Civil Society, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Press Freedom

CUBA: Cultural Policy Debate Keeps Growing

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Feb 14 2008 (IPS) - More than a year after the outbreak of the so-called "e-mail war", the debate on cultural policy has not died down in Cuba. And although the issue is not addressed in the national media, the discussion continues, and is spreading to embrace other aspects of life in this socialist island nation.

Lectures, book launches, and the airing of works previously censored by national television have been occurring in recent months, less frequently and with a weaker public impact than many people would like, but systematically enough so that the call to dialogue is not forgotten.

"What’s happening shows how much we still need opportunities and spaces for this debate," psychologist Norma Guillard told IPS, following a talk on the portrayal of lesbians and gays by Richard Dyer, a professor of film studies at King’s College, University of London. Organised by the Criterios Theoretical-Cultural Centre, with the support of the International School of Film and Television in San Antonio de los Baños, the goal of the meeting was to promote theoretical reflection from the standpoint of culture on issues of sexual diversity and human rights, which are being raised in present-day Cuban society.

A second lecture by Dyer on the portrayal of race also promises an intense debate on the problem. While racial issues have been studied and analysed by a number of academics and intellectuals in Cuba, their conclusions have largely been filed away in dusty corners and have barely appeared in the national press or wider forums.

"If the socialist state controls the media, why does Cuban television veto counter-revolutionary humour, but air racist and homophobic jokes?" asked essayist Desiderio Navarro during the debate, which swung from media stereotypes to the conditions faced by the gay community in Cuba.

Playwright Norge Espinosa also voiced this contradiction. "Most campaigns are of a preventive nature, in which politically correct images of homosexuals are subordinated to moral concepts that, one way or another, are judgmental about homosexuals," he said.

"The problem is that we’re still talking about characters and stereotypes, and not about the person," Espinosa said. He pointed out that "Strawberry and Chocolate," the leading Cuban film to address the problems faced by homosexuals in this country, was not shown on Cuban television until nearly 15 years after its release.

Last year’s broadcast of Strawberry and Chocolate was one of the practical results of the "e-mail war", which among its many themes pointed out that over 20 major Cuban films had never been shown on national television, for one reason or another.

Months later, in August, a group of young filmmakers took up the controversy about video censorship, which had even vetoed some works that had been commissioned and financed by state companies.

"The lasting legacy of the 2007 e-mail debate is its expression of a need for reflection and renewal, affecting not only the problems inherent in creativity itself, but also the relationship of cultural workers and artists to the society in which they live and work," popular local writer Leonardo Padura told IPS.

When a Jan. 5, 2007 national television programme featured dark figures from a past era of rigid cultural and artistic censorship, the result was a chain reaction among Cuban intellectuals who created a historically unprecedented mechanism of communication, reflection and debate in the country.

Dubbed the "e-mail war" or "electronic forum", the flood of messages drew out many testimonies of censorship, prohibition and exile. But it also shifted the focus from raking over the past to examining the persistence of erroneous cultural policies in the present.

What became known as the "five grey years" in the early 1970s were really a much longer period, affecting all aspects of Cuban culture and thought, and the symptoms still endure, said many of the more than 200 e-mails and articles arriving in the IPS inbox in 2007.

After the initial outpouring, the debate expanded and has touched, to a greater or lesser extent, on the topics of art censorship, discrimination on the grounds of religion or sexual orientation, the distance between the media and reality, and the right of intellectuals to express opinions on any social issue in today’s Cuba.

A series of lectures on the "five grey years" organised by the Criterios Theoretical-Cultural Centre met one of the demands of the debate: to salvage the memory of the past, but to also use it as a means of reflecting on the present and the future.

Just over a year since the first lecture, held Jan. 30, 2007, Navarro has announced that by the end of February a book will be launched about the "five grey years" and their after-effects, titled "La política cultural del período revolucionario: memoria y reflexión" (roughly, Cultural Policies in the Revolutionary Period: Memory and Reflection).

"For the first time since the 1960s, after being prohibited for all those years, controversy and debate are occurring openly in the intellectual world which was always their rightful place," said Padura.

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