by Jesus Hernandez Cuellar
With the arrival of the Allied troops in Berlin, in 1945, Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda poisoned their six children and ordered their personal security guard to shoot them to death. Goebbels, who had a great genious for political propaganda, was the man who controlled the book industry, the print media, the fine arts, as well as music, radio and film production in Adolph Hitler's Germany. Goebbels mission was to make the world believe that the future belonged to Nazi-fascism.
In the summer of 1991, in the Soviet Union failed the last attempt to keep alive a 74-year-old regime which had created a huge propaganda machine, where culture played a prominent role. The Soviet Union became a multinational superpower with 360,000 libraries, over 1,000 museums, 3,000 radio stations, 8,000 newspapers, 130 important TV stations, 175,000 movie theaters and a book industry that published 8,000 volume and pamphlets annually in 50 languages. With this propaganda machine in motion, the Soviet Union set out to convince the world that the future belonged to Communism.
In Hitler's Germany as well as in the Soviet Union, writers and artists were imprisoned, confined to psychiatric institutions, hanged or executed by firing squads, for refusing to comply with the cultural policies of their governments.
Far from legendary Europe, in the Caribbean Sea, lies the island of Cuba, ruled by a political system that has used literature and the arts for the last 39 years, as a vehicle of ideological propaganda-- identical to that of the former Soviet bloc.
Fidel Castro's revolutionary victory of 1959 led to the establishment of Casa de las Americas, ICAIC (the Cuban Institute of Cinematography), UNEAC (Cuban Union of Writers and Artists), the National Ballet of Cuba and many other cultural institutions. The groundwork for this pattern, which has lasted almost four decades, was laid firmly in 1961 in Palabras a los Intelectuales, Castro's speech to intellectuals: "With the Revolution everything, without the Revolution nothing!".
Education and culture fell in the hands of Armando Hart in the 1960's. Hart, who acted as Minister of Culture until 1997, declared from the onset that "art is a weapon of the Revolution". This still rings true, even in today's hard times for writers and artists. Manuel Gayol Mecías, author of several books, including El Jaguar es un Sueño de Ambar (1992), Retablo de la Fábula (1989), left Cuba in 1994. He lives now in the United States.
"The projection of alleged cultural values helped the Cuban government present an image that differed from that of capitalism, similarly applied by the now defunct Soviet bloc. The difference appeared to be a "genuine" art and a "genuine" literature, where every creator had the opportunity to materialize his or her work," the writer says.Although the sponsorship of cultural activities began in the early years of the Revolution, in 1976 Castro's regime embarked upon an ambitious project for the comprehensive devolopment of the arts and literature. This meant that "basic cultural centers" were to be built in each of 200 municipalities across the island. These centers were: a museum, a cultural hall, a movie theater, an art gallery, a bookstore and a library. Writers, painters, designers, theater companies, dance groups and music bands participated. This massive cultural movement did not include professionals who had been active in Havana an other important cities in Cuba.
The regime's idea became, apparently, to spread culture across the country," says Gilberto Romero Jr., a Cuban painter who has lived in the United States since 1994. Romero became a victim of the government when he declared his desire to leave the island, in 1992. The government began to remove his work from museums and galleries, and prohibited his exhibits in Cuba.
Ileana Gonzalez Monserrat, a Cuban writer residing in the United States, has written a novel titled La Habana 1995. Gonzalez Monserrat emphasizes the political value of art and literature. She recalls that "Victor Hugo was one of the individuals most damaged Napoleon. From his exile in Belgium he developed a tremendous literary activity. With his satirical works, including Napoleon Le Petit, he could show that the Emperor was not a monster, but a defeatable man." She adds that Victor Hugo, however, "was nothing but a writer with the ability to influence the mind."Romero reinforces this concept by using the example of Jose Marti, the most revered hero from Cuba's fight for independence from Spain. Marti never abandoned his dedication to writing, in spite of his tenacious political activity. He was even concerned about writing for children, as in La Edad de Oro, a collection of children's stories.Gonzalez Monserrat believes that "the propaganda war concerning the current Cuban tragedy has been won by Castro, because he knows how to use writers and artists to spread his political ideas. Castro realized from the beginning, that art and literature would become a passport for his ideology."
Gayol Mecias also speaks about the price that Cuban writers and artists must pay if they wish to enjoy the opportunities provided by Castro, since they are expected to "acknowledge and spread the image of the Cuban regime as a benefactor."Gayol adds that "literature and art, both at a national and international level, received sponsorship only if they served the regime's poltical agenda against the United States."Castro's use of culture is not limited to massive projects, since it also extends to carefully designed public relations campaigns, with influential people like Ted Turner, owner of TBS and CNN; Nobel Prize winner for literature Gabriel Garcia Marquez, of Colombia, who has been given a house in a very exclusive neghborhood in Havana, and actor and producer Robert Redford, who has been linked to the distribution of the Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate. Many other celebrities have been Castro's guests in Havana.
Casa de las Americas, for example, has provided an unprecedented opportunity for hundred of left-wing foreign artists and writers to publish their work, through publications sponsored by this institution, as well as through its annual award, which has been presented for many years in Spanish, English, French and Portuguese.These activities are carried out by meeting certain conditions. Gayol Mecias, who worked as literary researcher for Casa de las Américas, added that "a book or artistic work could never receive an award, if it stood against the ideology of the Revolution."The same has occurred with the Latin American film and theater festivals in Havana, where hundred of theater and film productions participate, and with the Bienal de La Habana for plastic arts.
"It is well known, and we should acknowledge, that as artists and writers we have been, and still are, sensitive to social utopias. In reality, we are also aware that artists and writers represent a kind of avant-garde of the cultural world. This avant-garde has been, at least in Latin America, a kind of critical conscience," Gayol emphasizes.
"Generally speaking, in Cuba as well as in foreign countries, it is important to take into account the consensus of that intellectual conscience," the writer believes.Concerning this issue, Gonzalez Monserrat, a restless traveler, points to a critical issue: "Cuban organizations in exile, in spite of their economic power and good will, up to now have not been able to defeat Castro in his control over public opinion at an international level. It is sad for Cubans in exile, that a literary genious like Reinaldo Arenas died in such poverty and isolation in New York, in spite of the fact that his last novel, Antes de que Anochezca, as well as almost all his novels, serve as a testimony of the failure of Castroism. The Cuban exile community did not capitalize politically the fact that this man was a product of the Revolution, a farmer whose life was shaped by the Communist system-- a system that later turned against him for his literary work, his political convictions and his homosexuality."
Arenas received international recognition for his novels Celestino Antes del Alba, El Mundo Alucinante, as well as others. Some of his works were published in Europe, while he was imprisoned in Cuba. Arenas, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who resides in London, and Severo Sarduy, who died in Paris a few years ago, are the Cuban dissident writers best known outside the island. José Lezama Lima, recognized as the great master of contemporary Cuban literature, died in Cuba as an outcast.The writers best known in international circles as supporters of Castro's regime were Alejo Carpentier, who died in Paris while working as a diplomat for the Cuban government, and Nicolas Guillen, who died in Cuba as President of UNEAC.
The Cuban Theater
Yvonne Lopez-Arenal is a Cuban actress living in the United States since 1993. She is a graduate of the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana. Ms. Lopez-Arenal played the leading role in the film Cartas Desde el Parque. Recently, she directed Requiem por Yarini, a play by Carlos Felipe, at Los Angeles Theater Center (LATC).
According to Lopez-Arenal, in the early 90's in the Cuban capital alone, there were 18 professional theater companies, whose members earned salaries as actors, set designers, costume designers and directors. Half a dozen other theater companies operated in other provinces.
"It is a big shock to arrive in a foreign country and discover that there is no infrastructure that allows theater professionals to dedicate themselves exclusively to their craft," Ms. Lopez adds. She explained that in Cuba such an infrastructure has been collapsing, as a result of the economic crisis.
Ms. Lopez-Arenal notes how "horrible" the decade of the 70's was in Cuba for theater professionals, as the government demanded that the theater act as a vehicle for political propaganda."The so-called collective interests of society stood above the interests of the individual-- and the theater had to operate under these conditions," Ms. Lopez says.The actress refers to a period when the Cuban regime demanded that artists maintain a revolutionary image, and that such image be projected formally through a philosophy of the arts known as "Socialist Realism."It was during this period that hundred of actors, choreographers, dancers, directors and playwrights were expelled from official circles (the only professional circles available to them) following the famous I Congreso de Educacion y Cultura, which took place in 1971. It was during this Congress that the "Stalinization" of Cuban cultural activities was virtually decreed. What followed was a period of censorship of printed materials and perfomances as well as the prohibition of plays by Cuban authors such as Virgilio Pinera, Jose Triana and Anton Arrufat, and international literary figures such as Jean Paul Sartre, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter and others.Ms. Lopez-Arenal adds that in the mid 80's theater professionals had some opportunities to experiment with new artistic forms, and were able to carry out productions, that to some extent, were critical of the Cuban reality. "The idea that individuality was important was reclaimed, which led to teather productions involving human themes- not just society in general."In spite of this trend, even today, theater companies must present their projects for approval by the Performing Arts Council, before being allowed to stage a play. This Council has the power to approve or prohibit the presentation of theatrical works.
(Translated from Spanish by Marielena Montesino)
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