Defending the very existence of a Cuban nation. Interview with Pedro Pablo Rodríguez

Disamis Arcia: What is the meaning of culture? How does it contribute to the defense of the nation? How would you describe this concept from a cultural perspective?

Pedro Pablo Rodríguez: First, we would need to be clear if it is literary and artistic culture that we are discussing because, nowadays, culture is also viewed from an anthropological and sociological perspective; and, of course, to historians it means something else.

Now then, why culture in defense of the nation? One way or another, all nations are constantly facing challenges. Using currently fashionable language, I would say that nations are historical constructions not meant to last forever. In fact, some of its features are modified, changed or they simply disappear in the short term while new ones emerge. Nations are socio-historical processes, to put it simply, as are identities. Actually, in order to have a conscience of themselves as nations, they do not always need confrontation with others --although they often do-- but they do need to establish their differences. Therefore, nation and identity go hand in hand. At least to me, national identity, national conscience and nation are practicable inseparable. And so, there are nations the same as there is the conscience of a nation and the identity of a nation, that is, a set of notions that make it possible for human groups or diverse communes to feel as a nation not only spiritually but also with a certain degree of awareness.

These are changing socio-historical processes. The Cubans who lived in the 19th Century were as Cuban as we are, but still not exactly the same Cubans we are today. The same applies to Cubans who lived before the Revolution or the ones who followed, but possibly the generations of Cubans who experienced the early days of the Revolution do not feel our nation the same way as others living in different times and experiencing a different reality. However, I am sure that if we had Carlos Manuel de Céspedes here now, he would have many things in common with us, even in terms of his perceptions and demeanor, and the same if Martí were here today.

I think this is significant because Cuba has been, is and seemingly will still be for some time at the center of a systematic, persistent and relentless confrontation with the United States of America. This is also true of other countries like Iran and Venezuela currently involved in similar problems that could intensify in the coming years. I do not believe that the American people as a whole are willing to accept that the United States is no longer the hegemonic global power, that there are other rival powers, and that common sense points to the necessity to reach some sort of agreement among them concerning the redistribution of the world. In fact, the apparently radical change from the Obama to the Trump Administration is clear proof of this. Such an attitude leaves no room to those of us that don’t even think of dividing up the world, and that is why I think we are talking of the defense of the nation.

This nation took shape or achieved its final shape, acquired full consciousness of itself and became a sovereign nation not only by charging at a colonial power that considered it a part of its own nation, I mean, a part of Spain. Actually, to the social groups and classes and to Spanish interests, Cuba was as much a part of Spain as Catalonia – despite its problems - or Galicia. That Cuban process unfolded and then ended when national sovereignty was attained through a conflict with the United States that ruled even over the Cuban state and came up with that story of the Platt Amendment that we all know so well. The same United Sates that immediately started an extremely accelerated process to impose its domination over the economic and political life of the nation, including the subordination of the local ruling class.

All of that gave rise to social conflicts, difficulties within the 1930 Revolution, and the 1959 Revolution. Then, when a government came to power that established a social system, which one way or another clashed with the US interests, a long-lasting confrontation began that has had its ups and downs but has never come to an end, not even in times of certain relaxation, of certain détente. This explains why we systematically speak of the defense of the nation; we need to defend it.

The French also speak of the defense of the nation. Since the 1970s, French intellectuals have been discussing the defense of the nation facing United States global hegemony, its culture --both from the point of view of art and literature – and its civilization. And, perhaps because to a certain extent France has played that role in Europe, the French intelligentsia has most clearly understood that France first, and then Europe with France, should somehow sustain their culture in all areas, art and literature included, vis-à-vis the United States. Significant and frequent debates continue to take place as the French film industry fends off the US movies that currently prevail over the world film production.

DA: And they also propose a different type of narrative.

Pedro Pablo Rodríguez: Exactly, which means a different culture, too.

I believe these are important things to keep in mind as we approach this subject because somehow the interview is already leading me to the defense of the nation. I feel this is an unavoidable necessity of the very development of a Cuban national process marked by the Cuban connection with a social regime opposed to capitalism that we call socialism. However, in Cuba, as everywhere else, this process has gone through various stages.

For instance, socialism in Cuba was different in the 1960s, when the first task, already begun a year earlier, was to recover control over national life, and foremost over the country’s economic resources, from the large US corporations. It was different in the 1960s compared to the 1970s and 1980s, when the country sustained a close relationship with the socialist block and consequently needed to play by the rules of socialism as did Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. Then, following the debacle of the 1990s, our socialism somehow conserved certain theoretical bases, so to speak, and norms from the previous period, yet many attempts have been made in the Cuban society to try adapting its principles to everyday reality. These efforts do not come easily since, to begin with, sometimes it is hard for us to admit that certain changes are necessary.

These problems also relate to culture because they question what we are talking about when we speak of socialism. In this regard, we have appalling theoretical deficiencies. Today in Cuba there is practically no discussion of Marxism; Marxism has basically disappeared from Cuban culture. I wrote a paper that begins and ends with the question, Are we Marxists? I think this is important. I do not think that we need to repeat Karl Marx from memory, but rather, understand how capitalism works in order to know how certain mechanisms can affect everyday life in our social project, --as commonly said now-- since their purposes are not exactly the same as under capitalism.    

All of this has an influence on artistic and literary culture because at the time of Soviet regimentalism, we lived through that outrageous period known as the Gray Quinquennium, which was neither gray nor lasted five years; it was darker and much longer, and for some it was really black.

We must speak in defense of the nation because regardless of the social regime in Cuba, the US dominant sectors have historically intended to make Cuba a full member of the Union or at least to bring it under its wing so that it can be ruled from there. Of course, this problem really goes beyond the loss of the sovereignty of the Cuban state, for it also involves losing key features of our culture and our way of life, our philosophy and our identity.

Everywhere, artistic and literary culture have played a significant role in that regard. The artist, in the broadest sense of the word, operates in a field that is not that of politics nor even that of theoretical studies; the artist is concerned with the life of feelings, the life of emotions, and identity is also made up of emotions. A flag is no more than a piece of cloth with a number of colors arranged according to a certain design, but “at the moment of truth” people die for their flags and over their shields, people die singing an anthem, and they do so because to them these symbols mean homeland, nation, country; consequently, they stand for a set of values. Art works fundamentally with symbols and, of course, it makes a contribution to knowledge. I count myself among those who believe this is so, but it does not work so much from the perspective of knowledge as it does from the spirit, the sentiments and the emotions.

Usually artists have a peculiarly deep insight on social conflicts and often they realize before politicians do the spirit that is hovering around, and that people tend to express in a poorly elaborated manner. The artist, in general, does not try to write a novel with a preconceived theoretical or conceptual elaboration, least of all a poem or a film, no matter how realistic the subject matter may be. Artists intend to address a social problem but they do so delving deeply into it, exploring the psychology of an individual, a person in one way or another, somehow reflecting on the social problems and bringing feelings and emotions to the surface. 

That is why the configuration of a national conscience and a national identity are of paramount importance for an artistic and literary culture. Personally, I believe that when it comes to the defense of the nation from the point of view of culture, artists play a role as decisive as that of politicians and the intelligentsia, I mean those of us dedicated to theorize, to try to find explanations. Artists are not concerned about giving explanations, although many do give them, but instead they strive to express through feelings those experiences they are going through.

In think that under the current circumstances, which have been --and still are-- so challenging for the past thirty-five years, when we witnessed the crumbling of what to a large extent was our economic, ideological, military and even strategic support in world confrontations, we have also seen the discredit in international circles of Marxist thought. For the last ten years everybody has been telling me, and I see it often myself, that in the area of the social sciences in the United States, Marx is today one of the most popular authors; and also in Europe he is often a source of reference. However, there has also been a crisis of Marxist thought, albeit not so much of Karl Marx, but of many who used to call themselves Marxists, starting with Soviet Marxists. All of this means that suddenly some references no longer work, society does not accept them, and they no longer mobilize people.

Fortunately, we have José Martí, who spares us a lot trouble. First, because he is ours, and second, because he was not only a brilliant politician but also an extraordinary intellectual, a great writer and poet, a man who perceived the world with poetry, which provided him with the capacity to express his ideas in the realm of politics and in the field of ideas, strictly speaking, in such a way that always addressed feelings and emotions. In think that is, to a large extent, what gives him his current validity, because he had that astonishing understanding of the human being, of people. In his time, psychology was not considered a science but to me Martí was a born psychologist. He recognized meanness and decency, and faults and virtues when he saw them, but while he was very critical of the human being he was also capable of understanding that which was valuable in that person, that is, the capacity to grow and transform themselves, the capacity to stand up again after falling; and this Martí said on numerous occasions using a biblical language, as we all know.

This has been important for the Cuban culture, not only for the nation but particularly for the Cuban culture. Martí has created a sense of dignity, of ethics, of sacrifice and generosity that extends beyond what is personal but without disregarding the personal, and I think that is how is has been largely embraced by Cubans, including ordinary people that anywhere in the streets say anything about Marti. These things demonstrate to me how his thoughts are perceived, and people understand him because with Martí there are not empty words, with Martí it is never pandering.

In my opinion, this explains why it is essential to defend the nation and be mindful of our prospects if the Revolution fails for whatever reason, --either because it implodes or is a victim of a military aggression the likes of those unleashed against Libya and Iraq-- and the country is destroyed. We would not be an independent republic, at least not for many decades, because neither the United States nor any political group there would accept the existence of anything created here in these years. They would have to eradicate it at its roots, meaning remove it from people’s conscience, and if they needed to kill a million Cubans in the process they would do it with no qualms, the same dreadful way in which they have killed a million Syrians or a million Iraqis, although that is not publicly discussed.

Therefore, it is not only the defense of sovereignty, it is the defense of the very existence of the Cuban nation, and I believe this is what makes us think and talk of culture as a symbol and a defender of the nation. The defense of the nation is more than the willingness to fight back a military aggression; it is building conscience and feelings, and building a spiritual life around the concept of nation, and this goes from the most basic and simple, that is, your family, your geographic location and your local values, your individual and local sentiments, up to those that one way or another envelop us all. People of Santiago are very different from people of Havana but we are all Cubans, and I will go on rooting for the Industriales baseball team even when it loses, and keep arguing with those who root for the Avispas team.    

The role of artistic and literary culture is significant because the easiest way toward domination is precisely by planting disunion and obliterating the sense of nation. I was recently visiting Costa Rica where I saw something on television that scared the hell out of me: a TV channel reported as a great achievement that thirty-four Costa Rican English teachers had been hired to work in US schools. They happily said: “We have thirty-four professors who will be teaching English to people in an English-speaking country,” but in the fifteen days I spent in that country I never saw any report about Costa Rica, I mean, of what could be its achievements or what could be valuable in the Costa Rican intelligentsia.

I attended a meeting on Repertorio Americano, by Joaquín García Monge, a fabulous magazine the man produced for fifty years, which opened spaces for all Latin Americans and defended all of Latin America. However, university students in Costa Rica do not know about Joaquín García Monge. We, Cubans, went there to speak to Costa Ricans about García Monge. Most students --we counted them-- were not in the least interested in the humanities, they were not interested in learning about Costa Rica, they wanted to be good in technology to make money and, if possible, to land a good job in the US. What is the future of that country? What is the future of that nation, if the choice of its youngest and best trained people is to go elsewhere? This is already happening in Cuba and I think we don’t have an adequate response.

What do I mean by all this? That the responsibility of an artist is remarkable. The artist is more given to questioning things; if art does not question things it is worthless. There are still too many people here, especially in political circles, who are terrified of questioning. The country is undergoing a difficult situation with a president who, as tactfully as possible, is trying to preserve unity among the people under such a predicament. Cuban politicians are not used to debating; they are not in the habit of admitting discussion or criticism, of listening to the opinions of others, and this is a real problem that we face, one which introduces additional challenges. I think that at this moment there must be unity on certain principles but at the same time an extensive, critical debate.

The 1980s were times of far-reaching critical debate in Cuba, and during the Special Period, despite everything, the debate continued at least at the theoretical and analytical levels. The very existence of Temas magazine is an example of this. Currently, the situation is not as difficult as it was then, but close enough, and this indicates that every time we face difficult circumstantial situations the reaction of many politicians is like this: “I cannot accept any kind of criticism” or “I cannot tolerate those that disagree with me so I’ll get rid of them.” I mean, if they have a certain way of thinking and are incapable of opening a dialogue or a debate, of allowing people to open up to one another and avoid entrenched positions, of letting people say what they think and debate with them; something always comes out of a debate. I believe this problem is affecting Cuban national unity and affecting the defense of the nation. The same can happen, and sometimes does, among artists.

I think that the cultural policy must be based on such pillars, and that it is suffering because to a large extent the cadres in the area of culture are lacking sufficient maturity. We are losing things that we had gained, which is a certain space for that debate and letting the artists express themselves.

DA: I want to ask you if Cuban culture is limited to the territory of the Island. To what extent the defense of the nation transcends its borders?

Pedro Pablo Rodríguez: For the defense of the nation, it is important to try to win over more Cuban émigrés to defend it. A large part of them defend it, including many who do not accept Socialism. Fidel Castro convened two meetings of the nation and the emigration with such characters as to make you wonder: “What is this guy doing in Cuba and talking with Fidel Castro? It is amazing, no one could have guessed.”

And some, actually quite a few, have become people that even though they hold on to their views, when it comes to substance they defend the Cuban nation because they identify themselves as Cubans. They have lived in the United States for forty years but they reject the notion of Cuba as a US colony. Then, I think those are the limits and the areas in which we need to focus for the defense of the nation. It is my belief that nation is more than socialism, the nation is not a social regime, or was there not a Cuba under the oppressing capitalism of the 19th Century? Were they not Cubans those patriots, the good guys, who fought against slavery to remove one of the features of Cuban colonial society? They were certainly Cubans, and there was a sense of nation; that is the reason they fought for independence.

I think we must hold a sincere debate with those people, open spaces to them. It was Díaz-Canel who said recently that they could invest in Cuba. That had not been said. The law provided as much but so far no one, if interested, has been allowed to invest in Cuba. On the other hand, some people living inside the country want to invest, -- there may not be millionaires here but some people have lots of money-- and they ask, why those who live abroad can do it and not us living here? We need to accept and understand the conditions in which the country has been operating and the circumstances of the world today, which is a hegemonic and completely capitalist. Because China’s is a socialized capitalism and Russia is a capitalist country that is not even interested in socializing its society like China.

It is worthwhile to point out that is not only for strategic reasons, for political reasons or cultural reasons speaking from the artistic point of view. This is an issue of national interest, those people are not here to be used; they are here because they are part of ourselves, because in spirit they feel close to us.

DA: One last question: How can we avoid confusing the defense of the nation, from a cultural point of view, with entrenchment and with vulnerability projects?

Pedro Pablo Rodríguez: By trying to better educate politicians, by trying to avoid cloning uncultured politicians in the broadest sense of the word, and by trying to prevent the growth of bureaucracy because bureaucracy is very dangerous in Cuba, too, as it tends to become corrupted and ingrained. When you get used to driving your own car every day and have no need to get off the bus at G Street and then walk down here as you did, when you get used to not thinking of going around the corner to buy some crackers; when you live in a super-structural world, so to speak, one which is not everybody else’s every day’s world; when this happens, whether you want to or not, you distance yourself. To avoid that is the only way to prevent politics from going the other way or simply going away, because although not deliberately it leads you there, it makes you think you know the whole truth or that your team, your people, those around you hold the full truth.

I was truly surprised when Raúl Castro raised the problem because from the early days of the Revolution he was portrayed as the extremist, the most communist. Perhaps it was not true but the fact is that some things that were made public suggested that Raúl’s positions were tougher than those of Fidel, I mean, like he was the villain in the movie. Fidel, as a good politician, would sometimes be tougher and others more lenient, that is why he was a genius of politics. But, actually, Raúl brought about an opening in many areas. It was he who introduced that woman, a Party member who had been expelled from the organization for her religious beliefs, and said that she was an example and that he was fed up with so much gossiping; and this was Raúl, the man who in a way had grown up with a theoretical thinking framed in Russian Communism. Raúl Castro is proving that he is a more talented and, maybe, a better politician than many of his own generation.

I think the main problem lies with the politicians. We need educated politicians, educated in the broadest sense of the word. What Díaz-Canel said about professors should include politicians. Being educated (or cultured) does not mean having read the most books, visiting all the art exhibitions or watching every one of Woody Allen’s films. It is not about that: It is about keeping an open spirit and understanding that unity is not equivalent to unanimity and that they are not always right, that they, too, can make mistakes and that they even need to learn.