activism Censorship Original Steve Wasserman

Steve Wasserman: Turn of the Screw

Imprisoned Latin Grammy winner: "For this, we made a revolution?"

By Steve Wasserman / Original to ScheerPost

Cuban rapper Maykel Castillo and visual artist Luis Manuel Otero who helped compose and record last year’s Latin Grammy-winning “Patria y Vida,” a bitter viral rap song that gave voice to the accumulated rage and resentment of some disaffected Cubans, received harsh prison sentences last Friday. Convicted of contempt and public disorder, among other charges, Castillo, 38, was sentenced to nine years in prison while Otero, 34, got a five-year term for “desecrating national symbols.” He has often used the Cuban flag as a central feature of his paintings and performance art. 

This is the latest chapter in a depressing struggle over freedom of expression since the overthrow of U.S.-backed military dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959. The upstart generation of 15 and 16-year olds then helped to create and extend the revolution by enrolling in the great national Literacy Campaign to teach peasants to read and write in the flush of its first fevered decade and a half. But they are now entering old age, and the future is passing into the hands of the generation that was born during the 1980s and ‘90s, the so-called Special Period after the fall of the Soviet Union, a generation for whom the slogans of their grandfathers, whose achievement seemed almost superhuman and who cast a very long shadow indeed, carry less and less weight. 

The Cuban Revolution unleashed in the early years an unprecedented cultural outpouring, especially in the visual arts, music, and in the cinema. That creative explosion also engendered a backlash of censorious apparatchiks, most of them opportunistic hacks from the pre-Castro Communist Party, notorious for its timidity and devotion to dogma, looking to ride to power on the backs of the victorious barbudos of the 26th of July Movement. They were determined to reign in the more anarchic spirits of Cuban intellectual life, leading to the suffocations of the so-called gray years of the early to mid-1970s. 

It’s a dispiriting if familiar tale, one that starts with the suppression of “Lunes de Revolución,” the feisty, eclectic literary weekly, and concludes with the ascendancy of “Verde Olivio,” the chief journal of the armed forces, as arbiter of the country’s cultural policies. 

One of the original editors of the literary supplement, “Lunes,” which enjoyed a brief 18-month run as the freewheeling section devoted to arts and cultural commentary to the newspaper, “Revolucion,” was the late Pablo Armando Fernandez. He was among that band of mischief-makers that included such brash writers and poets as Heberto Padilla, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Edmundo Desnoes, and Carlos Franqui that produced a publication that became the target of a bruising battle. It was a battle he lost. A notorious meeting was held in the National Library on June 30, 1961, when Fidel Castro, whose moral authority as head of the victorious Rebel Army was unchallenged, castigated the assembled scribblers and intellectuals and issued a striking and chilling commandment: “Within the Revolution, everything goes; against the Revolution, nothing.” 

“Lunes” was closed. It was a shattering blow. The unruly bohemianism of the barbudos was soon gone. A Stalinist starch was ironed into the criollo insouciance. The radiant future became luminous with casualties. Cabrera Infante, appointed cultural attaché in Belgium, would defect to the U.K. in 1965. Padilla, despite winning a prestigious Casa de las Americas prize for his poetry, would be forced in the early 1970s to publicly confess his thought crimes in a scandal that recalled the ugly years of Stalin’s show trials. Ultimately, he would leave the island for the United States and would die in an Alabama hotel room where he’d been staying to deliver talks at a small Southern college. 

As for Pablo Armando, he morphed into the Ilya Ehrenburg of the Cuban Revolution, making his peace with the often-capricious whims of the Maximum Leader whose approbation he constantly sought and whose love he craved. 

Whatever the wafflings and uncertainties and aesthetic and political ambiguities and contradictions of the early over-oxygenated 1960s, there occurred by the late 1960s what might reasonably be called an internal putsch with respect to the revolution’s cultural policies. Even so informed and close an observer as sociologist and author Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt concluded that by the end of that remarkable decade, the Cuban “armed forces exerted ‘visible and sustained’ control over the ‘cultural life of the country.’ In this way, the connection between the cultural leadership and the artistic vanguard was severed, with disastrous results.” 

Gordon-Nesbitt quotes Cuban art historian and curator Gerardo Mosquera’s unsparing verdict that “the basic result for culture was the closure of the plural, intense, and quite autonomous scene that had prevailed. No official style was dictated, but a practice of culture as ideological propaganda was imposed, along with a stereotyped nationalism.” Journals were closed, editors fired, professors lost their jobs and were banished to factories far from Havana. 

Prominent cultural figures left the country. Others went into internal exile. Cultural life stagnated. Boldness was out, and timidity was in. The price of survival was keeping one’s head down. One admired poet–the late Rafael Alcides who had fought against Batista in the urban underground–went so far as to burn his unpublished novels, all the while refusing to leave the country. Alcides insisted that what the revolution should expect from true revolutionaries was not faith, but doubt. As he told Cuban journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez, “A poet doesn’t write for the present, for me, for you, for anyone. You are writing for your contemporaries, by which I mean for the future. For truth. If it turns out well, so be it. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. Never lie. Never ever lie. The hand of the liar withers.” 

By contrast, others, like internationally acclaimed poet Fina García Marruz, flourished. In 1990, Marruz was awarded Cuba’s National Prize for Literature, one of only two women to be so honored. Her death at age 99 on Monday was mourned at the highest levels of the Cuban government. Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez Parrilla praised her work editing the definitive edition of the works of José Martí, while Abel Prieto, president of Casa de las Americas, said Marruz “sang Ché and Haydee Santamaria like no one else.” 

There is an escalating contest now unfolding in Cuba for the hearts and minds of the millennials of which the conviction and sentencing of Castillo and Otero last week are a grim reminder and warning. That the Cuban state feels the need to put them behind bars hints of a brittle vulnerability. Defenders of the government’s punitive measures castigate their motives, deride them as self-aggrandizing charlatans and worse, and accuse them of being sock puppets in the pay of Washington. One of the fiercest critiques was penned last year by journalist Max Blumenthal.

My old friend, Miguel Barnet, poet and ethnographer, the editor of the remarkable “Autobiography of a Runaway Slave” and a former two-term president of the Union of Writers and Artists, who is now in his early eighties, delivered a candid and sober speech three years ago at the union’s Ninth Congress. He worried aloud over what he called “the impact of the global colonizing wave on Cuban society.” He acknowledged that, despite six decades of ceaseless effort, Cuba’s government faces “a daily battle against bureaucracy, corruption, routine,” and decried what he called “insensibility.” He condemned attempts by “Cuba’s enemies to create an intellectual fifth column” and urged his fellow writers and artists to “combat passivity, accommodation, and mediocrity,” and derided the persistence in Cuba of “vulgar materialism, marginal behavior, self-interest, discrimination, and intolerance.” 

He was more succinct when I spoke with him in Havana a few days after his speech. I asked him what was the greatest cultural challenge facing Cuban society. He replied without a hint of irony: “Bad taste.” 

Today, for an outspoken minority of Cuba’s millennials, however, bad taste is to them as punk was to a generation that embraced the Sex Pistols. For them, the music of their parents’ generation, whether son or salsa, belongs more to the past than to the present. What commands the ears of the young is reggaeton, which has swept the Latinx world. Rooted in a robotic beat, crafted from a relentless algorithm, reggaeton has conquered the international market. It is ubiquitous, an admixture of rap and the insistent beat more of the boombox era than the lilting songs of work and longing that were the guarijos’ lament. The lyrics are often explicitly sexist, full of macho posturing, at pains to worship at the altar of consumerism. As Nancy Morejon, one of Cuba’s leading poets, now in her late seventies, and a past president of the writers’ section of UNEAC, the artists and writers union, told me: “For this we made a revolution?” 

Plato knew what he was talking about when he proposed banning poets from his Ideal Republic.

Steve Wasserman

Steve Wasserman first visited Cuba in 1970 as a member of the second and tenth contingents of the Venceremos Brigade and has made more than a dozen subsequent visits since then, most recently in 2019. He has written widely on Cuba for such publications as the Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, and The (London) Times Literary Supplement. He is publisher of Heyday, a nonprofit independent publishing house founded in 1974 and based in Berkeley, California.

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