I often pondered this question when I was in Cuba. While there, I was able to attend the 24th International Festival of the Book in Havana, one of the largest book festivals in Latin America, founded in 1982. For ten days, the city diverts buses from their regular commuter routes to transport thousands of Haberneros to the festival site at the medieval La Cabaña fortress across the bay from central Havana. Launches are held all over Havana at cultural centres, libraries, and bookstores. (Cuba boasts more than 500 bookstores and I kept seeing them all over Havana.) Families flock to La Cabaña on weekends; school children attend readings during the day in all parts of the city as part of the curriculum. Publishers come from all over the Spanish-speaking world. After Havana, the festival goes on the road, with stops in every major city in the country. Many Cubans buy their books for the whole year at the festival.
At this year’s festival 850 new works in social science and literature were launched, and two million copies were sold. I can attest to the people who carried armloads of books up to the till for purchase and the long lines formed throughout the festival site. For a city of 2.2 million people, that’s an astonishing number of readers. Ah, I thought my day at the festival, if I were an writer in Cuba, I would have an adoring public.
Visual artists occupy a similar status. Havana boasts 22 galleries and at least 11 theatres. I visited several studios and workshops of painters, sketchers, and silkscreen masters. Their work seems fresh and inspired, and perhaps because of the political situation, they seem to have mastered the genre of the abstract. Theatre seems to occupy a similar status. I had the opportunity of attending a showing of Rent, the first full Broadway musical in Cuba in more than 50 years. It was a stunning show, on par and as professional a production as I’ve seen anywhere, including New York. I was reminded of a Chilean friend’s comment to me thirty years ago, when I visited his country and expressed naive surprise at the high education levels of the population, the presence of so much quality literature and music: “We are an economically underdeveloped country, not a socially underdeveloped one.”
But there is another side to this, both practical and political. Books published in Cuba are worth about 10 to 20 pesos in moneda nacional; that’s between 50 cents and one Canadian dollar. A folklorist I met my first day in Cuba told me that a Cuban publisher had asked her to write a book on traditional folk songs, but she would be lucky to make a peso a book on the project. She declined. Her clothes, while stylish and carefully matched for colour, were torn along the seams in places, buttons missing, and were likely third or fourth hand. She works as an arts administrator in the city. I couldn’t help but think of our arts administrators too, with low pay and long hours.
Writers and writing have been tightly controlled in Cuba. As recently as last summer, Cuban poet Rafael Alcides Perez, considered one of Latin America’s most renowned living poets, publically resigned his membership in UNEAC, the government-sanctioned writers and artists association in Cuba, because his books (published abroad) were not allowed into the country. An early member of UNEAC, in recent years he has been vocal about the country’s issues. While I was at the festival, I heard the Cuban American, Uva de Aragón, read from her novel about the experience of Cuban-American exiles in Miami. While she was allowed to attend the festival, she wasn’t allowed to sell or leave her books behind.
Media outlets are government monitored and controlled. This becomes evident when you watch the 8 o’clock national news as I tried to most nights. While there are interesting stories from other parts of Latin America that often don’t make our newscasts in the northern hemisphere, much of what is reported on internally is news of the Party more than a debate of the issues. This pattern transfers to the internet too. Very few Cubans can afford or are allowed access to the Web. You will find cable television with CNN and internet access in many high end hotels, and you might be allowed unfettered access to the Web for research purposes if you are an academic, but the general population cannot dream of this privilege.
Finally, La Cabaña itself, in the early days of the Revolution was the site of a notorious political prison. Most of those held here were former members of the brutal Batista regime, but not all. There were many, perhaps hundreds, of executions without trial. One might say that this was understandable, given the history and the war. But Cuba has had its own concentration camps, the Isle of Pines, for example, where stories of prisoner abuse were on par with those of Russian gulags. With 57,000 inmates (by 2012 numbers), Cuba has one of the highest prison populations in the world. There are those in for the standard crimes: drugs, murder, theft. There are those who are arrested for having no job and keeping bad company, what the system calls “pre-criminal dangerousness.” Finally there is a third category, political prisoners, less than in previous years now that they can choose exile, but according to Human Rights Watch, at least “dozens.” Dissidents, bloggers and journalists among them, are still harassed, either through public shaming, the termination of employment or arbitrary arrests without trial. I encountered a small hint of this while I was in Cuba. My folklorist friend told me in a lowered voice that she was invited to join and even publish with a group of dissident writers in the city, but where would that leave her? she asked, hinting there would be consequences she and her family could not afford. I wondered what I would do in similar circumstances.
It was these whispered conversations, though, the fact that they are taking place at all, that gave me hope for change. While in Cuba, I often found my travel to a destination and not the destination itself the most revealing. I had conversations with other writers, teachers, painters, musicians, taxi drivers, people I met on the bus and in the street along the way, that gave me the sense that Cubans on every side of the debate about US-Cuban relations are holding their breath, wanting to believe but waiting to see if their future will be different.
I left with the sense that this moment in Cuba is a beautiful and fragile one, that social development has continued in spite of political repression, and its urgency made only more acute by being drawn against the canvas of a vibrant cultural life. Oh, that artists could play as important a role in the social fabric of my own country!
As I shouted out !Bravo! with the rest of the audience the night I saw Rent, I want to shout out !Bravo! to all who write, paint, act, sing and speak. Sigue marchando adelante. Continue marching forward.