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Cuban Intellectuals Discuss the Transformation of the Public Sphere

The debate on the public sphere has cropped up again in Cuba this year. Credit: Jorge Luis Baños/IPS

HAVANA, Aug 6 2012 (IPS) - On discussion panels, by email and in the blogosphere, Cuban intellectuals are speaking out to bring a critical perspective and propose roads forward to national development. And they increasingly seem to be including the transformation of public space as one of their goals.

In response to a question from IPS about the social responsibilities of intellectuals today in this socialist island nation, art critic Juan Antonio García Borrero said they should “contribute to modernising the public sphere,” a collective space for social exchange that needs to be more “transparent and participatory.”

Borrero, whose blog “Cine cubano, la pupila insomne” (Cuban cinema, the sleepless pupil) was one of the first to emerge as part of the growing Cuban blogosphere, says these intellectuals stand out for being committed “to a systematic debate of ideas (about issues) that affect the men and women of our time,” with a view to the future.

Previously viewed as an isolated issue in the context of defining other problems, the question of public space was not addressed in these forums until this year.

In February, a panel discussed “The meaning of the public sphere in Cuba,” on the 40th anniversary of the Criterios Theoretical/Cultural Centre. Subsequently, in April, edition No. 68 of the magazine Temas was presented in Havana’s Granma printing complex, featuring articles on culture, ideology and society focused on communication and the public sphere.

The panel discussion organised by Desiderio Navarro, director of the Criterios Centre, brought together people with diverse viewpoints, such as Catholic layperson Roberto Veiga, blogger Yasmín Portales and writer Arturo Arango, who advocated a revival of citizen debate and greater acceptance of diverse opinions, especially contrasting ones.

Anthropologist María Ileana Faguaga highlighted the centre’s initiative as the first “attempt to address a socially indispensable issue, which has scarcely been discussed, or has been seen as taboo.” What is needed is genuine dialogue and a leap to more community-based spaces, Faguaga said in an interview with IPS.

As part of the economic and social changes led by the Raúl Castro government, authorities have called for citizen participation, something that peaked in early 2011 with debates that were held in neighbourhoods and workplaces around the country for correcting, expanding and changing the reform’s main policy document.

“The intellectual class can help to ground the government’s policy focuses, bringing them more into harmony with people’s real demands,” communicator Tamara Roselló told IPS. “It would be appropriate to open spaces for debate with a wider scope, to be able to root out old ideas and welcome others that are more contemporary and collective, “she said.

Intellectuals see the new information and communication technologies as providing “another window for dialogue,” because they make it possible to “share and disperse ideas,” Roselló said. However, this alternative is limited by scant Internet and email coverage in the country, she noted.

In Cuba, there were 2.6 million on-line users last year, a figure that includes people with access to a domestic “intranet,” Internet and email, according to the latest information from the National Office of Statistics and Information. In 2010, only 1.8 million of the island’s 11.2 million inhabitants had one or more of these services.

Intellectuals and professionals have instituted the practice of sending emails to lengthy mailing lists to denounce problems and circulate texts, open letters and statements, following a major email controversy that broke out in 2007 regarding Cuban cultural policy.

After a former cultural official appeared on national television on Jan. 5 of that year, artists and thinkers reacted with a wave of messages calling for a review of the period known as the “five grey years,” and for combating symptoms of that period that email senders said existed in the present.

The “five grey years,” which began in the early 1970s, was a period that actually covered more than five years and was marred by censorship and intolerance of any form of artistic or cultural expression that differed from the official orthodoxy. Artists were also discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, and for other reasons.

The unprecedented 2007 debate, dubbed the “war of the emails” and the “electronic town square,” also touched on a diversity of other issues in the more than 200 messages and articles that came into IPS’s email inbox during that time. One such issue was the right of intellectuals to express an opinion about any issue in Cuban society today.

When the wave of messages broke, triggering a series of lectures and the publication of books on the subject, young researcher Lázaro Israel Rodríguez had been working for just a few years. “The question of what is public, without confusing it with what belongs to the state, is indispensable in thinking about intellectuals and their social role in Cuba,” says Rodríguez, who specialises in public policy.

In his opinion, one of the tasks for the intellectual community is “breaking historic tensions of social exclusion based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual preference, political affiliation, creed, class, background or residency,” problems that are given little space on the agenda in mass spaces for citizen debate on the island.

Experts say that one challenge for strengthening the Cuban public sphere is making it possible for dialogue about discrimination that hurts and divides society to go beyond professional and academic circles and spread to the communities.

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