Since the social outbreak that occurred in Cuba on July 11, where heterogeneous groups took to the streets to demonstrate with dissimilar claims, a ping pong game has exacerbated between locals and foreigners, where categories like “people,” “nation” and “culture” would seem to be a small ball in the shape of an entelechy that passes from field to field. And they are not.
In the midst of all this, forced to “clean up” my saturated email box, I find an exchange of emails with Cuban philosopher and professor Fernando Martínez Heredia (Yaguajay, January 21, 1939-Havana, June 12, 2017).
The emails are from October 2008 and correspond to a back and forth of corrections after a long interview made, with my colleague Yelanys Hernández Fusté, with the National Prize for Social Sciences at his home, on a Havana afternoon.
The work tried to shed some light on the concepts of “people,” “nation” and “culture” in Cuba and the challenge of young people half a century after the triumph of the 1959 Revolution. The interview was to be published in the pages of Juventud Rebelde newspaper, where my colleague and I were working at the time, but, although the text went to layout and was ready to come out in a Sunday edition, it never saw the light. It was in 2011 -regarding the 20th International Book Fair in Cuba – dedicated to the figure and work of Fernando Martínez Heredia, that the philosopher himself included that interview in a book entitled A viva voz, published in his honor by the Ciencias Sociales publishing house. Today that book, like others by Fernando, is hardly available.
Now, after almost 15 years and in the midst of the recent events in Cuba, I reread the emails, the interview and some notes on the margin that I took at that time.
“We have to develop the ideal of living and dreaming here, together,” the dear professor replied in one of those emails when I asked him for advice on the participation of young people in the current Cuban socio-political process. Before, he had made it clear to us: “I don’t like giving advice to young people. I prefer to have the satisfaction of seeing how they discover for themselves what to do.”
I feel as if Fernando, who assumed Cuba as his circumstance and wrote from it, is challenging us from his ideas, his books and his unquestionable contributions to the Social Sciences, not only in Cuba but in Latin America. His gaze and his work are tools as everyday as they are unavoidable to understand the island in all its times and nuances.
I now share an excerpt from that lengthy conversation. Perhaps this fragment could be one of the compasses at this time in Cuba and its complex realities. Above all, it can help us not to embark on Byzantine discussions, sterile debates, sailing through extremist seas, illusory disputes or colliding the ships against the icebergs of the much teeming bureaucracy in our country:
Fernando, what are the contradictions that currently affect the balance between nation and culture? Are there causes that limit the enrichment process of these two concepts? How to resolve these concerns?
In Cuba that relationship is so deep, so comprehensive, that many times when you say culture you simply think of national culture. The other expressions that describe culture are those that have to be given a surname; sometimes they even have to be explained. This is not on a whim: the Cuban people thus forged the relationship, because they created both the Cuban culture and the Cuban nation through great epic events and enormous sacrifices. That is why culture and nation are usually identified — in other countries this is not the case — but we must actually distinguish between the two notions. First of all, what we call national culture is an integrating force that in one way or another incorporates and subordinates a diversity of cultural forms, but also eliminates or subdues other cultural forms that are not accepted because they are not suitable for the type of national culture. that is sponsored by the dominant class in society.
The nations in these last two centuries — and the very idea of nation — are linked to the triumph and development of capitalism. But that process implied the expansion of colonialism in the world, which has denied the majority of the world the right to form their nations with the self-determination of the peoples, defense of their cultures, sovereignty and their own development. For us [Cuba], the nation has a main and indissoluble link with national liberation. The complexity of the problem is clear, because in each country there have been, at the same time, local dominant classes, accomplices and subordinates of imperialism but which are exploiting and oppressing themselves.
The nation and the cultures of each country of the so-called “Third World” have been and are battlefields between the different resistances, popular struggles, being colonized; but also by the manipulations of the dominant classes of the country and by the power of the systems of domination of world capitalism, which includes the ongoing world cultural war.
The extraordinary diversity of cultures and the richness and variety of their forms — which force us to always analyze specific cases — have been affected by two more general centralizing forces: the state and the capitalist market. In each case, national cultural complexes subject to modifications in the course of their history have been integrated, while they are sedimenting cultural accumulations that are specific to them. The hegemony of the dominant classes — that is, the ability to obtain the consensus of the dominated and not only repress resistance and rebellion — is one of the social functions of these cultural complexes.
The great Revolution that triumphed in Cuba in 1959 and the process we have lived through in the last half century managed to unify the country around its achievements, its struggles and its project. The decisive triumph of national liberation was only possible because it occurred in a unique process with the implementation of social justice. That is, the nation became inseparable from socialism. The diversities of our society seemed to merge in the battles and in the work of the Revolution, and unity has been a fundamental political and ideological value ever since. In many cases the unification was really reflected in the gigantic changes achieved, in others the diversities were withdrawn or hidden.
In the first half of the 1990s we lived through a very deep economic and quality of life crisis, coupled with the loss of prestige of socialism on a world scale. Its effects and those of the measures taken to survive it remain important to this day. A great many of these effects are harmful, but others are not. Among the latter is the better understanding of the diversities that our society contains, and the growing conviction that they constitute an enormous wealth and a strength of the nation and of socialism, and are not weaknesses or generate disunity, as many have mistakenly believed.
Perhaps the first was the acceptance of religiosity and religious beliefs. The recognition of diversity in sexual preferences and the emergence of understandings from a gender perspective is another field of progress. The identification of the disadvantages that affect a part of the population, referring to their situation within the social constructions that we call races, and the acceptance of the persistence and certain current growth of anti-black racism, is another advance of these years. It is clear that in terms of these and other diversities, the achievements are not that they are resolved issues, but that they are already present, have legitimacy and their progress and problems are the object of great efforts, debates and confrontations.
The Revolution has been greatly strengthened to the extent that it has recognized the diversities of Cuban men and women, and it will be strengthened even more if it continues with determination on that path. In everything that I have been proposing, numerous cultural forms are involved, and the concepts pertaining to culture and the nation.
This is not the place to argue about the conceptual issues that are involved, but I make at least one comment, bearing in mind that fortunately the use of language in these fields has been democratizing, but also the lack of intellectual precision and ideological definition that predominates in the use of these terms. I give you examples. The values attributed to “our people” — which never include those considered negative — are usually cited in the abstract, without referring to conflicts or social groups, nor to modifications in different times, except when illustrating them with patriotic or edifying anecdotes, or with phrases by the country’s thinkers. When I hear the word “cubanía” (Cubanness) when describing the most dissimilar things and even attributing an exclusive representation to them, sometimes I agree and other times I smile at the good intention of the person who says or writes it, but in the best case it would be debatable.
What would not be debatable, but dangerous, is to turn these qualifiers into a proof of legitimacy. Consider, for example, that what is understood as an expression of Cubanness should be encouraged and sponsored, and the rest should not be given space, or should even be combated. It is essential to clarify or openly discuss these issues, because in our society a disqualification like the one I mention has practical consequences of exclusion or marginalization.
On the other hand, for about 15 years the differences have been increasing in the satisfaction of basic needs and purchasing powers within the Cuban population. The Revolution produced trends, which are among its greatest achievements, in terms of equalization of opportunities, the valuation of persons for their merits and social mobility based on effort in study and work. The great crisis of the 1990s and the strategy followed until today have included limits and prejudices regarding those achievements. Today we can distinguish social groups based on the new realities.
Despite the deep roots of national culture, this process stimulates cultural differences — and in more than one case creates them — that are eroding and contradictory with national culture. As I said before, the national in Cuba was forged and developed in the course of gigantic efforts, struggles and popular sacrifices in search of freedom, social justice and sovereignty, against slavery, colonialism, tyrannies, capitalist democracy and imperialism. Decades of revolutionary and popular power turned those achievements into customs and gave them a letter of nationality.
Some cultural forms practiced by certain more favored social groups deny — or at least injure — the character that the Cuban nation has had after 1959. The situation has more problems, and it is necessary to recognize it more and better, and dedicate more studies, dissemination and debates to it. At the same time there are expressions of distancing from what we rightly consider national values in some groups that are not exactly privileged. It could be explained as a reaction; I dare not state it at all. But there is no doubt that the two attitudes and situations — and not only the second — constitute elements of dissociation of national unity, which distance themselves from the meaning we attribute to national culture. When equality of opportunity recedes, there is a breakdown in cultural relations. When the preservation of life and “Miami’s” taste gain ground, a break occurs between culture and nation.
It would not occur to anyone to say that corruption is part of national culture. Let us then analyze corruption, and look at it in relation to different social groups. It is obvious that many people and families include among their activities some that are not legal, as part of their strategies to solve their needs and desires, at the height of the expectations created by a wonderful Revolution that transformed the capacities of people in the course of a single generation. Other behaviors are truly criminal, be it the open commission of crimes by elements that we classify as antisocial, or the crimes committed by individuals in their thirst for profit, using the positions they occupy in the production of goods and services and public administration.
The serious deficiencies that our social communication media have to fulfill their functions are expressed in the issues we are dealing with, both in the information and in the formation of public opinion. That diminishes, and sometimes hinders, the positive role they could play in tackling our problems.
Kaloian Santos Cabrera
With a Soviet Zenit camera, some money and a bag full of more illusions than clothes or food, I began backpacking through Cuba when I was 18. Photography and journalism then made their appearance as a need and they became a form of militancy for always.