The Cuban Intelligentsia: Debate or Hide / Yoani Sánchez

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What is an academic? What is an intellectual? These are some of the questions that have haunted me for years, even before I graduated in Hispanic Philology. Immersed in adolescent insolence, I thought at some point that to be one or the other it was necessary to assume certain poses, gestures, even modes of dress, or to smoke. With time I understood that erudition need not be accompanied by a pointed goatee, a haughty look, some glasses halfway down your nose, nor one of those tilted berets our students like so much. I knew people who brought, along with their knowledge, audacity, wisdom and spontaneity, an immense wealth of culture and a commendable humility. Many of them didn’t even manage a college degree, nor did they publish a single book. I also noticed that, frequently, the Cuban intellectual world does not structure itself on the basis of wisdom, but on opportunism and ideological fidelity. Examples abound of “honorary degrees” awarded as prizes to militants, instead of honoring them for their professional skills. Also abundant, lamentably, are those expelled or relegated to research for reasons based strictly on politics and not on science.

But beyond appearances, as a mark of a wise fraternity or as demonstrations of loyalty to the government professed by so many of our illustrious, there is a characteristic that recurs alarmingly in our national intelligentsia: it is their inability to sustain a debate with people from within the Island who do not belong to the institutions sanctified and created by the powers-that-be; their ineptitude when it comes time to accept the challenge of a discussion with those who think differently. An old Cuban academic traveled from Havana to San Francisco and tolerated from the public there that any American could pose questions he never would have entertained nor even listened to in his own country. He took a plane to participate in the 2012 Latin American Studies Association conference and seemed disposed to sit on a panel where there are liberal perspectives, as well and democratic and anti-totalitarian ones, which he would never allow a place here. What’s more, his presentation uttered outside our borders is, clearly, several degrees more daring and critical than what he would say to his students, his readers or his colleagues in Cuba. However, once he returns to the island territory, if he is called to an exchange of ideas from civil society, the opposition, or the alternative scene, he acts like he didn’t hear the invitation or insults his counterpart. He denigrates them, has a fit, calls on Daddy State to defend him; all this and more rather than accept the exchange of arguments and positions that is so urgently needed in our country. In short, he hides.

Thus, the time has already passed of looking in dictionaries and manuals for a definition of what is a wise man. I am not going to describe here all the points that help me get a very personal idea of the culture of each person, but I will tell you what characteristic heads my very subjective list. It is a person’s art for polemics and controversy, his disposition to listen to even the most antagonistic theses or the most conflicting opinions. I admire those who are capable of debating with their ideological opponents without falling into arrogance, verbal violence or personal offense. It doesn’t bother me if some dress in what they believe is the garb of an intellectual, nor that they say they agree ideologically one hundred percent with the government which, coincidentally, pays their salary. What irritates and disappoints me is that, being supposedly at the vanguard of the words and thought of this nation, they refuse to use their words and ideas in debate, evading their scientific commitment to seek the truth taking into account all the variables.

26 May 2012