Magazine article World Literature Today

An Introductory Note

Magazine article World Literature Today

An Introductory Note

Article excerpt

Revolutions are made by human beings. This statement is frequently offered as an explanation when someone complains that a particular process of social change has stumbled into errors of which it can be less than proud: humans, after all, are fallible. In the case of the Cuban Revolution, the period from 1969 through 1975-often referred to as el quinquenio gris (the five gray years)-was a time when repressive policies did a great deal of harm to writers and artists who were gay, deemed "different," or defended ideas that didn't follow a narrow party line. Some Cuban intellectuals today refer to that time as el tiempo de los chacales (the time of the jackals).

In the mid-1990s, a series of events provoked a public reexamination of those years. Back when they were happening, fear ruled and those affected weren't inclined to speak out. Some waited in silence. Others left the country. Tragically, a few committed suicide. Although there are many reasons for such an option, an argument can be made that the revolution's repressive attitude was an influence. Two decades later, artists and writers-some of whom had suffered the repression, others young enough so they only knew of it secondhand-came together spontaneously, demanding explanations in public forums designed to uncover the whys and wherefores of what had taken place and to ensure it could not happen again. Their efforts received the full support of Cuba's government, Communist Party, and Ministry of Culture.

It is not my intention here to revisit either the repression of the 1970s or its 1990s effort at healing. A great number of documents and articles from and about both periods are available. Rather, as a way of introducing the following selection of Cuban poetry in translation, I am interested in exploring why certain spaces in Cuban revolutionary history have remained free of such repression. Why and also how. For there are several institutions that have managed to escape such shameful pitfalls. These are magical spaces. They insist on the need to raise difficult issues, ask hard questions, and respond with quality work that is relevant to the times in which they live. To me, these are the places where true revolution thrives.

The concept of independence is at odds with a highly centralized state. In today's Cuba, young writers join the Hermanos Saiz Association, and when they are older transition to the Union of Writers and Artists. Their work appears in official journals; their books are released by state-run publishing houses. Filmmakers, actors, musicians, painters, sculptors, and photographers, too, are represented by their respective professional organizations, and most of these organizations are government-controlled. This is not always a bad thing. At the height of Cuban scarcity, when materials, such as paint, canvas, photographic chemicals, or guitar strings were in short supply, the affiliation assured artists they would have what they needed to work. State subsidy of the arts has been generous. Most cultural events are free.

Over the past fifty-six years, a few extraordinary organizing efforts have surfaced. Ediciones Vigía was founded in the city of Matanzas in 1985 and has enjoyed a brilliant thirty-year history. All the poets in this small selection-some of them from Matanzas, others from other parts of the island-are involved in important ways with Vigía. The project's spirit of creative excellence and its respect for diversity have given their poetry room to grow, and they in turn have contributed to Vigía's success.

At first glance it might appear that official government institutions are always more prone to excessive control, while smaller ventures are freer. In Cuba this hasn't been the case. Official institutions such as Casa de las Américas and Cuba's film institute (icaic) have been consistent sites of inclusivity and experimentation, while projects like Vigía have also created such spaces by defending a profound understanding of the role art can play-in the private as well as public spheres. …

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