Culture: A Shield or the Nation’s Rag? / Luis Felipe Rojas

Photo: Luis Felipe Rojas

A decade after fussing about how we would be the “most abundant and successful country in the world”, the first threats to overthrow the old cultural apparatus in Cuba have gotten underway. The monstrosity which led thousands to dream about the aims of a socialist art has grown, so much so that cultural modules were created. These groups do not contribute a thing to society since they have been built on subservience, propaganda, and the most rancid of ideologies, which only intends to achieve reverence from the subject before the monarch. And now they are starting to fade.

The proposed budget cuts have reached the door-steps of local Cuban culture, and the interior provinces are the ones most threatened. In Holguin, the popular “City Awards” (an event which takes place on Culture Day each year) have ceased financing the competitions in the areas of: Fine Art, Scenic Art, and Literature (in all its genres). The recipient of the Poetry Award will now only receive a small wooden statue, along with a cardboard diploma. In addition, the winner must wait for the local editor to publish his/her book in order to make any sort of earning or copyright.

The national “House of Culture” system has also launched its own plan of dismissals under the name of “available personnel”. The ideological apparatus has prohibited the use of the word “unemployed” when referring to those who will be left without jobs, it’s that simple. In Cuba we have Cultural Units made up of local institutions such as the House of Culture (for any acts of Theatre, Music, Dance, Fine Arts, and Literature), a museum, a library, a film theatre, and a Municipal Management Office. With such bureaucratic machinery, small towns like San German, Songo-La Maya, and Vertientes have created more than 100 titles for “specialists”, analysts, programmers, art instructors, economists, accountants, janitors, directors, sub-directors, artistic directors, cultural promoters, librarians, computer specialists, and a plethora of other positions which occur to them, as the government is bent on being the “most productive country in the world,” all the while ignoring any local talent.

In fact, there may be hundreds of cultural employees while there are not even 20 local musicians, actors, or craftsmen from a small municipality. Now, the budget-cuts have arrived and nearly 30 of these talented artists will be missing in the municipal sectors of Holguin.

While I jot down these notes from beyond the barbed wires, I have received some worrisome news. Around twenty or so young writers from Holguin will be traveling to Venezuelan slums. There, they will hand out their verses and share their work instruments with the sons of Bolivar. We continue “Lighting the streets while it’s dark inside our own house.” Now, the miserable thousand Cuban pesos ($40 U.S.) will no longer be offered to the author or poet recipient of the City Award. The Ministry of Culture will get ready to culturally invade the slums of Caracas. They simply continue to play with the dreams of some youths who embark on adventures simply to be able to bring back a cell phone, to make a good friend who will help them buy some necessary things, or to earn a thousand dollars to buy a laptop on their way back.

“Why go if you do not want to?” I asked one of the young men who is now taking a Popular Culture seminar. His answer was really the tip of the iceberg, “To escape this time bomb for a while.”

We are still a country where good books are scarce, still missing out on the best cultural supplements (found in papers like El Pais or El Mundo), where theatres are dilapidated, and where going to watch a good dance or ballet show could cost you an entire month’s salary.

Hundreds of so-called “cultural promoters” will depart to Venezuela soon. Upon returning after three months they will join the ranks of the unemployed. Dozens of musical groups have just been dismantled as a product of such a fierce staff reduction. Only on certain occasions may we watch films on 35mm, and in medium quality. Cultural events, such as the Party of Fire in Santiago de Cuba, and the Romerias de Mayo in Holguin, have reduced their interest to scarce foreign participation, and very little national talent. These are the wagers of those who preferred to make culture the nation’s sword, not its shield.

Translated by Raul G.

January 27 2011