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TO BE A WRITER IN CUBA

Yvon Grenier

Literal: Latin American Voices, April 2016

 Original Article: To be a writer in Cuba

Y wwwww wwwwwwThe methodology of Leonardo Padura

Soy un escritor, en lo fundamental, de la vida cubana, y la política no puede estar fuera de esa vida, pues es parte diaria, activa, penetrante de ella; pero yo la manejo de manera que sea el lector quien decida hacer las asociaciones políticas, sin que mis libros se refieran directamente a ella. De verdad, no la necesito ni me interesa, pero, en cambio, me interesa muchísimo que mis libros puedan ser leídos en Cuba y que la gente pueda dialogar con ellos.

 Leonardo Padura Cubaencuentro, 19 December 2008

“People think that what I say is a measure of what can or can’t be said in Cuba,” Leonardo Padura once stated in an interview with Jon Lee Anderson.  In fact, what he says is a measure of what he—along with some other Cuban writers or artists—is allowed to say in Cuba. It is a privilege, not a right.  Lesser authors who don’t enjoy his international fame (and Spanish passport) probably couldn’t have published a book like El hombre que amaba los perros, as he did in 2010, a year after it was edited in Spain by Tusquets. In fact, the book probably wouldn’t have appeared at all in Cuba decades or even years ago, which makes him the beneficiary (and the confirmation) of a recent openness. The government grants Padura some recognition (he won the National Literature Prize in 2012), as well as some privileges commonly bestowed on successful writers and artists: he can travel and publish abroad, and he can accept monetary compensation in foreign currency. But he is kept in a box. His books are nearly impossible to find on the island. The prestigious awards and accolades he is receiving abroad are mostly glossed over by the Cuban media. Finally, his insightful but politically cautious journalism is read all over the world, but not in Cuba (save for a few exceptions).

Numerous times Padura has made clear his desire to live in the house his father built in Mantilla, a working class municipality on the outskirts of Havana. He sometimes signs his articles, “Leonardo Padura, Still in Mantilla.” He also wants to be a “Cuban writer,” and as such, he feels he has “a certain responsibility because our reality is so specific and so hard for many people.” A genuine writer cannot be a mouthpiece for the government. Padura’s success in conciliating these two potentially conflicting ambitions—to be a writer who lives and work in Cuba—is, as John Lee Anderson put it, “a tribute both to his literary achievement and his political agility.” Blogger Yoani Sánchez wrote, “His ‘rarity’ lies fundamentally in having been able to sustain a critical vision of his country, an unvarnished description of the national sphere, without sacrificing the ability to be recognized by the official sectors. The praise comes to him from every direction of the polarized ideological spectrum of the Island, which is a true miracle of letters and of words.” This is why Padura is often seen as a sort of experiment on how to express freedom in a land bereft of freedom of expression.

Conclusion

Rather than pushing for more room for expression, Padura’s method seems to be to occupy all the space available without crossing any red lines. This has allowed him to elude the fate that befell so many writers in Cuba. His criticism of many aspects of Cuban society is achieved without directly addressing the political system in Cuba. This method works, in the sense that it provides him with basic guidelines to practice his métier in Cuba. Padura is not an exponent of the “art for art’s sake” viewpoint. He wants to talk about the “reality” in Cuba, but without acting like an activist for change. He cultivates a “practice of social and human introspection that occasionally reaches politics, but that does not part from there..” But one wonders, what happens when it comes to politics, “cuando llega a la política”? The answer is: not much, because he can’t go there and continue living and working in Mantilla. Living and working in Cuba is most valuable not only for him, but also for his readers. In one of his essays entitled “I would like to be Paul Auster,” he complains that he would love not to be constantly asked about politics in his country and how and why he continues to live there. But this is very much his niche: he is widely seen as the best writer in Cuba. He offers us an off-the-beaten path view of a relatively closed society, one that is free of propaganda if not entirely free tout court. No writer could attain global respectability producing a prose laden with official propaganda. By occupying a small but significant critical space in Cuba, Padura becomes more interesting for Cuba observers and more intriguing for students of cultural and literary trends on the island. In this sense, he may be compared to authors and artists who produce somewhat critical material under dictatorial regimes, like Ismael Kadaré (Albania-France) or Murong Xuecon (China) —he is closer, in fact, to the former than the latter.

In sum, Leonardo Padura found a sweet spot that has allowed him to navigate the tumultuous waters of censorship while searching for (and finding) his own voice. He has managed to become, as one observer wrote, “perhaps the foremost chronicler of the island.” Does he (and do his readers) pay too high a price for his privilege to write “from Mantilla”? Would he be more valuable to us, and a better writer, in exile?

Continue Reading: Yvon Grenier, TO BE A WRITER IN CUBA

Yvon Grenier teaches and writes on Comparative politics, Latin American politics (esp. Cuba, Mexico and Central America), Art /literature and politics, as well as political violence.He is also a Contributing Editor for Literal  as well as an occasional  political commentator for Radio Canada/CBC. His Twitter is @ygrenier1

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CONFERENCE PROCEEDINGS, ASCE 2014

The papers presented at the 2014 Conference of the Association for the Study of the Cuban Economy are now available.

Cuba in Transition: Volume 24: Papers and Proceedings of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Meeting.

The papers listed below are hypewr-linked to directly to their respective file on the ASCE web site.

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Not Free But Comfy: Cuban Art Between State and Market

Yvon Grenier

 Original Article from Literal: Reflections, Art and Culture:  Pensamiento, Arte y Cultura here:  Not Free But Comfy: Cuban Art Between State and Market

aaMore Equal than Others

 Successful artists (painters, sculptors, and performers) are part of the wealthiest 1 percent of the population in Cuba. For two decades, they have been able to sell their works abroad, even to Americans (art is not covered by the US embargo). Cuban art is mostly for export and it is a lucrative business. Artists who play by the rules have been able to leave and return to their country, on their own, for two decades. Ordinary Cubans were only granted this basic universal right (see Art.13 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) last January, and “exiled” Cubans are still denied the right to return to the island.

 In art, as in other forms of expression, everything is permitted in revolutionary Cuba. Except when it is not. As Fidel Castro proclaimed in 1961, in a famous speech to intellectuals, “Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing.” The Constitution stipulates: “Artistic creation is free, as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution. The forms of expression in the arts are free.” Form and content are hard to dissociate in the visual arts. So, who is to make the call on “form” and “content,” and who figures out what is acceptably “within” La Revolución and what is not? Answer: La Revolución herself, that is to say, en dernière instance, Fidel and his brother Raúl.

 Since 1959 the ambitious goal of the new regime in Cuba has been to create “a new man in a new society.” Official documents talk about La Revolución as “the most important cultural fact of our history.” By and large, in this “new society” the range of what can be expressed has been reduced, which has hurt creativity, but the array of cultural activities accessible to the population in general has expanded in many areas, namely in music, visual arts and performing arts. The Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA-1976), for instance, produced many very well trained artists, who went on to have successful national and international careers. It is the only graduate school solely for the arts in Latin America. Many, perhaps most of the ISA’s graduates now live in exile.

 The visual arts are mostly for the happy few and they are typically less ideationally explicit in their “content” than other artistic or cultural forms. Consequently, in Cuba as in many other non-democratic countries, the government can cut visual artists a little slack. Visual artists have more “space” for expression than, say, writers or popular singers, who in turn enjoy a bit more leeway than academics. Nobody is less free than a journalist in Cuba. In other words, Cubans are all equal, in being denied their “right to freedom of opinion and expression” (Art.19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights), but some are more equal than others.

 New Cuban Art

 Visual artists who have been working within institutional channels have tested the borders of the permissible more often than most other actors in the cultural field. The trend really started during the 1980s, when young painters such as Flavio Garciandia, Tomás Sánchez, José Manuel Fors, José Bedia, Gustavo Pérez, Ricardo Rodríguez, Leandro Soto, Israel León, Juan Francisco Elso, and Rubén Torres challenged the dominant revolutionary didacticism of the previous decade. They were not unlike the painters of the Generación de la ruptura in Mexico (Alberto Gironella, Vicente Rojo, José Luis Cuevas, Vlady, Pedro Coronel), who defied their own dominant ‘socialist realist’ tradition (Mexican muralism) during the 1950s.

 The exposition Volumen Uno in January of 1981 in Havana officially inaugurated the so-called “New Cuban Art.” For painter Flavio Garciandia: “When we did Volumen Uno we were very, very conscious of the fact that the ‘state of the arts’ in Cuba was just awful, precisely because of those ideas of programmatic contentism [contenidismo programático]. We knew that Volumen Uno was a political exhibition… very polemical, precisely because we were positioning the problems in another part, not in the ‘content’–we had a completely distinct focus and in that moment this was practically a political challenge. . . Given the circumstances of the context, it was an exhibition that was proposing… art as a totally autonomous activity, not as a weapon of the Revolution as the Constitution says.” This (relative) “autonomy” opened up new artistic possibilities. Arguably, it made it easier for artists to eschew controversial issues or events, such as the tragedy that took place only eight months earlier: the 1980 Mariel boatlift, in which 125,000 people left the country (among them many artists and intellectuals). No reference to this exodus (and the shameful actos de repudio that accompanied it) is made in Volumen Uno.

 The emergence of the New Cuban Art coincided with the twilight of the Cold War and the deepening of globalization in the field of art. The Soviet Union (and its annual four billion dollars-a-year subsidy to Cuba) came to an abrupt end and Cuba was forced to open up to market forces. Meanwhile, in the art world, the Post Cold War era saw the début of numerous new Biennials, far away from the traditional capitals of global art: i.e. Sharjah, UAE (1993), Shanghai (1996), Mercosur (Brazil, 1997), Dak’art (1998) and Busan (Korea 1998). The first Havana Biennial (1984) can be seen as an early manifestation of this trend, in addition to being the only one operated by a socialist country. In the new global market for art, the purported anti-imperialist and anti-consumerist mission of the Havana Biennial offered a refreshing choice for multicultural or postcolonial curators and critics, and a thrilling one for decadently rich consumers. For instance, in 1990 the German chocolate magnate and art collector Peter Ludwig acquired more than two thirds of the exhibition of contemporary Cuban art ‘Kuba OK,’ in addition to many other famous works of the artists of the 1990s generation.

aaaArt and the new Gatekeeper State

 The 1980s generation (especially during the second half of the decade) was arguably more audacious and politically driven than the subsequent ones. But most prominent members of this generation left the country at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. The artists who stayed in the country found a comfort zone, negotiating the terms of their subordination with what political scientist Javier Corrales calls the new “gatekeeper” state: e.g. a state that “decide[s] who can benefit from market activities and by how much.” Thus, the cultural field offered a testing ground for the kind of “segmented marketization” and limited liberalization of subsequent years, when brother Raúl inherited the presidency.

 Artists quickly learned to deal with the international market, giving it what it wants: Cubanía products, with muted and aestheticized political overtones that make both the artist and the viewer feel astute, all of which transacted with the global language of art of the time (mainly conceptual art and arte povera). For all the talk about postmodern art in Cuba, the country is literally stuck in modernity, with primary concerns about national identity, sovereignty, material well-being, basic freedom and security. These modern concerns are omnipresent in New Cuban art, where they are at once localized and transcended by postmodern aesthetics. This confers New Cuban Art a trendy “glocal” cachet that simultaneously insinuates and defuses “content.”

 Cuban artists are masters of double entendre and detachment (parody, irony, sarcasm, and pastiche). They know what the taboos are: play with the chain but not with the monkey; don’t challenge La Revolución and its metonymic association with the Castro brothers. (About Fidel: according to Andrés Oppenheimer, in the early 1990s the guidelines were revised: “it was forbidden to show him standing next to anybody taller or to show him eating, and it was forbidden to divulge any information on his personal life.”) Yet, the global market likes its Cuban art with a dash of political irreverence. The regime can afford to appear open-minded since it is largely inconsequential on the island.

Even though artists are pretty shrewd when guessing the “parameters,” it is still perilous to “play with the chain.” Expositions have been censored and cancelled; artists are reprimanded and sometimes jailed. The performance artist Angel Delgado got six months in jail for publicly defecating on a copy of the daily Granma, during the exhibition “El objeto esculturado” (1989). According to Luis Camnitzer, the exhibition at the Castillo de La Real Fuerza in February of 1989 was closed “when it was found to include a portrait of Fidel Castro in drag with large breasts and leading a political rally, and Marcia Leiseca, the vice minister of culture, was relocated to the Casa de las Américas.” Artists have been castigated for speaking their mind on the public issues (most recently, for instance, the painter and sculptor Pedro Pablo Oliva lost his studio and his seat in the provincial assembly). Admittedly, it is not simple for outsiders (such as this author) to fully appreciate the day-to-day courage of individuals who strive to work and live under very difficult circumstances in the country of their choice: their own.

Continue reading:  Not Free But Comfy

Yvon_Grenier_PhotoYvon Grenier

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Human rights should be an integral part of Canada’s Cuba policy

Human rights should be an integral part of Canada’s Cuba policy

February 19, 2013 By YVON GRENIER /TheChronicleHerald.ca

The Harper government has been distinctly forceful in its recent statements on human rights violations in the world. One peculiar exception to this rule has been Cuba.

After a few impromptu comments years ago by the former junior minister for the Americas, Peter Kent, on the dictatorial nature of the Cuban regime, our government (in particular, Mr. Kent’s successor, Diane Ablonczy) has issued nothing but optimistic comments on the “process of economic reform and liberalization in Cuba” (Ablonczy, January 2012).

And yet, my colleague Peter McKenna is worried that Foreign Minister John Baird may “press the Cubans hard on the human rights front” during his visit to Havana (re: “Canada should engage Cuba,” Feb. 16 opinion piece).

Prof. McKenna does not elaborate on the issue of human rights violation in Cuba, so let me quote Human Rights Watch: “Cuba remains the only country in Latin America that represses virtually all forms of political dissent.” As HRW documents in great detail, the Cuban government “enforces political conformity using harassment, invasive surveillance, threats of imprisonment, and travel restrictions.”

Human rights organizations in Cuba and abroad have reported an increase in the number of arbitrary detentions for political reasons over the past year (up to more than a thousand a month). Shouldn’t our government condemn that publicly, and depart from a long bipartisan policy of silence on Cuba? After all, we constantly issue statements about human rights violations abroad.

To mention a few examples, last fall, in addition to well-publicized statements on Iran and Syria, the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade issued statements to the effect that the government of Canada “has repeatedly called on the Belarusian authorities to uphold democratic principles, respect for human rights and the rule of law” (Sept. 25). It also urged “swift resolution of all outstanding issues” in Sudan and South Sudan, and proclaimed to be “deeply troubled by the reported Sept. 25 travel ban of former President Nasheed in Malé, Maldives” — this prompting Minister Baird to “directly raise the persecution of 19 other Maldives Democratic Party politicians and party officials to President Waheed today” (Sept. 28). Canada also stood “strong as a supporter of the Ukrainian people as they seek to build a nation based on democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law” (Oct. 2).

Why are we not using the same language on Cuba?

We are right to oppose the U.S. embargo (not a “blockade”), like most other countries on Earth: There is nothing distinctly Canadian in that policy. But the U.S. embargo is not the main obstacle to democratization in Cuba: The current Cuban regime is.

Here we can take Europe as a model. It has both diplomatic and commercial relations with Cuba, but it routinely speaks up against human rights violations on the island. The European parliament awarded the Sakharov human rights prize to two Cuban human rights activists (Oswaldo Paya in 2002 and Guillermo Farinas in 2010) and to the Ladies in White (2005), a group of women whose husbands are jailed in Cuba. The recent detention of another activist, dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, was condemned by the EU, the U.S. and several Latin American governments. But not by Canada.

Cuba is the last dictatorship in the Americas, a region that is supposedly a foreign policy priority of this government. Canadians expect their government to be a leader in the human rights field. No exception.

Yvon Grenier is a professor of political science, St. Francis Xavier University.

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International

Cuba-Venezuela Relations

Rolando Castaneda, LA AYUDA ECONÓMICA DE VENEZUELA A CUBA: SITUACIÓN Y PERSPECTIVAS. ¿ES SOSTENIBLE? – Misceláneas de Cuba (18 August 2009)


Cuba-Canada Relations

Rachel Pulfer, “Castro’s Favourite Capitalist” (Will Sherritt International come to regret dealing with Communist Cuba? CEO Ian Delaney doesn’t think so) The Walrus, Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Lana Wylie, Reassessing Canada’s Relationship with Cubain an Era of Change, Canadian International Council, October 2009.

Cristina Warren, Retooling Canada’s Cuba policy for the post-Castro era, Vanguard, Canada.s Premier Defense and Security Magazine, May 2008 A

No cigar on Cuban relations, John M. Kirk and Peter Mckenna. The Globe and Mail. Montreal, Monday, June 4, 2001

Canadian Centre for Foreign Policy Development, Report from the Round Table on Canada Cuba Relations (CCFPD), Ottawa, Canada, January 18, 2000

YVON GRENIER, Our Dictatorship: Canada’s Trilateral Relations with Castro’s Cuba, Vanishing Borders: Edited by Maureen Appel Molot and Fen Osler Hampson. Oxford Univesity Press, 2000.


Cuba- China Relations

Yinghong Cheng, Beijing and Havana: Political Fraternity and Economic Patronage, The Jamestown Foundation, China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 9, April 30, 2009

Daniel Erikson, CUBA, CHINA, VENEZUELA: NEW DEVELOPMENTS, Cuba in Transition, ASCE, 2005


Cuba-European Union Relations

Council of the European Union, Council conclusions on Evaluation of the EU Common Position on Cuba, 2951st External Relations Council, Luxembourg, 15 Juin 2009

Joaquín Roy, The Attitude of the European Union and Spain Towards Cuba: An Assessment A Year After Castro’s Illness, WP 38/2007, Real Instituto Elcano, Madrid, 4/9/2007

Joaquín Roy, From Stubbornness and Mutual Irrelevance to Stillness and Vigil on Castro’s Crisis: The Current State of European Union-Spain-Cuba Relations, WP 16/2006, Real Instituto Elcano, Madrid, 31/08/2006

Christian Freres, An Overview of the Linkages Between Spain’s Regions and Cuba, Background Briefings (RFC-05-02), FOCAL, Canada, 2005

Joaquín Roy, The European Union Perception of Cuba: From Frustration to Irritation, Background Briefings (RFC-03-2) FOCAL Canada, September 2003

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