The Best Art School in the World / Yusimi Rodriguez Lopez

Escuela Nacional de Arte / National Art School

Six months ago I took an American photographer to meet to the former model and ex-ballerina Luz Maria Collazo. She had served as an interpreter with two other important Cuban ex-models and that would be our last evening of work. She was the main target of his lens and his interest, but when he saw that chance had led him also to the house of the architect Roberto Gottardi, he was surprised and pleased by the opportunity to meet and take a photo with him.

I had met Gottardi in 2020, when I interviewed Luz Maria Collazo. Until that time, her name and history at the National Art School was completely unknown to me. I suppose the same is true for many of my compatriots. She promised me an interview, but time passed and I was postponing that decision until I forgot about.

The reaction of the American photographer surprised me: Gottardo was an internationally well-known and respected architect. The school designed by him, along with Ricardo Porro and Vittrio Garatti, is considered one of the most representative works of Cuban architecture from the sixties.

The photographer knew about him from the documentary Unfinished Spaces by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamin Murray, which tells the story of the emergence of the idea of creating the National Art School, its design, construction and… its non-completion. That was how I learned of the existence of this film and a few days ago a friend made me a copy on a flash drive.

Unfinished Spaces shows us the National School of Art in the first half of the sixties, showing, almost from the beginning, images of the first moments after the victory of 1959: the real joy of the Cuban people in being liberated from the tyrant Fulgencio Batista; hope of the announced glorious future; the revolutionary ferment.

It was during this period that Fidel Castro and Ernesto Guevara appeared at the very exclusive Country Club, where they were not members, and while playing a round of golf, the leader had the idea of creating a school of art in that space. “We are going to build the best school of art in the world,” says the architect Selma Diaz, who was charged with leading the project.

The task of designing five faculties of art was assumed with overwhelming enthusiasm by architects Ricardo Porro, Vittrio Garatti and Roberto Gottardi; and not only by them, but also by the builders and the students who took classes within the site under construction and later participated voluntarily in the work to finish it, at the rhythm of small orchestras also composed of students. The actress Mirta Ibarra, a student at the school at the time, described the atmosphere as one of total freedom and creativity.

Very often, looking at those images of those early years of the Revolution, I wondered if, had I been a young woman at the time, would I have managed, or wanted to, hold myself apart from the effervescence. The music of Giancarlo Vulcano accompanying the images of Unfinished Spaces awakens a nostalgia for a past I didn’t experience and that in my eyes is like a legend, a fantastic epic, something unreal.

But amid the nostalgia an alarm sounds in my head: the leader of a country has the power to go to a private club, without invitation, and to decide to transform the space into something else?

Does being president mean being the owner of the country? In those moments I remember Fidel Castro was not then the president of Cuba. I see him playing golf with Ernesto Guevara and the image I see is consistent with the recent victory of his son Tony Castro in a golf tournament, and the courses that they built in this country to play this sport. I think that if gold was ever stigmatized as a “bourgeois sport” it was only in my imagination.

Half built, have destroyed

But Unfinished Spaces is not a documentary focused on criticizing the “Revolution” nor its maximum leader. The film puts its drama and music at the service of showing the history of this architectural masterpiece and its passage from a colossal project — the best art school in the world — to abandonment, neglect, “official marginalization” (the words of the architect Mario Coyula) and stigmatization of its creators.

Unfinished Spaces lets us hear the voices of those who were victims of unjust decisions that destroyed the school and with it an important project in the lives of these three artists; but it also shows the opposite view, that allows us to ask ourselves whether the construction of a school that size, with an unlimited budget, wasn’t a mistake, given the circumstances and resources of the country, although in practice the architects had decided to use the cheapest materials at your fingertips. There is also the testimony of the then students who witnessed the militarization and the expulsion of gay students.

Those who studied there then talk their way through the place that was turned into ruins before it was finished being built; the naturalness of one of them is striking when he says: “I think most students didn’t wondered why the school wasn’t finished, as there are many things in Cuba where the same thing happens.”

Buildings half built or half destroyed come to mind, building that never come to be repaired; the streets that are fixed and broken again in less than a month, the ruins visible from the buses. Are we living in an unfinished country, half built (or half destroyed)?

The National Art School has not only been the victim of wrong internal decisions, scarcities and looting by the homeless. The documentary doesn’t hide the fact that it could have been repaired and completed just a few years ago, but the regulations of the American “blockade” prevented it.

One of the questions I would have wanted to ask Gottardi is why he remained in Cuba, why was he the only one of the three architects who stayed. Now I won’t have to ask. His life, and also the lives of the other two artists abroad, have remained linked to the National Art School.

The shows the moment in which life rewards them, after 45 years, and it is just Fidel Castro, the first person to have a vision of that school, who decided the work should end. His confession of having fallen in love with the project when they showed it to him is surprising, but for a long time he reserved his opinion before the specialists who underestimated the work. His words are surprising because this is a man whose failure to listen to the specialist who warned him that it was impossible to produce ten million tons of sugar still devastates the country, nor did he listen to those who counseled against the planting of Caturra coffee or the closing of small businesses.

Anyway, the important thing is not the past, but rather resuming construction on the project. Porro’s two faculties were finished and only need to be restored. Those of Garatti and Gottardi need to be finished. Gottardo, however, realizes that his faculty is not going to be the same as it was going to be 45 years ago, the circumstances aren’t the same, the country is not the same. Nor could it be now what would have been more than 50 years ago, what was promised to our fathers.

Then, the end comes, not of the construction of the School, but of the documentary: due to the world economic crisis and the two hurricanes that hit the Island, the State stopped funding any unproductive architecture project, including the National Art School. It’s hard to know if we will see it brought to completion, and also whether this documentary will come to theaters in this country. But at least it is circulating from flash memory to flash memory, and to remain in this memory is bigger than our collective memory.

Yusimí Rodríguez López

From Diario de Cuba, 20 November 2013

Documentary by Alysa Nahmias and Benjamín Murray, 2011.

Uninformed or Poor? / Yusimi Rodriguez Lopez

internet150813A couple days ago two neighbors were talking outside my house about the notice published in the newspaper Granma, official organ of the Communist Party. I don’t know what the news was, but one said to the other, “It came out in Granma, I read it,” as proof of veracity. The other responded, “I don’t believe what Granma says, I read the internet.”

A year ago it would have been difficult to hear a conversation like this between neighbors, I don’t think anyone would have talked out loud about the question of the credibility of the official national press. Nor do I know if my neighbor could connect to the internet a year ago, or just a few months ago, and by what route if he was able to do so.

Many Cubans connected before network access became widely available in a legal form for nationals. How? Some from their workplaces, legally and free, had access to the pages that the Government allowed. Others accessed from embassies, which is perfectly legal, but frowned upon by our authorities: many did not use this route for fear of stigma, for example that anyone could reproach them on seeing them enter the United States Interest Section.

Other compatriots accessed the internet “under the table.” Someone whispered to you “so and so has internet, but you can’t tell, it’s under the table.” Not the least bit strange in a country where illegality appears to be a prerequisite for things achieving the desired legal status. For example, people sold their homes and cars before it was legal to do so, not surprising in a country where you can go to jail for an illegality one day before it ceases to be one. This happened with holding currencies: one day made the difference between an “integrated and compliant citizen under the law” and a “criminal”; the next day the same difference was between “someone dying of hunger” and “a privileged citizen.”

Because in the end, it’s all about money. It’s money that makes the difference. We don’t want to have the right to enter the hotels in our own country, to travel, to buy a house or a car, unless we are high performance athletes and important cultural figures? Then there are our rights, let them. What’s stopping us? Money.

The Government seems to be so aware that we do not have money, that, according to the vox populi (which almost always is right), when a Cuban citizen living in Cuba has stayed at hotels with a regularity outside what is considered normal, their names are noted in a list and the government then comes around to ask how they can afford it. But this may be a rumor. Many good and bad things are attributed to our Government. Not all are true (bad or good).

The truth is that money now not only divides us into Cubans can stay in a hotel and those who can’t even dream of it; between Cubans who can dine at restaurants like Doña Eutimia, The Decameron or The Mimosa, and Cubans who can only afford a pizza for ten Cuban pesos (and barely that). Now money also divides us between Cubans who can access the Internet, and Cubans who never will nor care to, because first they need to think about eating. You can’t think about having information, unless you have a full stomach and more or less decent clothes to dress and clothe the family.

I guess that’s the difference between my two neighbors. One of them can afford to discard Granma in favor of the internet as an information source (I don’t know if he’s aware that not everything that is published on the Internet is reliable); the other goes along with the official national press that does not cost more than two Cuban pesos, even if you buy from resellers.

A year ago, I complained that Cubans only had access to official national information media, which contained information that the Party-Government’s interest in our consuming, processed in the way that the Party-Government’s interest wants us to have it. Now you can go into the rooms that have opened in the country, and pay for services to navigate the web (national and international) and email (national and international). It’s not news that one hour of internet costs 4.50 CUC, just over $ 5 US and just under half the monthly salary of a worker. The cheapest is the using national email only, 1.50 CUC. Well, you decide, you aren’t forced to access the internet.

I was told that these cyber rooms you could get access to the The Miami Herald, for instance, and it’s true. I was able to check a couple of weeks ago, when I decided to commit harakiri and create myself an internet account. The connection is fast, at least compared to what I knew, and yes, you can access any publication even if it criticizes the government. This is freedom of information, I thought. I can no longer talk about uninformed Cubans; there are simply poor Cubans.

To be informed costs, in Cuba and in the world. It’s only that we are entering the ring right now. In the world there are places where the information is free, and sites where you sign up to receive information, places where you read a piece of information, and pay for the rest, and places where you pay for quality information. Cubans are just entering the XXI century. What happens is that at this stage of the game, it still amazes us sometimes to discover that things are not as we were led to believe that they were; that in reality, we are not all equal, and in the future will be about the same.

That was my conclusion until I tried something as simple as accessing the blog Generation Y, by the blogger Yoani Sanchez, who, believe it or not, I had never read. I read a couple of her articles that were linked to or posted on other sites, but not her blog. The worst thing is that it took me a while to realize I could not access it. As I’m used to the internet being I slow, waited, waited and waited, watching the minutes that for me were money.

I tried the same with the blog Sin evasion, by Miriam Celaya, and that of Reinaldo Escobar. In all cases I access articles and interviews from elsewhere, but not their blogs. I repeated the operation with David Canela, a journalist at Cubanet. I couldn’t even read his articles. I also could not access the publication.

I asked the workers staff the cybercafes, if Generation Y, for example, was blocked. They didn’t know what Generation Y is, or who Yoani Sanchez is. No surprise, it happens to many people in Cuba. I explained, with some difficulty because I realized I do not know how to define Yoani: Dissident? Opposition?? Citizen? Highly embarrassing for the government? Finally I was told that such sites or blogs are blocked. Then I learned that the classified ad page Revolico is blocked too.

I could have saved money and time, if I had read the internet contract I signed: Article 9 of the generalities of the service states “ETECSA is exonerated from liability for the limited access to the content, accuracy, quality and accuracy of the information posted on sites …”

Now I’m not sure it is enough to have money. Things do not seem so simple. You can pay, but that does not guarantee that access to the information that interests you. You do not decide what information to consume. In the end will we be only poor? Or we also uninformed?

Yusimi Rodriguez Lopez

From Diario de Cuba

19 August 2013

We Are Still Olive Green* / Yusimi Rodriguez Lopez

On Saturday July 20, as I was getting ready to go out with my niece, among the TV news items I heard was a piece about a town that was going to celebrate the provincial commemoration of — at this point I assumed it would be Children’s Day, which was to take place on the following day, Sunday the 21st, but I was mistaken — July 26, the Day of National Rebellion.

This year is the sixtieth anniversary of this sad event which, since I was a child, has been seen as a occasion for celebration. I remember that the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) had a party. The state provided some things and I believe money was collected from neighbors. It was a party similar to that of September 28. Over time the state stopped subsidizing the food, which was sold at modest prices, that allowed every CDR to celebrate the anniversary. I imagine that people also were no longer able or willing to donate money.

I do not know if the newspaper Tribuna de La Habana, the Party or UPEC (the Union of Cuban Journalists) will continue supplying workers with a basket of pork, cooking oil, rice, beans, cookies, a dessert and a bottle of rum. The one from UPEC used to come with chicken, if I remember correctly, and a package of sausages along with a bottle of brand-name rum, but that was only for the journalists on staff.

I think that in this country there is so much eagerness to celebrate, to enjoy the holidays, so much need for something extra that will stretch people’s monthly food budget, that it does not matter what the reason is for celebrating.

The fact is we are celebrating a bloody event that, even if it had not been a defeat from a military point of view, even if the assailants had managed to reduce dictator Fulgencio Batista’s troop strength, would have been paid for in a river of blood. We are celebrating the death of many young men, people who left behind parents, siblings, girlfriends, wives and perhaps children.

“Let us go marching towards an ideal.” But which one? We will never know. I suppose they died to achieve what we have today, which I have been told since I was little, but undoubtedly I will never know. They will never be able to say in their own voices if it was for this, for today’s Cuba, that they died.

Not long ago there was talk on televsion about one of these martyrs. He once had a family and a job, but sacrificed a large part of his income and sold his household possessions for the cause. Later they said he was one of the first to fall in battle. At the time it seemed so sad to me. And so ridiculous.

I later felt that this showed a lack of respect for those young men, who did what they felt they had to do at the time. It required a high degree of courage, of commitment, the willingness to die for a cause. The awful thing is that those who are willing to die in combat are also willing to kill. We often hear our soldiers say they are willing to die (and of course to kill) to defend us, the people. But are they willing to defend the people even if they are no longer in agreement with their leaders? Does a person cease to be one of the people if he or she becomes a dissident or even an opponent?

Those young men, to whom the country has paid homage for many years, saw no other alternative but to overturn a dictatorship through violent struggle. Even Nelson Mandela, whom I deeply admire, was convinced that armed struggle was the only way to overturn apartheid in South Africa.

But I ask myself if in this country where — according to what I have been told — a free press existed even during the Batista dictatorship, there was not some other way to overturn the dictator and restore the constitution of 1940. Was restoring this constitution not specifically one of the goals of those who attacked the Moncada Barracks? Yet it never again became this country’s constitution.

Perhaps not. Perhaps there was no means other than violence to overturn the dictatorship.

I, however, prefer the methods of Ghandi, of Martin Luther King. I prefer that innocent blood not be shed. Or guilty blood. I am sure that what is obtained through violence can only be maintained through violence, through making the defeated fearful.

There is a quote in a letter from José Martí to Manuel Mercado which has remained in the minds of Cubans for years . It was even the title of a successful television series in the 1980s called In Silence It Had to Be. I prefer to think “without violence it must be.”

Nevertheless, this society has exalted and continues to exalt violence. Those who left the country after January 1, 1959 were its victims. Those involved in peaceful opposition to the government are its victims as are those with no intention of assaulting a military barracks of any kind.

Yusimí Rodríguez López | Havana | July 26, 2013

 From Diario de Cuba

*Translator’s note: A reference to the color of the combat fatigues worn for years by Cuba’s top echelon of leaders.