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Culture and Freedom in Cuba

Interview with Abel Prieto
Minister of Culture, Republic of Cuba

by Alejandro Massia & Julio Otero,

Tiempo de Cuba, 7 November 2004

At 54 years of age, Abel Prieto holds a B.A. in Language and Hispanic Literature. He has been a writer, professor of literature, director of the publishing house Letras Cubanas, and president of the Union of Writers and Artists before becoming the Cuban Culture Minister. In the course of the meetings on "Culture and Freedom in Cuba," recently held in Cadiz, we had the opportunity to hear him talk about Cuban cultural policy. At the end of his conference, the minister kindly accepted an invitation to talk with Tiempo de Cuba. This is what he told us:

Tiempo de Cuba: What are the main principles on which the Cuban cultural model is ruled and on what is it based?

Prieto: In the first place, the Cuban cultural model is typified by the principle of mass democratization, meaning, that it reaches everyone without any form of distinction. That is why, today, for example, we have about 50 art schools scattered throughout the country, whose purpose is to prevent talent being lost wherever it is, whether in the mountains, in the countryside or the city. Consequently, if a child is endowed with talent in music or art, this child has the choice of studying art wherever he or she lives.

A second principle is the formation of a public which is cultured and receptive to all manifestations of art, including traditionally more sophisticated forms. For us the idea of providing the masses with a capacity to appreciate and understand artistic codes profoundly, is of utmost importance.

And we have examples how some manifestations which were a minority art appreciation form - like classical ballet, experimental theater or conceptual painting - have been reaching a knowledgeable public on a truly massive scale. A third point is that this massiveness be also accompanied by a demand for quality; prevent the promotion of trash, or a pseudo-culture for consumption by the people. This would be offensive. In this sense, it is important to point to the use we are making in new techniques of communication and information (such as television, video, or computer sciences) for the diffusion of education and culture.

Lastly, another basic principle is the defense of national culture, although with a universal focus, without creating anything that is chauvinistic or provincial. In our cultural policy, there is a defense of the Cuban tradition, both in popular culture as in what has been called cultured. However, we are also working very hard and under harsh conditions to spread the wealth of universal culture inside Cuba.

Tiempo: What kind of foreign culture is transmitted on the island?

Prieto: There is a great variety. To mention just a few who participated in this conference, I can mention that we have published books by [Spanish writers] Andrés Sorel, Alfonso Sastre and Belén Gopegui. We have also distributed a lot of Latin American literature. In addition, a curious matter, we have done a great job of publishing US literature. Because, for us, being anti-imperialist is not the same as being anti-US.

We are well aware that there are great creators in the US who are also victims of the so-called entertainment industry and we try to form bonds with the honest people in that country. A great number of writers and filmmakers from the United States have come to our film festivals and book fairs even though Bush denies the right to travel to this island. I want to mention, at this point, that cultural exchanges with the United States have always been limited by the US administration, never by us. Quite the contrary, we have promoted by all means possible a dialogue with the best of US culture.

Tiempo: And, what makes Cuba different than the rest of the countries, in terms of culture?

Prieto: I would say that in other places the market sets the rules, in Cuba, we only use it to promote our culture internationally. We think that the market is a great enemy of culture and true art. In fact, in the last decade, when an artistic manifestation appeared with a critical sense, the market has always tried to mutilate it. That is why we only approach the market as a means of promotion, but without making any concessions. Our cultural policy is not decided by the market as happens in so many places, where the people may not know of a great writer or musician from their own country, but nevertheless know perfectly well the intimacies of Michael Jackson.

Tiempo: How does the US blockade affect the field of culture? What impact does it have on the cultural development of the country?

Prieto: It has a very harsh impact. For example, it would be much cheaper for us to buy the majority of supplies, beginning with musical instruments or materials for our art school, in the United States. But, because of the blockade we cannot. If we refer to the musical ambiance, it is impossible to calculate how much money we lose in the author's rights of our musicians. Cuban music, historically, has had an enormous traditional market in the United States.

What access to the US market represents for our state record companies and musicians is incalculable. The same is true in calculating the significance in economic terms the fact that our artists can not exhibit in the great art galleries and auctions in the United States. However, losses have not only been economic; there are also promotional losses. Today, unfortunately, the United States is essential and decisive for art promotion.

You cannot imagine the terrible things that many of our artists have had to experience, such as musicians like [Buena Vista Social Club star] Ibrahim Ferrer or [jazz great] Chucho Valdés who have been refused visas to the US [when invited to attend the Grammy Awards Ceremony] the Bush administration refused on the grounds that [the US] "considers them dangerous to the interests of national security." As if they were terrorists! Lastly, I'll mention that the US people are also victims, to a certain degree, from the blockade since they are denied access to the cultural message of Cuba.

Tiempo: In what context does the Battle of Ideas come about and what is its political, social and cultural significance?

Prieto: Well look, the Battle of Ideas arose in the context in the battle for the return of the little boy, Elián González who was kidnapped in Miami a few years ago. The entire population was shaken by this case and many artists and professionals of the world press and of culture participated, together with the people in massive actions demanding the return of the child.

This gave Fidel the idea of working towards developing the Cubans with an integral general culture and, at the same time, taking it to all the corners of the country. On the 150th anniversary of the birth of José Martí, he said that the main task of all honest people in the world was to

"plant ideas, plant consciousness" and to plant both inside the country and abroad.

For this reason, in contrast to the stupidity, barbarity and the law of the strongest that today intends to impose itself, worldwide, we try to defend the idea that another world is possible. Against the neo-liberal model, this fierce version of capitalism that reserves for a small minority the luxury of consumerism and excludes three-fourths of the population of the world, we propose the defense of the values of social justice and authentic democracy.

We believe that what should be globalized is not bombs or hatred but peace, solidarity, health, education for all, culture, etc. That is why, when our physicians go to help in other countries, although their mission is to work for medical attention, they are also bearers of our values and our ideas of solidarity.

This is the essence of the Battle of Ideas. We call Battle of Ideas a task of an ideological character that we have been conducting through various means, incorporating, of course, many young people. The current significance of the Young Communist Union (UJC) in the life of the country has great importance.

At the same time, the Battle of Ideas is very related to the thousands of social workers that we have formed to help the poorer sectors. Using art instructors, we have prepared throughout the island and with the use of new technologies of communication, we have to spread culture, education (today we have two educational TV channels) and also to transmit the truth about Cuba - through the Internet – to all parts of the world.

All this is part of the Battle of Ideas that today is more concentrated on what is happening in Venezuela and the solidarity model of collaboration that is being formed between this country and Cuba.

Tiempo: One of the subjects analyzed here has been the role of intellectuals and the estrangement that has grown progressively in relation to the Cuban Revolution. What do you think is the reason for this estrangement and the condemnations, in so many cases?

Prieto: I would say that it is very related to the intense work the Right has done to damage the critical function of the intellectual. If you take notice, today almost all the legitimate intellectual circuits are in the hands of reaction.

A lot of money has been invested to influence the intellectuals to abandon their positions of criticism of the system. I think that many have been contaminated with these codes and some, even, have been honestly confused by the defamation campaigns against Cuba. But others have stopped being what they were and have adapted.

In this sense, the Cuban Revolution reminds them of what they were when they were young and what they have given up. For this reason, the Cuban cause is disturbing, especially because it appears like a ghost that shames them and tells them that they have capitulated.

Anyway, this is very related to what we mentioned of the role of the market. I sometimes ask myself what happened to the protest songs of the 60s in the United States. What did the Americans do with those great songs of Bob Dylan or Joan Baez? The same has happened with rap, or hip-hop, that was born in the Black barrios of New York as a terrible shout of protest.

And all this authenticity and original rebelliousness of rap, that denounced racial discrimination and so many social problems have been gradually terminated by the market. Now they are promoting a light rap, like Eminem, that talks of sensuality, of sex, but has nothing to do with the roots of this manifestation. That is how the market works to remove what could hurt the system.

Tiempo: Moreover, aren't you afraid that with the opening up to tourism, a consumer mentality may be introduced in the Cuban population, mainly in the young people? Isn't there a risk that the values and ideals of the Revolution are being substituted by those of the market and capitalist societies?

Prieto: I think that the challenge has to be faced. In the globalized world we live in it is not possible to think of an utopian island surrounded by the great wall of China, in this case, a Cuban wall. This is absurd and, also, impossible.

The Cubans aren't in a test tube or in a kind of sterile area of a hospital. We are in this world and we must be aware that contamination will enter, always, from all parts. What we must do, therefore, is to prepare the people so that they can confront this contamination and that is done by early creating cultural habits, teaching them to think for themselves.

Today, the Martí phrase is more relevant where he says "to be cultured is the only way to be free". One is truly free when one is formed and has deep cultural references and also has a broad knowledge of the world in which he/she lives. Referring to this, I do not think that the solution must come through prohibition. This is not the route of our cultural and educational policy that, by the way, was explained succinctly by Fidel during the 60s: "We do not tell the people to believe but to read".

That is the essence of our cultural policy that has nothing to do with forming fanatics or fundamentalists but with forming persons who make a commitment with the Revolution through culture. That is why we show all the films that reach us by satellite and some - believe me - are really bad and unwholesome, but they are shown anyway. Because it is very important to prevent the Cubans to believe we are prohibiting products of this culture of the masses.

Our purpose must be, consequently, to try to achieve that the people be prepared to decide for themselves what to see. And I think that to face this challenge the key is in the quality of education, on the one hand, and the work of the mass media on the other. Fortunately, there are no private media in Cuba and we can use this to promote reading and boost our cultural plans. Something that cannot be done in other countries.

Tiempo: How are the current cultural relations between Cuba and Spain? Is there a possibility of improvement with the change of government occurring there?

Prieto: Clearly, during the government of José María Aznar everything was done to harm relations with Cuba, not only in the field of culture but in other fields. But it is also true, that against the authorities, there was always a cultural relationship between the two peoples and this, no government can block. There are, also, good relations with the Minister Carmen Calvo since she was a councilor in the Junta de Andalucía and I believe she is in favor of collaborating with us. For our part there are no obstacles.

What's more, we are interested in diversifying the cultural presence of the world in Cuba and, specially, the Spanish presence. We never politicize cultural relations; quite the contrary, we place special emphasis on having always a presence in our theaters and cinemas of European and universal culture. In any case, the next steps taken must be studied. I think it is still too early to observe changes in cultural relations between both countries and it would be irresponsible no to make a prediction about this.

Tiempo: How do you see the future? What importance to you find in the survival of culture and development of the Cuban Revolution?

Prieto: Look, Fidel has placed culture in the center of Cuban resistance. Today culture enjoys a protagonist's role and a social prestige in Cuba like never before.

I believe that this cultural importance must go hand in hand with a Cuba that has solved its material problems for the majority and that it be vaccinated against consumer propaganda. Now we are trying to achieve a more human socialism, if that is possible, but that does not mean that we are assuming patterns of consumerism.

We cannot design a future for the Cuban where every family has - as seen in the Yankee films - two cars, a pool, or a chalet. However, we can guarantee conditions of a decent life and at the same time a rich life in spiritual and cultural terms. It is a conception of culture as a form of growth and personal realization that is related to the quality of life. In this sense, we are convinced that culture can be an antidote against consumerism and against the oft repeated idea that only buying can create happiness in this world. I think that that is our goal.

Translation for CubaNews by Ana Portela, edited by Walter Lippmann

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