Tag Archives: The Arts

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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THE BUENA VISTA ECONOMIC EFFECT

A genre of music once sidelined as “A decadent relic of the past” that came back to “Rescue” *   the Revolution.

 By Anthony Smith, December 14, 2015

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Buena Vista Social Club, the musical phenomenon that initially captured the world’s attention around 1997, is in the midst of its final world tour. Although several of the stalwarts of the group have since passed away, the remaining members, along with an injection of new blood are giving fans a good show. The unlikely rise of these musicians came at the height of the special period, giving Cuban cultural tourism an unexpected boost when it was limping along following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although Cuba has always punched above its weight in the area of music, this was the most improbable of scenarios at a time of utter desperation.

The success of Buena Vista on multiple fronts (CD, concerts and a documentary), led a lot of individuals across the world to visit Cuba. On the island, Cubans themselves knew little about Buena Vista, and the younger generations were largely indifferent to the music. Cuban musicians were initially surprised by foreign tourists requesting songs that they did not know, but they quickly caught on, learning songs like “Chan Chan.” There was also a boom in new groups forming to play exclusively for tourists, though it soon became obvious that they had a repertoire that was largely limited to the ones made popular by Buena Vista Social Club. They could play hits from the past like “Quizas, quizas,” but not “Me voy pa’l pueblo” or “La runidera” because they were not among those that the members of Buena Vista had included in their various albums.

Now largely unknown by many and overlooked by a few, is the reasoning that led these musicians into obscurity. Throughout history, revolutions have upended societies and sought to reshape them, and Cuba was no different. There is little doubt that Cuba needed a revolution in 1959. The existence of a mafia state, gambling, rampant corruption, abject poverty, drugs and prostitution created conditions ripe for sweeping change. As relations with the US deteriorated, Cuba entered a degree of isolation, defections and a looming cold war that changed everything internally. Music, art and culture were soon expected to toe the party line. The worst times were in the so called “El quinquenio gris,” a five year gray period (1968-73) where there was severe repression in the arts and culture. The air of uncertainty led writers, poets, artists and musicians to play it safe in their work, for fear of running afoul of rules and regulations that were deliberately ill-defined to create an atmosphere of indecision and self- censorship.

Looking back, there is little doubt that the arts were unfair victims of this purge. State resources were directed towards other, newer forms of music. The individuals that had burgeoning careers in pre- Castro Cuban and remained in Cuba were sidelined as the revolution sought to create new sounds. Ruben Gonzalez said that he had not played a piano in well over a decade at the time he was invited to play for Buena Vista Social Club. Ibrahim Ferrer was for all intents and purposes retired, shining shoes to make some extra money. Compay Segundo had composed the song “Chan Chan” as early as 1987, but did not get the chance to record it in studio until 1995. This is not to say that Cubans were devoid of musical choices. A lot of new artists like Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes did emerge, as did forms of music like Nueva Trova and Timba, but their emergence came at the expense of the older musicians that had established careers in 1959.

A lot of criticism has been directed at the lack of authenticity of Buena Vista Social Club, and it’s over reliance on marketing and neo-colonial nostalgia for the past. However valid that criticism may be, when it comes down to the dollars and cents, Buena Vista beat Timba, Nueva Trova, Latin Jazz, Reggaeton and all others as a selling point. If anything, Cuba failed to fully capitalize on the Buena Vista craze at its peak over a decade ago. Commemorative and limited edition T-shirts, cups, rum, coffee and even cigars would have brought in additional millions in revenue from foreign tourists.

Finally, it should not be forgotten that Buena Vista Social Club happened in spite of, and not because of the Cuban revolution.

*The word “Rescue” is frequently used to describe attempts to resuscitate and rebuild various parts of Cuban society in the economic decline that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Anthony Smith is an amateur Cuban historian and lover of all things Cuba. He has made his living as a consumer rights advocate, a professional fundraiser, a political activist and in the food service industry

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