “It’s just that Hart is a decent person”.

I believe it was in that precise moment when I was absolutely certain that the confounded Five Years were truly a five year period and it had just ended. It’s not that the tensions definitely disappeared, those conflicts of opinion or of interests that never stop emerging in a living culture, rather that the relations were always of mutual respect and authentic interest in the normal development of our culture.

I appreciate your attention and your patience. I hope that my digressions have served at least to offer to the younger generation some information and a perspective that they surely lacked. I recognized that the information is still very general and the point of view very limited, but here I only aimed — abiding by Desiderio’s suggestion — to provide the framework for a possible debate.

I repeat that in my judgement our culture – today as much or perhaps more than ever – is a living thing. For reasons of age I tend to frequently evoke the past, but it is an exercise that I detest when it threatens to become an obsession. At times, speaking before foreign groups about our literary movement, I encounter individuals, mostly men, who insist on asking me only about events that happened 30 or 40 years ago, as if after the “Padilla case” or the exit of Arenas via Mariel nothing had occurred in our domain.

I call that type of curious person Philosophers of Delayed Time or Egyptologists of the Cuban Revolution. But in evoking the Five Grey Years I feel that we are headlong into something that not only concerns the present but also projects us firmly into the future, even were it only for what Santayana spoke about “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. That danger is precisely what we are trying here to avert.

Ambrosio Fornet

Havana, 30 January 2007

1. Sobre la dinámica intelectual del período, véase el recién publicado Polémicas culturales de los sesenta. Sel. y Pról. de Graziella Pogolotti. La Habana, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 2006
2. Cf. Miguel Sabater Reyes: “José Soler Puig fue mi amigo”, en Palabra Nueva, no. 157 (La Habana), noviembre de 2006, p. 54.
3. Virgilio Piñera: “Al señor Fidel Castro”, en: Diario libre, Sección Arte y Literatura (La Habana), 14 de marzo de 1959, p.2. (Se reproduce en Viaje a los frutos. Selección de Ana Cairo. La Habana, Biblioteca Nacional José Martí, 2006, p.58).
4. Ver Nota 12.
5. Refiriéndose a Aníbal Escalante, Secretario de Organización del PSP (y más tarde de las ORI), dijo Fidel: “Al triunfo de la Revolución, poseía gran autoridad, y desde ese cargo actúa prácticamente como jefe de su Partido. Era un hombre capaz, inteligente y buen organizador, pero con el arraigado hábito de filtrar y controlar todo a favor de su Partido.” Cien horas con Fidel. Conversaciones con Ignacio Ramonet. 2ª ed. La Habana, Oficina de Publicaciones del Consejo de Estado, 2006, p. 249.
6. Mirta Aguirre: “Apuntes sobre la literatura y el arte”, en Cuba Socialista, octubre de 1963. (Se reproduce en Revolución, letras, arte. La Habana, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1980, p.201.
7. Ibid., p.219. La autora, por supuesto (ver p. 215) descarta la posibilidad de imponer las nuevas ideas mediante la coacción o la violencia.
8. Alfredo Guevara: Revolución es lucidez. La Habana, Ediciones ICAIC, 1998, p.203.
9. El punto de vista del ICAIC fue expresado por Alfredo Guevara en “Las revoluciones no son paseos de rivieras”, entrevista de Wilfredo Cancio publicada en La Gaceta de Cuba en diciembre de 1992. (Se reproduce en Revolución es lucidez, ed. cit. supra, pp.88-90.)
10. Cf. Emilio Bejel: Escribir en Cuba. Entrevistas con escritores cubanos: 1979-1989. Río Piedras, Editorial de la Universidad de Puerto Rico, 1991. pp.155 y ss.
11. Fueron recogidos por Lourdes Casal en El caso Padilla: literatura y Revolución en Cuba (ver nota 15).
12. “Diez años de Revolución: el intelectual y la sociedad”, en Casa de las Américas, no. 56, sept.-oct., 1969; y Roque Dalton, René Depestre, Edmundo Desnoes, et. al.: El intelectual y la sociedad. México, Siglo XXI editores, 1969.
13. Sobre la polémica con Mundo Nuevo, ver Casa de las Américas, no. 39, nov.-dic., 1966. Ver también el exhaustivo estudio de María Eugenia Mudrovcic: “Mundo Nuevo”: Cultura y Guerra Fría en la década del 60. Rosario, Beatriz Viterbo, 1997.
14. Cf. Claudia Gilman: Entre la pluma y el fusil. Debates y dilemas del escritor revolucionario en América Latina. Buenos Aires, Siglo Veintiuno Editores Argentina, 2003.
15. Cf. Heberto Padilla: “Respuesta a Guillermo Cabrera Infante”, en revistas Índice (Madrid), dic. 1968, p. 9, y Primera Plana (Buenos Aires), no. 313, diciembre 24 1968, pp. 88-89. (Se reproduce en El caso Padilla: Literatura y Revolución en Cuba. Documentos. Sel., pról. y notas de Lourdes Casal. New York, Ediciones Nueva Atlántida/Miami, Ediciones Universal, s.f. En su introducción (pp.5-10) Casal hace un recuento de aquellos hechos y situaciones que, a su juicio, condujeron finalmente al “caso” estudiado.
16. La intervención de Padilla en la UNEAC puede verse en Casa de las Américas, no. 65-66, marzo-junio de 1971, pp. 191-203.
17. Cf. Fidel Castro: Discurso de clausura del Primer Congreso Nacional de Educación y Cultura, en Casa de las Américas, no. 65-66, marzo-junio de 1971.
18. La situación se agravó con una “Segunda carta”, de 20 de mayo de 1971. (Se reproduce en Lourdes Casal, El caso Padilla…, ed. cit. en nota 15, pp.123-124.
19. Véanse entrevista de Joaquín G. Santana, artículo de Benito Novás y textos de Lezama y bibliografía en Bohemia, 1º de enero de 1971, pp. 4-15¸ así como homenaje en La Gaceta (no. 88, diciembre de 1970) con textos de Armando Álvarez Bravo, Reinaldo Arenas, Miguel Barnet, Pablo Armando Fernández, Belkis Cuza, Reynaldo González y Rosa I. Boudet.
20. Y probablemente superior jerárquico en lo concerniente a la llamada “esfera de la ideología”.
21. Cf. “Declaración” del Primer Congreso Nacional de Educación y Cultura, en Casa de las Américas, no. 65-66, marzo-junio de 1971.
22. Por lo pronto, que debían abonárseles todos los salarios no percibidos desde su destitución hasta aquel momento.
23. José M. Fernández Pequeño: “Gris, gris, ¿el quinquenio gris?”. Mensaje electrónico del 18 de enero de 2007. (Agradezco a Aida Bahr –una de las organizadoras del Encuentro—la verificación de la fecha.)
24. Cf. A.F.: “Sobre Las iniciales de la tierra”, en Las máscaras del tiempo. La Habana, Editorial Letras Cubanas, 1995, pp. 56 (n.4) y 62 (n.12).
25. Por ejemplo, entre las Tesis y Resoluciones aprobadas por el Primer Congreso del PCC en 1975 no aparece una sola mención al realismo socialista, aunque numerosos pasajes reflejan la convicción de que es la ideología la que rige todo el proceso de producción y valoración de la obra de arte. Especialmente significativo es el pasaje en que se habla de “el nexo del arte socialista con la realidad” y “la cualidad del reflejo vivo y dinámico de que hablara Lenin” (en contraste con el realismo como copia fotográfica). No se olvide, por lo demás, que la condena del Che al realismo socialista, en El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba, fue categórica. (Cf. “Sobre la cultura artística y literaria”, en Tesis y Resoluciones del Primer Congreso del Partido Comunista de Cuba. La Habana, Depto. De Orientación Revolucionaria del PCC, 1976, pp. 467-510, y esp. 506.
26. Cf. A.F.: “Las máscaras del tiempo en la novela de la Revolución cubana”, en Las máscaras del tiempo, ed. cit., p. 29.
27. Si no me equivoco, el primero en hacerlo fue el poeta César López, entrevistado por Orlando Castellanos. Véase “Defender todo lo defendible, que es mucho”, La Gaceta de Cuba, marzo-abril de 1998, p. 29.
28. Cf. Cintio Vitier: Ese sol del mundo moral. Para una historia de la eticidad cubana. México, Siglo Veintiuno Editores, 1975. La edición cubana, de Ediciones Unión, apareció en 1995. El libro entró en el plan editorial de Ediciones Unión en 1987, pero diversos factores –entre ellos el inicio del Período Especial—aplazaron durante años la publicación.

 Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison and others

Link to original post

Messages from Jorge de Mello / POLEMICA: The 2007 Intellectual Debate

The worthwhile exchange of ideas, so necessary to form a true state of opinion that finds solutions which are reasonable, satisfactory and intelligent–has finished. Today I received, after the meetings, this mysterious email in which one of the participating intellectuals in the debate (his name for now is XXXX) and everything seems to remain in a war between the ICRT and Mincult [Ministry of Culture], it is said that that is the tactical thing. Will we return to the anonymous message, to the rumor in the hallway, to the “politically correct”? Incredible!! That is the tactical thing?


I believe that you are not mistaken in some of the things you say, but it seems to me that the matter is a little more complicated. And at this moment, I believe that the tactical thing is not to absolutely push against the Ministry of Culture which, after all, also has been attacked by the TV and those who are behind the appearance of Pavón and company.

From Jorge de Mello in response to Orlando Hernández


I have received, literally with exclamations of joy, your letter to Arturo Arango. You have placed your finger in the trigger and your eye is on the real target. That’s the way to talk, brother, that’s it. Today I have been writing a similar thought, in terms of content and points of view, answering a letter to Abelardo Mena, but of course never with the conceptual clarity and formal quality that you do. That’s why I won’t send Mena my letter. I will send yours adding myself to the opinion. continue reading

I congratulate you with all my heart, that is the real Orlando I have known for almost 30 years, the brave and illustrious brother with whom I have shared so many ideas, sufferings, and joys. I also congratulate you because you have woken from a certain state of inertia that has been affecting you recently.

We all need ideas as clear as yours, especially during these times, and they will be necessary in the times to come.

A grateful hug

Jorge de Mello

P.S.: After writing to you the previous note, I decided to also send to you my reply to Mena that I have mentioned.

Abelardo, I agree with you, suspected that something like that would happen, told you so a couple of days ago, it all seems like more of the same. In so many opinions and reflections, from here and there, not once has the essential word, “Liberty,” been mentioned. What kind of society are we that we fear saying that word? What has happened to us?

The brief and considered reflection of Cesar Lopez, in which he recommends that we remain alert, ends with these words: “I am honorable, and afraid.” I admire the sincerity of the poet. In the opinions of the other prestigious and courageous intellectuals there is also fear, but we have to discover it amongst the rhetorical twists and turns, in the way that they avoid putting their finger in the wound. One would have to ask, why so much fear?

We are all afraid because we know that the immense bureaucratic machine that permitted the “pavonato,” and that is now trying to redeem it, is stronger every day.

It now shows off, after the so-called “centralization,” more power than ever — political/economic power that is unproductive, obtuse and harmful, which paralyzes the soul of the nation.

I believe that this should be the issue for analysis —  but in an open and truly revolutionary discussion that is not directed by those same powerful individuals who dominate the bureaucratic apparatus and its indescribably repressive mechanisms — so that an exchange can take place without restrictions, without censures, and include all the “thinking heads” of the country.

There are many revolutionaries and patriots who think with their own heads amongst educators, scientists, workers, students. What is happening is not a problem to be discussed just within the artistic domain.

I sincerely believe that this halting path (of tacit concessions and opportune tactics) that we have seen up to now in this little e-mail war, is not enough to light the way to our immediate future — which up to now I foresee as very dark, given that the bureaucrats continue to call the shots. All indications are that the protest will end, as you well state, in an administrative purge of some television official, in a new “explanation” and a call back to sanity to the intellectuals who wrote the letters. It appears that once more we’ll be left with no view of a possible solution to our old problems. Besides fear, I admit, I also feel shame.

As you well know, I am only a cultural laborer (and proud to be so), I am not a recognized or important artist or intellectual, which is why I’ve silently and hopefully read, without making pronouncements, all that I have received via e-mail.

I have read various opinions stating that those who do not have important work can use this moment in an opportune way to stand out, and things of this nature.

But because I have a brain for thinking, I make my own observations and want to share them with you in a very personal way. My observation might be more or less correct, but these ideas are what are going through my head and my heart at this moment.

Changing the subject. Where do you live now? Are you following the Virgin’s shadow, or are you my neighbor again? It’s been a while since we’ve seen each other.


Jorge de Mello

From Jorge de Mello to Orlando Hernández


The fact that the program director who provoked this just protest was praised on another TV program, in the moment that all were expecting an apology, a correction, is a hard and overwhelming blow.

Padura considers that act a coincidence, Desiderio a provocation, to me it is nothing more than a show of force, of power, made with the objective of demonstrating that the powerful will not give in even an inch, as has always been the case. When has one of the “leaders” of the country apologized publicly?

Never has something like this occurred, and mistakes have been made, small and big, many of them with dire and painful consequences for the nation.

Hopefully this last demonstration of strength and arrogance won’t reach its objectives, causing the fear and deception necessary to paralyze the discussion and the state of opinion, so interesting and necessary for our society, which was being created.

How I wish I were wrong…

Last night I received this answer from Mena to a comment I made, don’t circulate it, but it’s interesting, I believe things are going as he says. How sad, what a deception!



Translated by: Dolores M. Goizueta / Translated by:  Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Marina Ochoa’s Messages / POLEMICA: The 2007 Intellectual Debate

Before anything else, please forgive me for entering so late into the discussion. My life is very complicated precisely because of the climate of indifference, incapacity and/or corruption that I see confirmed in all the applications to the housing “machine”. I am appalled! I mention it because in my opinion what brought an end to socialism in the countries in the East was the unpunished mixing up of interests on the part of those who became millionaires during the socialism, opportunism, corruption and repression. Criminals who went unpunished because of the absence of opportunity for criticism, debate and for a culture of criticism of course. Gorbachev and Yeltsin only delivered the coup de grace ... we should all think about that and those involved should take appropriate action.

I am not a theorist and am speaking to you on the basis of my principles and experiences.

I think it’s the moment to get to the essence, or rather, to other essences. First I want to talk about the demoralising effect of repression. And the confusion and paralysis it produces. That would partly explain why the response from the culture, on many occasions, did not display the necessary consistency. I know a lot about that. The assemblies for purging the School of Architecture (in the second half of the 60’s), in the middle of my adolescence, truly terrified and confused me. The lack of correspondence between the political debate, full of high-sounding ideas, and the meanness in practice bewildered me. I didn’t understand anything, I couldn’t articulate anything. I tasted the flavour of impotence. Many of the members of the “purification” tribunals are in exile. “Purification”, for God’s sake, seems like something imported from fascism!

Later, in the 70’s, it happened in the School of Journalism. I was a student of Eduardo Heras [Ed. note: Cuban short story writer] and the same thing happened again. In both places the devaluing of the human essence was part of the strategy. Then came a period in which it seemed we had suffered some kind of collective amnesia, from which we didn’t want to awake to avoid going through the story of our weakness? And then, a new low hit with Alicia … frustrated because she was responded to by the film producers and the members of the culture which supported us with principles, unity, coherence and firmness. We manage to sort out the differences between us, which exist, as they do everywhere and we declare a truce in the fighting in order to safeguard our cultural project, which we are still getting on with.

Now I ask those who cite our intellectuals for not answering forcefully at the given moment, is it better to march off into exile, which is anyone’s right, which I don’t question, rather than collect the fragments of our beings, feelings, hopes, and also our revolutionary existence and remain here, fighting in our own way, as best we can, to rescue a cultural project we believe in? We must respect the way each one of us fights, because we are all products of traumatic events which have overwhelmed us. I believe we have to express clearly and coherently what kind of country we want to have and what kind of culture. Therefore I propose we take up again the concepts which were current in the foundation period of the Revolution, later distorted by interpretations which were circumstantial, obtuse, opportunist and convenient for the Palabras a los Intelectuales [Ed. note: Words to the Intellectuals – famous speech of Fidel Castro’s in 1961, setting out his views on freedom of cultural expression] which unfortunately they use because of the lack of conceptual definitions.

Take up again “the inclination of the avant-guard, the freedom of expression, the independence of individual evolutions, the search for the roots of creative feeling and the attempt to make clear the spiritual values of man”, to be found in Origenes [Ed. note: Origins, a Cuban literary cultural magazine] and what Carlos Rafael Rodriguez (Hey! called “the prince of Cuban Marxism”) expressed on March 23, 1982 on the 30th anniversary of the foundation of the Nuestro Tiempo society [Ed. note: Cuban cultural institution in the ’50’s].

I think we have to get the bogeyman of openness away from our cultural and political life.  The permanence of the Cuban Revolution is a symptom of the fact that our “specificities” are stronger than our “regularities”. We can’t delay any longer the culture of exercising opinion and debate, or we will pay dearly, even more so than up to now. Our people are the most defenceless in the world against the avalanche of neoliberal culture. We painstakingly modelled ourselves as passive recipients. As consumers, in all senses of the word of what they give us.

The battle of ideas should be this: a battle and I think this debate illustrates how it never should have been.

I hope I have contributed something to this debate. Big hug.

Marina Ochoa

Another message from Marina Ochoa to Gustavo Arcos Fernández-Brito.

 Dear Gustavo (Arcos Fernández-Brito):

I’ve been filming and I am getting prepared to start editing, and therefore although I have wanted to get in touch I haven’t had the time or the energy, so I end up with dispersed neurons.

The creation of a wailing wall for artists is bad news. They don’t understand anything. We say tweet tweet and they answer quack quack.

The 47 years in which the “vanguard of the proletariat” has been translated as the right to think for us, deciding for us whatever does or doesn’t suit us as individuals, family, nation, has corroded the capacity to use our judgement and has put us in the rearguard, while the thinking of our people has become more complicated, growing, and overflowing the society “designed” from above, which functions less each day; (the other, the underground, parallel or floating society which functions as a diversion, gives the lie to it every minute) but on the screens of our television, which often seems to be directed by Walt Disney, it appears as ideal.

The son of one of my nieces, 9-years-old, sighed while he was watching the national TV news, “I would like to live there!” Childish wisdom … and I swear to you I didn’t make this up.

I was very grateful to receive the intervention of the wonderful Colina and that of Belkis Vega [Ed. note: Cuban film producer]. Indispensable. I think that Criterios [Ed. note: Desiderio Navarro’s magazine, produced by the Centro Teorico Cultural] should collect everything they have expressed and bring out a number of the magazine and include what the 30 will produce. Certainly, knowing professionals of Belkis’ stature, in all senses of the word, professional, moral, humane, revolutionary, I can’t understand how it’s possible that her name does not position her to occupy roles such as the presidency of UNEAC [Cuban Writers and Artists Union], the presidency of ICAIC [Cuban Film Institute], as they are looking at the names of possible substitutes, all machos, men, masculine.

Colina refers to the responsibilities of Torquesada [Ed. note: Armando Quesada, member of the Stalinist National Council of Culture in the 70’s] in the ICRT [Cuban Institute of Radio & Television].

I also know that they made Torquesada adviser to the programme “Open Dialogue” following a negative report about the programme put out by this man, with a recommendation to take it off the air, which shows a very interesting practice: I put you in as adviser to someone you want to destroy and explain the drop in the quality of the debate in the said programme.

I won’t take any more of your time and congratulate you on your honesty and integrity

A hug

Marina Ochoa

Translated by GH

Luis Pavón, the Forgotten Official / POLEMICA: The 2007 Intellectual Debate, Alejandro Armengol

Luis Pavón in 1971. (Courtesy of the personal archive of Hamlet Lavastida.)
Luis Pavón in 1971. (Courtesy of the personal archive of Hamlet Lavastida.)

It’s not that Luis Pavón died without fanfare, it’s that he died officially forgotten. No one mentioned his death in the official Cuban press, no brief note, not even a moment on the cable news agency to record the fact. Another of the ironies of fate, history and politics — rhetoric doesn’t matter here — has been that there has been more comment from the exile, or at least mentions, of the end of someone who, with good reason, was considered and has always been considered a bastard. That he no longer exist does nothing to change that opinion. At least it’s consistent.

Pavón, was the director of the magazine Verde Olive (Olive Green). He was also the apparent author of a few texts under the name Leopoldo Avila — works that have also been attributed to José Antonio Portuondo, another mediocre Stalinist — which served to unleash terror in writers and artists at a time when dogmatism, mediocrity and foolishness was being imposed on much of Cuban literature. Without event becoming a kind of tropical Marat or Robespierre — not for lack of vocation, simply for lack of opportunities — this mediocre poet relentlessly tried to ruin the lives of various creators. He would get better at it during his presidency of the National Council of Culture between 1971 and 1976, when he could fully exercise his vocation as censor.

After his brief reign of cultural terror he passed not only into almost total obscurity but into rejection barely less absolute. Then he served as a pretext for one of the many plays with multiple roles that have happened on the island since 1959, when he appeared on a television show in 2007. It’s possible that the “little war of emails” — that followed that show — would benefit some; what’s certain is no one is disposed to repeat it now, not in the slightest skirmish. Perhaps, after everything, it has been fear, not of Pavón but simply of mentioning Pavón, that explains this momentary silence in the Cuban press.

There is also irony that it was Norberto Fuentes who reported the news to the exile. As it always happens: the censors end up depending on the censored. Too bad they never learn the lesson in time.

From Cuaderno de Cuba

27 May 2013

Luis Pavon Tamayo Dies, One of the Executors of Castro Censorship / Diario de Cuba

Luis Pavón in 1971. (Courtesy of the personal archive of Hamlet Lavastida.)
Luis Pavón in 1971. (Courtesy of the personal archive of Hamlet Lavastida.)

He chaired the National Council of Culture in the ‘70s, which marginalized hundreds of intellectuals and artists. He reappeared on TV in 2007 and caused the “little war of emails.”


The political commissar Luis Pavón Tamayo, one of the executors of censorship in the ‘70s, died Saturday in Havana, according to the writer Norberto Fuentes who reported it in his blog.

On Sunday Fuentes wrote, “Recently he had felt depleted and said he felt like he was skin and bones. Midmorning he was sitting in an armchair in the indoor hall, at the front of the house, and his last act was to tilt his head on one shoulder.”

Pavón, who chaired the National Council of Culture between 1971 and 1976, is considered the main enforcer of the policy that censored and marginalized hundreds of intellectuals and artists, including José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera.

In 2007, Pavón made headlines when he appeared on a television show dedicated to glories of Cuban culture. His return sparked a wave of protests known as the “little war of emails.”

Pavón (born in Holguin in 1930) participated in the clandestine struggle against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. After Fidel Castro’s coming to power he was editor of the magazine Verde Olivo (Olive Green) and contributor to other national publications. He published books of poetry and two novels.

From Diario de Cuba

26 May 2013