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Culture in the Revolution

Culture in the Revolution

By Victoria Alcalá

“What is the highest milestone of culture within the Cuban Revolution” is a question posed by many academics or simple visitors to the Island. Eschewing a long enumeration, the person who is asked prefers to go to the root, and answers that it is the Literacy Campaign. However, this is a much too simplistic resource, because although it is true that eradicating illiteracy opened the doors to knowledge and cultural enjoyment to a large part of the population, which until then had practically been excluded, if the Revolution had not taken other equally important measures, those new literates would have remained as mere spectators on the threshold of a difficult universe to unravel.

Therefore it is essential, after that first answer, to venture into some details. Enacted on February 7, 1959, a month after the Batista dictatorship had been toppled, the Fundamental Law of the Republic stipulated that “Culture, in all its manifestations, constitutes a primary interest of the State” and that “Through this Law, te State will regulate the preservation of the nation’s cultural treasure, its artistic and historical wealth…”

In line with this, among the many first actions taken by the revolutionary government as early as 1959, the first year of the Revolution, were the creation of the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), the National Press of Cuba, the Casa de las Americas, the Cuban Contemporary Dance Company and the Oriente Folkloric Ballet; this would be followed by the National Ballet of Cuba, the National Symphony Orchestra, the national Art School, the National Folkloric Dance Company, the National Publishers of Cuba and the National Opera of Cuba. These institutions would ensure full access to culture of the entire population, not only as recipients, but also as creators, as hundreds of underprivileged children and adolescents, from every corner of the Island, were able to benefit from artistic education.

But it was not all a bed of roses. Already in the 1960s, there were manifestations of contradictions between those who, armed with the most dogmatic tendencies of socialist thought, tried to impose the simplification of conflicts, a coarse commitment and uncomplicated codes, and those who advocated a kind of creation that would be open to the more transgressive and contemporary currents, and to the inquiry into complex areas of man and its environment. The inclusive spirit of Fidel Castro’s “Words to Intellectuals” in 1962 seemed to have settled the conflict. But only a few years after the conservative outlook, shielded by a vulgar “militancy,” imposed their dominance in certain areas of culture during what has been called Grey Quinquennium—an expression to which some add more years or change the color to black—but that sums up a period of unwelcome remembrance, in which, however, the intelligent and truly cultured work of institutions like ICAIC, the National Ballet and Casa de las Americas need to be highlighted.

The creation in 1977 of the Ministry of Culture, headed by Armando Hart Dávalos, staunched many wounds and gave new impetus to creation. The writers and artists who had joyfully greeted the revolutionary triumph, and who shared the stage with successive graduations from art schools which had been opened in 1962 were at their best. Major international events were consolidated, like the Casa de las Américas Prize and the International Ballet Festival (1960); others were created, such as the International Festival of New Latin American Cinema (1979), the International Jazz Plaza Festival (1979), the Caribbean Festival Feast of Fire (1980), the Havana Theater Festival (1980), the Spring in Varadero Electroacoustic Music Festival (1981-1993), the International Guitar Festival (1982), the International Book Fair (1982), the International Havana Festival of Contemporary Music (1984) and the Art Biennial (1984), just to name a few. This explosion was supported by a vigorous cultural movement, injected by young blood who added their aesthetic beliefs, nonconformities and expectations to projects like Volume I in the visual arts, Teatro Buendia in the theater and Danza Abierta in dance, just to mention some which grew very current and controversial codes in the 1980s.

With the deep economic crisis known as the Special Period, caused mainly by the fall of the socialist block, Cuba’s main trading partner, many predicted a matching intellectual and creative crisis, not only because of the impoverishment of the institutions, but for the manifest exodus of writers and artists. But from the highest levels of government, the premise of “culture must be saved first” prevailed. In the midst of an impressive material precariousness, the country sar the emergence of significant projects, which are still active today: La Colmenita (1990), Teatro El Público (1992), Teatro de las Estaciones (1994), Argos Teatro (1996), El Ciervo Encantado (1996), Teatro de la Luna (1997), Danza Combinatoria (1990), Ballet de Lizt Alfonso (1992), Danza Fragmentada (1993), or the creation of the Provincial Book and Literature Centers (1990). And other events were added to the traditional ones: International Meeting of Ballet Academies (1993), the International Dance Festival in Urban Landscapes: “Old Havana, City in Motion” (1994), the Cubadisco International Fair (1997), the JoJazz Competition (1998) Theatrical May (1998), the International Documentary Film Festival Santiago Alvarez in Memoriam (2000), the National Exhibition of New Filmmakers ( 2002), the Low-Budget Film Festival (2003), the Romerías de Mayo (2003), the Esteban Salas Early Music Festival (2003) and the creation of the Territorial System Editions (2000).

This will of preserve culture, dodging bitter controversies, bright and dark moments, crises and adversities, could lead to another answer, simplistic yet true: perhaps the main cultural landmark of the Cuban Revolution is the Revolution itself.

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