Culture and the defense of the nation – An interview with Aurelio Alonso

Translated by Jesus Bran

Rafael Hernández: From the standpoint of this phrase, what do you think is the meaning of culture and how should it be applied to the defense of the nation? What does it mean to defend the nation from a cultural perspective?

Aurelio Alonso: I believe that the use of the concept of defense, just like that of culture, has two legitimate connotations: one is restricted and the other extended. The consensus of opinion today is that when we speak of culture we refer to the universality of human creation, and not only the spiritual dimension, even if in practice we cannot help linking it to artistic and literary creation (and other expressions of creative spirituality). As you know, this debate has been going on for over a century. In the broad sense of the concept, the act itself of defending the nation is a cultural event, although it’s also valid to consider the defense of the nation from a strictly cultural perspective. Likewise, the meaning of defense cannot be limited to its military connotation, since the defense begins with words and ideas. The nation must be defended, first and foremost, with peace—hopefully—rather than arms. And this meaning of defense extends from the field of politics to that of commercial advertising. The defense of the nation—which is not only a State matter—has a cultural side, as relevant as any other, be it clearly visible or not.

R.H.: What distinguishes the role of culture in the defense of the nation? What is its scope as compared with other fields—strategic-military, political, economic, ideological?

A.A.: As I said, and in line with your points, I abide by the typical tasks of the writers and artists in a contemporary context built on the strength that the development of the mass media gives to an image. Simply put, the challenge facing the authenticity of personal creation today affects its ability to compete in the media against mechanisms designed to move the nation away from its legitimate interests, the ones that define the well-being accessible to its peoples. And the relocation of the challenge leads in turn to the risk of perishing that the refinement of hegemonic influences, which throws them into either confusion or inertia, imposes on the intellectuals. I count myself as one of those who think that the concept of culture provides content to all the other practices that you mentioned. That’s what allows us to use it as a noun when we speak of economic culture, military culture, political culture, etc., without limiting ourselves to the seven Muses.

I confess that I wouldn’t know how to make a quantitative evaluation of the moment of greatest challenge. For sixty years, the Cuban nation has been challenged by this menace, devised little by little since the times when even the U.S. presidents had no idea of the influence that the military-financial-industrial complex would end up having on politics, to the point of becoming the most refined and cruel form of siege, not only on an economic, technological, financial and diplomatic level but also when it comes to the works of the spirit. And all along, the nation has also suffered from a lack of foresight and the sin of immaturity and dogmatic immobility, but the rectifications have given ever-growing resistance to this building. What we are going through in Cuba now is the outcome of a perverse cumulus of imperial hostility, and in this regard, the challenge looks even bigger. However, it’s also different—I guess it will always be, and not only in terms of size—which demands that our creativity should rely on information, learning and the permanent use of critique. It’s essential that we, as a country, manage to gauge the global scenario around us, not only in the fields of politics and economics but also in culture. As to the global situation, I think it’s inaccurate to say that it’s more unfavorable now. I’d rather say that it’s more complex or more complicated if I hold by Lezama Lima’s very fine conceptual distinction between “complex” and “complicated. The concentration of U.S. power on a global level has bestowed on that country an unprecedented degree of impunity and, from a bilateral viewpoint, an unyielding attitude toward the effective sovereignty of a very close, very small, very strategic, very emblematic, and very mouthy neighbor. From this viewpoint, the situation turns out to be quite unfavorable. But globally speaking, the emergence around the world of alternative models which, unlike the Soviet one, overtake them both economically (rates of growth and development) and socially (reduction of inequality and better living conditions), is an encouraging sign, and not only for this Island. No less important is the fact that the world has become convinced that “Cuba’s cause” fails to fit Washington’s “target shooting” policy. There is plenty of evidence, gathered throughout six decades of resistance by the Cuban people, about the legitimacy of our national project. The Cuban nation is the one which has managed to resist. The authenticity of the definition of its image as a nation has been unequivocally recognized in the United Nations (and elsewhere) against the enemy’s distortion of the facts, which has lost credibility worldwide. That’s the upside. I would say that the “global circumstances” are still unfavorable but on different scales. Any forecast would be risky.

R.H.: In light of these dangers, what role should the artists and intellectuals play in Cuban society and on an international scale? Do they really fulfill that role? How to make it easier for them?

A.A.: I think that, in this respect, our intellectuals are faced with a major challenge: knowing how to gauge the external and internal complexities, which do not exist separately but in combination with one another. They should also discern how today’s complexity is different from yesterday’s; how their connotations change; how some concepts empty out while others gain strength; when freedoms respond to real values and when they bolster the social inequality that liberalism carries as its original sin, and how the media creates false or wrong messages. But at the same time, they must internalize our mistakes without fear, disclose the gaps in our actions and prevent formal complacence from paralyzing us. The cultural reality involves an understanding of the situation that leaves no room for mechanistic reactions. History translates banality, at best (that is, when it’s successfully revised), into stains transcended by successive generations. Otherwise, they become burdens, and then “the children pay for the mistakes of their parents”. I believe that we already know our mistakes only too well, and we would be right to ask ourselves why we make them over and over again, and instead undertake the necessary self-criticism at the institutional level rather than just demand it from the individual.

R.H.: If our national culture has diverse and changing features, do you discern any distinct and moving cultural identities? How important is such a distinction for representing the national culture that must be defended today?

A.A.: Of course, diversity and motion are indispensable concepts when we try to define our cultural identity. Diversity indicates the presence of contradiction as a source of development (speaking from the most orthodox dialectics) and compels us to find differences in the formation of our national identity. That’s how I prefer to approach diversity so as not to reduce it to identities that differ from one another. As to the importance of these elements, which I think would always be present in the definition of identity, when it comes to the present-day Cuban culture we must take into account the radical tremor caused by the Revolution of 1959 and its effects on the legacy that gave shape to the Republic. Alongside the essential vindication of the pro-independence tradition produced by the political change (and reported by historians) there remains the challenge of salvaging those values in contemporary history, undertaken only in recent years.

R.H.: If Cuban culture is not restricted to the Island’s territory, to what extent does the defense of the nation reach beyond its borders? How does this approach impact the design of an effective cultural policy?

A.A.: Of course, it’s impossible to compress Cuban culture into the Island’s geographical borders. Not if we consider the century past, much less in times of an ever-growing migration that accounts for foreign-based communities of more than one generation of Cubans. To answer this question, I insist, now out of necessity, that I hold on to a spiritual level when we speak of culture because geography imposes objective borders on the socioeconomic system, the institutions, and the exercise of politics, as well as on State relations. However, the communicating vessels on the level that we underlined as basically cultural should remain unclogged; what’s more, they should be advanced through the cultural policies that the country must implement. They are part of our national identity, as Cintio Vitier said in Resistencia y Libertad [Resistance and Freedom] in connection with the schematic vision of the “balseros” [rafters] of 1994: they may be anti-socials, but they are our anti-socials. Rather than being overbearing, such links go both ways and can only happen if their interaction can extol the real values of each side, by a reciprocally constructive absorption, and through permanent communication based on understanding and respect.

R.H.: Taking into account the history of the Revolution, what would you recommend concerning the implementation of a cultural strategy in defense of the nation? How to avoid folklorism, populism, elitism and small-town provincialism as representations of the national culture meant to be defended?

A.A.: The truth is that each question you ask me is harder to answer than the previous one. In all honesty, I’ll start by saying that perhaps a ministry is not the ideal structure to design and implement a “cultural strategy in defense of the nation”. The diversity of both the languages of creation and the institutionalization that its social structure requires, makes me think that the idea of a cultural commission composed of independent institutions and systems to promote talents, visual arts education, state assistance to creative expression and other needs, as conceived in 1961, is more effective than a ministry. I’m not thinking about the past, but about the horizon. The thing about the Cuban experiment is that, far from consolidating the virtues that it was expected to have, the National Council on Culture (CNC) got distorted along the way and became a body riddled with sectarian trends whose mature (and most vicious) stage we remember as the “gray quinquennium”. Its replacement with a ministry was able to neutralize the wave of repression, thanks to the ability and attitude of the appointed minister. Had the new structure fallen into the wrong hands, the possibilities facilitated by the centralization of functions might have brought about “gray decades”, or worse. It’s a paradoxical situation that will be solved one day for the benefit of national culture. Nonetheless, whatever institutional structure we have—be it called council or ministry—I think the first thing to keep in mind is that a cultural policy cannot rely on impositions, but feed instead on the country’s accumulated wealth of creative expressions and values. May debate prevail, and may talent have the chance to develop. Let us think of policies of cultural selection that are consistent with the demands that the Muses inspired and let us eradicate bureaucracy and vertical decision-making. Moreover, let us not lose sight of the other burdens that you rightly raised in your question. Not that it’s right to say that the Revolution lacked a cultural strategy; on the contrary, I have always maintained that our Revolution is above all else of a cultural nature, except that not always by the grace of our institutions; sometimes even in spite of them.

R.H. How to keep the defense of the nation from the cultural perspective from being mistaken for entrenchment and vulnerability? How to foster a national culture that accepts the challenge of interchange based on a more certain and self-assured cultural awareness?

A.A.: The soldier that stayed in the trench felt safe (in the past, because nowadays a trench is hardly safe). Entrenchment in the field of ideas provides an image of protection as equivocal as in logistics. The socialist experiment that failed in Moscow left habits within all leftist movements that their members have found very hard to overcome. This breeds a one-of-a-kind Manichaeism typical of a stratified system that claims to have a monopoly over truth (and of goodness) and, at the same time, concentrates wrong (and evil) beyond its ideological realm; or is suspicions of any different idea, is reluctant to change, identifies good judgment with probation, enshrines dogmas as principles, and mistakes rhetoric for politics. Such twisted rules of thinking place obstacles to the challenge of interchange in the terms that you consider. Its roots, which stretch beyond any specific cultural organization, are in my opinion the power base of the dead weight that we seek to shake off.

Havana, December 9, 2019

 

*Aurelio Alonso: Cuban sociologist, diplomat and essayist; associate professor of the University of Havana and Visiting Professor of the Central University of Las Villas; deputy director of Casa de Las Americas journal since 2005; winner of the Social Sciences and Humanities Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013; winner of the Social Sciences “Felix Varela” Award in 2018.