Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

CUBA: Cultural Prejudice Still Lingers

Dalia Acosta

HAVANA, Nov 7 2008 (IPS) - Political convenience, generation gap or Stalinist influence? Nearly 50 years after the triumph of the Cuban Revolution, it is still hard to discern why this country decided that rock, fashion, long hair for men and homosexuality were counter-revolutionary.

Although the worst times are over, and no one is now expelled from a university because of their sexual orientation, or because listening to the Beatles is regarded as a symptom of “ideological diversionism,” waves of intolerance come and go and prejudice still reigns in many circles of power.

“In spite of slightly more open attitudes to rock music and homosexuality in Cuba, and the fact that previous clear-cut outrages are a thing of the past, the situation has not yet been fully resolved,” journalist Ernesto Juan Castellanos, author of the book “El sargento Pimienta vino a Cuba en un submarino amarillo” (literally, Sergeant Pepper Came to Cuba in a Yellow Submarine), published in 2000, told IPS.

“There are still people, young and old, in leadership positions who have the same prejudiced, excluding mentality that prevailed in the 1960s,” Castellanos said in an e-mail interview.

“El diversionismo ideológico del rock, la moda y los enfermitos” (The ideological diversionism of rock, fashion and “sick” effeminate men) is the title of a lecture by Castellanos, delivered and debated at the non-governmental Criterios Theoretical-Cultural Centre on Oct. 31, as part of a cycle of lectures on “La política cultural del período revolucionario: memoria y reflexión” (roughly, Cultural Policies in the Revolutionary Period: Memory and Reflection).

The cycle is a direct result of the “e-mail war”, as a debate among intellectuals last year was dubbed. Its aims are to analyse past events, draw parallels with the present and, above all, counteract certain tendencies to maintain, or return to, misguided social and cultural policies.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro’s phrase “within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing,” defined the country’s cultural policy in 1961, and in a later speech he laid the foundations of a social policy that “lumped together homosexuals, criminals, ‘lumpens’ (riff-raff), layabouts, ‘elvispreslianos’ (Elvis Presley fans), bourgeois and counter-revolutionaries,” Castellanos said.

In that Mar. 13, 1963 speech, Castro openly criticised “long-haired layabouts, the children of bourgeois families,” roaming the streets wearing “trousers that are too tight,” carrying guitars to look like Elvis Presley, who took “their licentious behaviour to the extreme” of organising “effeminate shows” in public places.

“They should not confuse the Revolution’s serenity and tranquillity with weaknesses in the Revolution. Our society cannot accept these degeneracies,” Castro said, having also lashed out at certain religious practices, among other “vile habits” and “vices” of the past.

Because of his worries, “Fidel proposed a programme of labour as social prophylaxis, as a policy decision targeting sectors that were not necessarily counter-revolutionary, but were susceptible to being used by the enemy, or to falling under the influence of elements that rejected the Revolution,” Castellanos said.

In a way, the socialist revolution’s strategy to defend itself against U.S. aggression turned inwards, and reached the extreme of regarding any song in English as “a weapon of the enemy,” and rock music as a symptom of “capitalist alienation.”

So “Cuban rock music lovers, who were not necessarily Elvis Presley fans or effeminate, and weren’t even called ‘rockeros’ then, were tarred with the same brush as homosexuals and ‘lumpens’ of all levels,” said the journalist.

“And many of them received the same invective, incomprehension and proscription, ranging from social rejection and purges in the universities to internment in the UMAP (Military Units to Support Production) rehabilitation camps,” he said.

Castellanos’ lecture reviewed in detail a number of official documents and Cuban press articles from the 1960s and 1970s that embody the ideological platform of a policy that began to fade in the 1980s, and plunged into full-blown crisis with the break-up of the Soviet Union and the East European socialist bloc in the early 1990s.

In recent years, Cuban bands have organised events in honour of former Beatle John Lennon, who was murdered in New York in 1980, and a statue of him was erected in a Havana park, while rock groups have begun to appear on television. But only from within can one know what prejudice, discrimination and arbitrary measures still exist.

“What became of María’s Patio?” wondered writer José Miguel Sánchez, whose pseudonym is Yoss, at the debate sponsored by the Criterios centre. María’s Patio, a meeting place that cultural promoter María Gattorno ran for 17 years in a community cultural centre, closed in 2003 for what in public was called “reconstruction.”

However, the “reconstruction” has turned into the permanent closure of the Patio, where young people with long hair, tight black clothing, ear-rings and other garb disapproved of by Cuba’s “machista” culture used to gather. As so often in the past, Gattorno has been unwilling to talk about what happened, even after several years.

A number of other participants in the debate remarked that even today, it is difficult for rock bands to gain space on TV, radio stations still limit broadcasts of songs in English as a matter of policy, and the police are prejudiced against men wearing their hair long.

Although the revolution “no longer excludes anyone in principle, at the base of the pyramid, ‘rockeros’ and homosexuals are excluded and mistreated on a daily basis. The forces of law and order forcibly eject them from their meeting places on the streets of Havana, as if they were contemptible objects,” Castellanos told IPS.

In his view, “it is easy to understand why the police behave as they do, because it is society, first of all, that holds these prejudices. The media are also partly to blame, because they have never made the effort to integrate ‘rockeros’ or homosexuals into society.

“In some frequently broadcast TV ads, the ‘bad kids’, drug addicts and antisocial people have long hair, and a rock song is played as background music. It’s a vicious circle that never seems to end, and it is emotionally hurtful to part of the population,” he concluded.

Seeking the causes of these policies in what was politically convenient at the time would be “simplistic and ahistorical,” said Desiderio Navarro, the head of the Criterios centre. In his view, it is necessary to ask where the decisions came from, what generation promoted them and, above all, to look for the rise of Stalinist thought within the national culture.

After the passage of so much time, “the pluricultural nature of Cuban society has still not been fully accepted,” he said.

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