News and Facts about Cuba

Cuba’s Fallen Idols

Cuba’s Fallen Idols
June 10, 2014
Armando Chaguaceda

HAVANA TIMES — Some years ago, the death of an old professor who taught
at the of Havana unleashed a torrent of tears and praises
among his former students, who remembered him as an exemplary educator,
father and friend. Some even claimed he had taken a number of subversive
stances within the stifling context of his faculty that were worthy of

But the son of another intellectual from that generation that flourished
in the 60s – respected by the same people who venerated the late
professor, curiously enough – told the group of friends of which I was
part a diametrically opposed story about the deceased. He called him an
informer and an opportunist, and told us that, according to evidence
that had come to light, he was one of the people responsible for the
repression his father had suffered decades before.

Sometime later, on learning that Cuban institutions would be paying
tribute to this veteran intellectual, I expressed my gladness in a kind
of accolade I published in social networks. It wasn’t long before
another intellectual who was also living in Cuba at the time (and who
was younger than the first) expressed surprise over my enthusiasm. When
I asked him why he was surprised, he shared a private and devastating
testimony that attested to the lack of solidarity the celebrated
intellectual had shown towards him during a censorship process he had
endured. I was left speechless.

I would have dismissed these anecdotes as typical squabbles among
faculties had these individuals (whose names I shall not divulge, for
obvious reasons) not been intellectually valuable members of Cuba’s
post-revolutionary academic elite. What their stories confirm, however,
is how difficult it is to regard any intellectual career developed in
the front lines of Cuba’s institutional panorama – a context where
reasons of State penetrate artistic and intellectual circles – with
indulgent naivety.

Such an approach, at any rate, would presuppose balancing out the social
(or socialist) causes these thinkers alleged to have defended and their
contradictory relationship with the adverse and concrete consequences of
the system they bet on – the establishment and defense of an
authoritarian order.

It is from this perspective that I wish to address the opinions recently
expressed about the figure and legacy of Alfredo Guevara, following the
publishing of an excellent interview with the late cultural leader
conducted by Nora Gamez and Abel Sierra. There have been debates about
his identity (as intellectual and government official), his view of the
Cuban people (negative or optimistic), the reach of his critical thought
and his links to the Cuban State.

As regards the usefulness and sense of these polemics, there isn’t much
one can question: every thought can be subject to different and even
daring approaches, particularly when we are talking about the thought of
someone whose statements become diffused, without a clear direction, in
a series of recollections, interviews and compilations of texts*. What
each new fact that comes to light generates, ultimately, is renewed
interest in the enigmatic figure.

In Guevara, we find an author whose works rely more on enlightened
opinion than systematic reflection, a combination of ambiguous phrases
and postures. It is a legacy where the nexus between intellectual rigor
and social commitment gave birth to some rather bizarre creatures. I am
thinking of Guevara’s unusual defense of the controversial film
Guantanamera – a defense that involved explicit lamentations and silent
protest – or the more recent incident, when he incited the young to
fight for things which he, with more access to the country’s highest
authorities than anyone else – did not want to address.

I don’t believe we ought to turn Guevara into an ogre or a hero. Like
anyone who has pursued a career as an organic intellectual within Cuba’s
institutional networks, Guevara was jointly or directly responsible for
considerable achievements, secrecy, punishments and rewards. These are
the intellectuals who champion a “plausible debate” (capable of making
the most conservative members of the status quo uncomfortable) while
confirming the practical and discursive limits of such a debate. They
can certainly nurture and protect critical intellectuals and ideas, but,
ultimately and globally, they thwart the development of a living,
pluralistic social culture and thought that can have an impact on the
daily life of the nation and its people. This gives us more than enough
reasons to tear down the idol – one among many we have – that they would
make of Guevara.

Guevara’s decisions and attitudes in terms of cultural policy produced
valuable people and works, just as they left others without protection
or downright screwed. His aesthetic tastes breathed fresh air into a
film industry that was never once invaded by socialist realism, while
they blocked other tendencies, works and filmmakers with their authority.

He is not a henchman, but neither is he a redeemer. He is not a somber
bureaucrat, but neither is he an intellectual of the stature of other
organic thinkers such as Carlos Rafael Rodriguez** or Fernando Retamar.
Guevara represents that hybrid species that the cultural officer
represents (a Lunacharski rather than a Mayakovski), needed in
contemporary societies to mobilize public resources, protect artistic
creation and favor the consumption of a certain kind of art. Under the
specific conditions of State socialism, Guevara added to these the
duties of a vigilant cultural commissar.

I respect those who wish to do so, but I, facing the urgent needs of the
present and the political and cultural experiences we’ve accumulated in
a post-Soviet Cuba, find no way of transforming the late official and
his work into a cultural tradition we should turn to. Guevara may have
taken collective artistic creation under his wing, but so has the poet
Reina Maria in the course of these years, in spite of the censors, from
a rooftop, with far less support and surely with far more spirit than
the bulk of Cuba’s cultural institutions. So has Desiderio Navarro,
through the project Criterios, sustained by an exceptional mix of
erudition and agony by the polyglot translator and essayist.

Did Alfredo Guevara encourage novel social thinking? My impression is
that the studies and debates my generation conducted at Havana’
Marinello Center or the Almendares park (as well as other spaces we
improvised or set up at the periphery of official institutions) enjoyed
greater autonomy and were much fresher than the fora he authorized…at
least those I was personally able to attend. The list, from my point of
view, could be far longer.

Reading Guevara’s works and testimonies, I notice a number of reiterated
constants: fidelity to an abstract utopia prevailing over an assessment
of its results, an oracular and elitist perception of the people as they
are and a typically totalitarian mania of thinking himself in the
vanguard of the nation and its history. All of these things are burdens
we must shed if we wish to move forward towards new forms of civility
and social knowledge, for there is nothing as antithetical to republican
virtues as aristocratic propensity.

*The author of these lines has read Guevara’s collected correspondence Y
si fuera una huella (“If I Were Merely a Trace”) the books Revolucion es
lucidez (“Revolution is Lucidity”) and Tiempo de Fundacion
(“Foundational Times”) and a series of interviews published in printed
and digital media over the past fifteen years. I would be grateful for
any additional information that could make my perspective on the
author’s ideas more complex.

**The two-volume work Letra con filo (“Sharp Words”) is, in my opinion,
a masterpiece of socio-economic and political analysis which attests to
the intellectual stature of Carlos Rafael.

Source: Cuba’s Fallen Idols – Havana –

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