Messages from Belkis Vega / POLEMICA: The 2007 Intellectual Debate

Belkis Vega, a Cuban filmmaker

Hi, Gustavo,

I am grateful that you sent me the debate. I don’t know how to get involved in the analysis but I think that I need to.

If you can, send this opinion to whoever you want.

Although I have to confess that I find it difficult to express myself and to organise my thoughts in this form, I don’t want to not do it as I think that the TV’s resurrection of those ideas that we thought were dead demands a reaction of repulsion. I want to add my thoughts to those who have offered their analysis so far. There have been some profound and well-argued reflections, and it’s important that they don’t end here.

I was studying design when Pavón was president of the CNC and Armando Quesada was head of Teatro y Danza, and I remember perfectly well the tragedy of the “misfits” and the almost total destruction of some theatre groups, just like the censorship in the field of literature. I lived the period up close, involved as I was in university TV, as one of the screenwriters and assistants for the TV program,”6:30 pm”…These “orientations” had a cultural character with relation to the treatment of art and literature on TV, with personal comments added by Papito Serguera.

I will never forget the impression almost of conspiracy that one felt when reading Lezama or Dulce Maria, the sad memory of meeting Cintio Vitier and Fina García Marruz spending hours in a cubicle of the National Library explaining to you that they would consider you as ideologically divergent because you liked the Beatles and not Casino or Mozambique, the possibility that your friends would snub you in the street or that they would make you lengthen the hem of your skirt to attend school.

Someone told me that some months ago Armando Quesada was working in television, and I didn’t want to believe it. Now he is resuscitated as a main character on programs along with Serguera and Pavón. I didn’t see the programs, but what I have heard here is enough for me.

I think that it’s really unfortunate, and more than unfortunate, worrisome.

I think we are in an internal ideological confrontation between Marxist and revolutionary thought versus thinking lacking any intellectual interest, demagogic. So I also believe that the debate should not remain only in this exchange of mail. As Zenaida says, it’s time to raise our voices so they hear us.

Belkis Vega

Another message from Belkis Vega

Looking at the past from the present. I think this has been a first for the greater part of us Cubans who have been participating in this debate.

For as long as I can remember I have been hearing the same paralyzing phrase repeated over and over: “This is not the time, this is not the place.”

How many of us say in our defense that to be revolutionary is to be someone who transforms, someone nonconformist and critical. We have also allowed ourselves to abandon the hope of this time and place that never arrive. And always for the supposedly noble and unifying but also paralyzing end of not giving arms to the enemy; without taking into account the fact that the paralyzing status quo is a very efficient arm.

It occurred to me again last week when I tried — naively? — to bring up some of the worries that we are exchanging about the theoretical debate that was developing in the Festival of Television.

It happened that it was neither the time nor the place.

I now think that many of us are not prepared to hope for more. I think we’ve lost many things in this waiting, our life has been in this waiting.

I remember that during the most critical years of the Special Period, a friend told me that they would have to ask every Cuban, man and woman, if they wanted to continue living in Cuba, and if the answer was affirmative, to give them the Party card directly. It seemed to me a very sensible idea.

I think the majority of us who continue here have proved over and over that we are interested in the social project of the Revolution; in its most ample meaning, as a humanist project that tries to recover and defend human dignity and develop a society that satisfies the growing needs of its men and women. This appears elementary, but many have forgotten it. Our society is not perfect; none of us are either. It’s essential to speak of errors, to assume them, reflect on them and try not to repeat them.

I’ve always questioned who has the right to decide who are the guarantors, the censors or the classifiers of what is or what is not revolutionary.

It’s very simple to look in a dictionary and remember the definition of “revolutionary.” Sheep are not revolutionary. Men and women who act like sheep would never have assaulted the Moncada Barracks. To propose this, you have to want to transform the world. It was necessary to dream big to assault the sky.

I read the writing of Colina and reviewed the list of Cuban films that were not shown on TV. I remembered also how many of the film-makers who started to direct in the workshops of the Asociación Hermanos Saíz in the ’80s are not here. And I remember my recent sleepless nights when I tried to find out why the analytical, reflective and critical works of some of the young Cuban film-makers wouldn’t remain in a show, so that those young people would find their space in our Cuba — the one for all Cubans — and they wouldn’t have to search in other latitudes like so many do.

It hurts me, it lacerates me. I don’t understand the politics of exclusion.

Knowing errors, analyzing them, learning from them. To be nonconformist, to want to be better, to criticize the bad in order to amend it, to respect and take into account differences. Is this “not revolutionary”?

A few months ago a Miami TV channel showed part of the documentary, “Divers, Lions and Tankers” by young Cuban filmmakers who attend the ISA. This documentary had been recognized in some festivals in our country and selected by critics as being among the most significant films made in 2005. Channel 41 TV in Miami had a manipulated discussion of the content. The film’s director wrote to the station saying that he considered this manipulation a violation of his rights. Many people in Cuba learned from the comments about this show in Miami that this documentary existed, and they have tried to see it, but the documentary is not displayed publicly. It circulates underground. Something similar happened with the fictional short by Eduardo del Llano, “Monte Rouge.” And with other works; these are just two examples.

And I always wonder if it is not much more beneficial to bring these works to a public debate. Display them on TV, have a panel where the creators of the works can discuss views with journalists and others. In short, are we going to continue postponing the controversy over our reality, which we live every day, until we get a right time and right place that never appears?

There are many works made within the revolution by Cuban artists and writers who are HERE and who have every right to have their own voice and to call attention to aspects of our reality to those who SHOULD find a solution for themselves.

Criticism, self-criticism, jumps from the quantitative to the qualitative, unity and the struggle of opposites, these words and phrases now sound like Martian to many in our country.

Where have the principles of dialectical materialism gone? Which now our young people aren’t even studying.

Nor has the fall of socialism in Europe made me think that Marx was wrong in his formulations. History has proven that it is much more complex to apply Marxism to everyday life than to theorize about it. But out of curiosity I would like to know how many people in our country today know what characterizes a society as socialist. Any of us at any time can be exposed to questioning by some officials who flaunt the right to classify what is revolutionary or not, and who confuse dogma with being revolutionary.

It is no secret that all this generates self-censorship, and I think we all have self-censored a lot. There are battles we’ve won when we’ve defended our work and our positions in a brave, energetic manner, with solid arguments. The examples Colina gives, referring to the film Alice in Wondertown or the refusal of the directors of ICAIC to be unified with the ICRT, are proof of that.

The polemics should come out of our emails. I think it’s fundamental to find a way to publicize these debates and open up participation. I think the analysis of the Five Gray Years that has begun here and that will be deepened with the Ambrosio Fornet conference and the subsequent exchange should serve as a starting point for taking back our own history, moving forward and finding many ways here and now where we Cubans can reflect on our reality in order to transform it.

Belkis Vega

Reflections provoked by the “affectionate” letter written by Paquito de Rivera for Fefé Diego.

Some people would be better off shutting up…

And I’m not saying that because of intolerance, much less because I don’t respect differences in thinking.

I say it simply because I think it’s better to be quiet when you don’t know how to express your thoughts coherently and with respect for others.

It really hurts to confirm such a great contradiction between musical talent and the ability to express ideas with a minimum of argument and depth.

Some years ago I was at the International Film Festival of Miami, exactly the year in which the festival bravely decided to show Fernando Pérez’ film, Life is to Whistle, with the possible punishment of losing part of its funding for showing the work of a Cuban “over there.”

After the films you could attend a jazz concert at a hotel, I think it was the Sheraton. So there I was, ready to enjoy the musical talent of Paquito de Rivera and imagine my surprise to hear him tell distasteful and vulgar jokes about the situation of the child Elián González, whose family in Miami did not want to send back to his father.

Never in Cuba did I hear Paquito oppose UMAP or criticize Marx or question the socialist definition of the Cuban revolution.

As much as I’ve tried, I cannot remember any “brave” position Paquito de Rivera took against the terrible things that according to his list have occurred in our country.

I don’t even remember if he tried to criticize the Stalinst stage of the USSR, nor if he dared to criticize the terrible things that happened around it.

It seems in that epoch he assumed the same attitude as the rest of the Cuban artists and writers “who so irresponsibly have supported such a bloody regime,” according to him.

I don’t know, then, what bravery he’s talking about. Or his bravery is to insult in a public letter an exceptional musician like Carlos Santana for deciding to wear a t-shirt with a picture of Che Guevara.

I also never knew that a guy as brave as Paquito de Rivera opposed the invasion of Iraq or protested the lack of attention given to the victims of Katrina. Or perhaps he felt worried about Africa. It’s more probable that all that seems okay to him.

I agree with Boris Iván that it would be better if he used his head for musical scores since it would appear that language is not his strong point. Perhaps if he had remained in Cuba he would be capable of reasoning and writing in a more consistent and less vulgar manner.

However I do remember other voices that raised questions in the time of that stage of Cuban culture that has been the object of debate these days with the participation of many Cubans from here and there.

Some voices are more timid, others stronger. There were not many, there were not enough. But there were voices.

As there also have been voices at other times that, for example, supported the performance artists of Street Art, the filmmakers of Alice in Wondertown or Guantanamera, and the actors of Manteca, when these artists and their works were questioned.

Luckily there are more voices participating in this analysis of part of our recent history, which is so necessary. And by luck this debate has motivated the participation of people with different positions and opinions.

Of course something very important is missing, and it’s the opening up of the debate outside the circle of writers and artists who have email.

Now I know, Paquito, that you don’t know who I am nor what I do.

I also know that with this letter I’m exposing myself to your insults.

It doesn’t matter to me. I believe that now the only important thing is to tell you that, luckily for both of us, I’m not interested in being your buddy.

Belkis Vega

January 25, 2007

Translated by Regina Anavy

NOTE: Belkis Vega is a Cuban filmmaker.