Cuban Intellectuals: When Fear Seeps Into the Bones / Angel Santiesteban

Miguel Barnet, Raúl Castro and Abel Prieto

How is it possible that intellectuals who were humiliated and punished by the same people who now govern the country, stay next to the boots that kicked them into submission, that harassed them until they were broken in body, soul and artistic endeavor?

They suffered so much that the fear still corrodes them and they continue to talk in whispers for fear of being overheard and punished again.

These intellectuals reaffirm the lesson received when they learned: this is and will be the rest of your days. Many have already died and could not go beyond the artwork for which they were punished. The fear never left them. Nor have those who remain gone beyond, obviously because they lack the time and spirit to do so.

Isn’t it time to submit the bill? Someone has to pay for the books not written. The plays not staged. The music not created. The empty or fatuous canvasses. Who will pay for all this lost culture?

Some were imprisoned in concentration camps known by the acronym UMAP (Military Units to Aid Production), because then everyone had to be a man, strong and ready to pick up a gun. If they were not suitable physically, or insufficiently masculine, or morally or ideologically unreliable, they were sent as a punishment for not being useful in the defense of the “Revolution.” The artists who didn’t openly defend the Revolution in their works were put on the black list.

They also were sent to these concentration camps for not wearing Russian boots, smoking cigars, or passing their working hours without getting their hands dirty; and there were those labeled gay, religious, or unenthusiastic about social tasks such as not participating in “voluntary work” or the sugar cane harvest; these, too, were caught and sent to these hells.

The sacrilege of the different

To receive mail or calls from abroad, to wear outlandish dress or new fashions, was a direct affront to the socialist system. It was sacrilege to listen to foreign music or to Cuban singers living outside the island, to access literature that didn’t sympathize with the “Revolution,” to have long hair was an insult to machismo, to be frowned upon by any official or simply not to get along with the president of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution on your block. Those fascist-style or Stalinesque concentration camps (we know now they did the same damage) were designed according Fidel Castro’s version, and he has not had the dignity to publicly acknowledge, or at least to say that we was wrong in one of those writings he calls his “Reflections.”

It’s true that most of the intellectuals did not go to these concentration camps, but as artists they are supposed to have the sentiment to suffer those disastrous events that happened in their time. In any event, they did not escape unscathed, suffering other acts of torture, derision for being creative. Most were expelled from schools and workplaces. Their cultural work was slanted for many years, and ultimately it was permeated by that fear that sinks into the bone.

All the artists were mocked by political, military and cultural officials, who concurred in being the same. And “Socialist Realism” took off because it was the only way to present yourself as an artist. And they are still out there presenting their anti-aesthetic and submissive works.

Several decades of those early events that marked Cuban artists have passed, and still the horror keeps them prostrate, the impression caused by the punishments imposed, their bodies still bleeding from the wounds as in the early days, sometimes covered by false scars constantly hidden by makeup.

Frozen by the horror

Worst of all is that they remain silent and still pretend to support the system. They still respond like intellectuals of the seventies. The horror froze them in time and they don’t know how to reject it, to share their real opinions about “the damned circumstances” that occur in society because their mission, they were told, is to be artists, and the artists are concerned only to entertain people without questioning the political leadership of the country.

If one is an artist of the “left,” from anywhere in the world that questions the United States or any political process opposed to the dictatorial regime of Fidel Castro, then one can be a political artist and you were and are invited to summer in Cuba. Artistic thought can only go in one direction, and the arrow of orientation is toward the government.

The question that follows is whether they will die with that fear. If they will never be able let escape what they have always hidden. If they will contain their catharsis and present their suffering and discrepancies from surfacing before the ways of acting of the political process, and if they will conform to the narrow purged space they were permitted during “the email war” of 2007. If they will continue being the bland part of society, as we were labeled by that disagreeable, and later crazy, State functionary?

At least it is my wish to invite them to fulfill their aspirations, that are reasonable with their conscience, with which they can honestly expound their ideologies and their personal conversations where they give free rein to their real thought, and say and assume it publicly.

You will then see that their hearts will swell with emotion as they beat.

Angel Santiesteban-Prats

January 4 2012