Now that the slogan is economic profitability, what will happen to all the mediocre but loyal intellectuals?
Cubanet.org, Ernesto Perez Chang, Havana, 20 July 2015 – In that “without haste but without pause”* race to impose a new economic model that might alleviate the ravages of Fidel Castro’s despotism, in Cuba some are wondering if the changes will positively or negatively affect the forms of cultural management to which a majority of writers and artists have been accustomed.
I am referring to the model that has permitted many of them to live, sometimes well, sometimes not, but “without breaking a sweat,” meaning publishing books that no one reads and that will never be sold; receiving prizes and distinctions for a lifetime of submissive work; manipulating competitions; plundering travel allowances or missions to Venezuela; haggling over, in the offices of the Culture Ministry, frequent departures to fairs and events abroad; being the official lapdog who paves the way to court, and turning himself into a character that is half rogue and half leftist intellectual who says he has renounced international success due to his “revolutionary commitment.”
Many questions arise now that all those who have lived off of – and even thrived from – the “profitability” of those false loyalties are on a leaky boat in the middle of a stormy sea.
However, the need that absolutely everything on the island be economically profitable has placed writers as well as the government at a crossroads, breaking an old loyalty pact in which political power ensured the feeding of the ego of that other party, bothersome, who mastered words, all in exchange for complicity.
Under that convention, real writers fled, joined the internal resistance or adapted to the circumstances while, out of the mediocrity there were born hordes of producers of texts without conflicts that only would have served as a backdrop to that illusory cultural conformity environment, of a gilded world, that seems to exist only in bookstores and book fairs.
But now, when the deal has been broken and entrepreneurial profitability is sought, will Cuban writers continue publishing according to that “quota system” established by the island’s publishers and magazines under which the single fact of being a member of the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists, UNEAC, or feigning political obedience ensures that you remain in the publishing plans at least once a year?
What even will be the fate of UNEAC or the Cuban Book Institute? Will their true roles as thought “managers” be revealed?
What will happen to the thousands of mediocre but faithful “intellectuals” whom the government will have to ignore if it does not want to continue maintaining a no longer useful claque, especially in an era when the touch screen of a tablet or a cell phone is more attractive than a rough paper surface in black and white?
The new official discourse, no longer based on the egalitarianism of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto but on the life raft that are Marino Murillo’s “Economic Guidelines,” is repetitive with respect to the total elimination of gratuities and quite insistent on the rapid transformation of state-subsidized entities into businesses forced to be profitable in order to be able to continue existing.
However, everything works as a trap. Statutes governing self employment do not allow the creation of publishing cooperatives or those initiatives that encourage a cultural environment alternative to that other one controlled, supervised, censored by the Communist Party and State Security.
Writers, if they want to be profitable, that is, if they want to avoid starving to death, will be obliged, much more than before, to write what they are asked to write, to adhere to the margins of tolerance, to feign greater fidelity or, on the other hand, to try their luck abroad or, simply, to change jobs to something much more promising in the Port of Mariel Special Development Zone. After all, the “general president” has already said it; the first thing is the economy while the term “culture,” in the official discourse, has gotten divorced from utopia in order to marry trade. “Economic culture,” “market culture,” “entrepreneurial culture” are the seasonal pairings.
“We writers are screwed,” say several friends who accept the uncertainty of the times. Managing to enter the international publishing market is a true feat for any writer, Cuban or not. The negligible likelihood of something like that happening increases fear, and analyzing the few opportunities for survival without sacrificing the writing trade, the only path to choose is to continue with the pact of silence as long as the storm lasts.
That fear of being on the outside and on their own can only partly explain why, in contrast with musicians and filmmakers, Cuban writers avoid disobedience and feign living outside of politics; however, they are naïve to ignore that now their former role as vassals is not useful in a world where money has completely displaced the word. Now, clearly, the government is not prepared to invest money and time in breeding what it has always seen as a caste of spongers and would-be traitors.
Although always committed to not publishing writers opposed to the Revolution or works that could unleash the demons among the mob, publishers and other Cuban cultural institutions, which until yesterday functioned under an impression of art for art’s sake where the official resolution of “art for socialist ideology” was disguised, now have been forced to redesign their profiles and undertake the race for survival, an eventuality that suits the government perfectly and that will serve to sweep away all the poets and narrators who offer nothing substantial to the building of that rare socialism financed with capital from the Empire.
The total elimination of state subsidies, the reduction in publishing plans, the cutbacks in author copyright payments, the massive layoffs from publishers, the assumption of business strategies that take them further from their foundational principles and that transform the editorial element, that is to say, the true reason for a business to exist, into a secondary matter, has been a true earthquake for those who trusted that, for culture, any future time would have to be better.
Now it means speaking and writing less and working more, is what the Cuban government says, which also has replaced its traditional “fleet” of literati for a torrent of ideologues capable of providing to the people that “Revolutionary” literature indispensable for pretending that nothing falls apart: military officers with too much free time and turned into historians, State Security agents turned novelists and poets, historians feeding the revolutionary epic, children of Raul and Fidel occupying the printers with their manias and cravings, all the Book Fairs revolving around them, while the writers attend the end of times, their own extinctions, with the calmness of cattle led to slaughter, just for fear of breaking the silence.
*Translator’s note: Words from a 2014 speech by Raul Castro to the National Assembly about “updating the Cuban economic model.”
Translated by Mary Lou Keel
About the Author
Ernest Perez Chang: a bio is here