Fidel between the Lines: Paranoia and Ambivalence in Late Socialist Cuban Cinema

Fidel between the Lines: Paranoia and Ambivalence in Late Socialist Cuban Cinema

by Laura-Zoë Humphreys

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In Fidel between the Lines Laura-Zoë Humphreys traces the changing dynamics of criticism and censorship in late socialist Cuba through a focus on cinema. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban state strategically relaxed censorship, attempting to contain dissent by giving it an outlet in the arts. Along with this shift, foreign funding and digital technologies gave filmmakers more freedom to criticize the state than ever before, yet these openings also exacerbated the political paranoia that has long shaped the Cuban public sphere. Drawing on ethnographic fieldwork, textual analysis, and archival research, Humphreys shows how Cuban filmmakers have historically turned to allegory to communicate an ambivalent relationship to the Revolution, and how such efforts came up against new forms of suspicion in the 1990s and the twenty-first century. Offering insights that extend beyond Cuba, Humphreys reveals what happens to public debate when freedom of expression can no longer be distinguished from complicity while demonstrating the ways in which combining anthropology with film studies can shed light on cinema's broader social and political import.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478007142
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/25/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 10 MB

About the Author

Laura-Zoë Humphreys is Assistant Professor of Communication at Tulane University.

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The Return of the Censor

On January 5, 2007, not long after Fidel Castro withdrew from public office due to illness, a Cuban TV show celebrated the lifetime achievements of an elderly poet by the name of Luis Pavón Tamayo. Cuban intellectuals would tell you that, as an artist, Pavón was nothing to write home about. But as a censor, he had acquired extraordinary levels of notoriety. As head of the Consejo Nacional de Cultura (National Cultural Council) from 1971 to 1976, Pavón oversaw national cultural policy during a militant period referred to by Cuban intellectuals as the quinquenio gris (five gray years), the decada negra (black decade) by the more pessimistic, or even, in dubious homage to Pavón, as the Pavonato. This was an era when gay and otherwise "problematic" artists were fired from their jobs, relegated to obscure workplaces, and denied opportunities for publication and exhibition; when officials carefully monitored the appearance of young men and women for suspiciously long hair or risqué hems; when Beatles records were smuggled in and youth listened to them in secret. Ushered in by the 1971 imprisonment of poet Heberto Padilla, this militant form of censorship began to wane in 1976, when the Ministry of Culture replaced the National Cultural Council under the more lenient leadership of Armando Hart. The quinquenio gris gave a final sign of life during the Mariel boatlift in 1980, when 124,700 Cubans left for the United States, including many Afro-Cubans, gay men, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others deemed troublesome by the state, while Fidel Castro led mass rallies denouncing the emigrants as "scum" and "lumpen" and mobs threw eggs at their homes.

To the horror of Cuban intellectuals, no mention of Pavón's role as director of the National Cultural Council was made on the television program. The following morning, writer Jorge Ángel Pérez sent an email denouncing the television appearance to a handful of established intellectuals on the island, who in turn forwarded the scandalous news to their own lists of contacts. More emails followed quickly on the heels of this initial missive, fueled by fears that Pavón's return might represent a secret conspiracy to restore a more militant cultural policy at a time of political uncertainty. Within a few days, intellectuals on and off the island were engaged in a heated debate about censorship in Cuba both in the past and in the present. In what came to be known as la guerra de los emails, or the email war, what began as an exchange among a group of friends and colleagues suddenly held out the promise of a new Cuban public sphere, one that would be open to dialogue among all Cubans, irrespective of geographic location, politics, profession, or age. Yet as new participants and, in particular, exiles and younger intellectuals joined the fray, many raised concerns that the limited reach of email on the island and the very terms in which criticisms were framed might reduce the debate to a safety valve that secured rather than challenged censorship. When the exchanges slowed to a trickle toward the end of January 2007, participants were ultimately left uncertain as to whether the email war signaled new freedoms or more subtle tactics of state control.

In this chapter, I turn to the email war to show how new openings in the post-Soviet era, facilitated in this case by digital technologies and the strategic relaxation of state censorship, exacerbated the political paranoia that has long shaped Cuban society and politics. While paranoid responses to the email war were both reasonable and strategic, I argue, they also reinforced the political divides that some Cubans, at least, hope to overcome. The dynamics that I examine here are firmly rooted in island and diasporic Cuban histories. Indeed, one of the goals of this chapter is to provide a more in-depth introduction to the people, institutions, events, texts, phrases, and political positions that have historically shaped the Cuban cultural field and to outline how they played out in a debate that subsequently served as a key reference point for ongoing conflicts over censorship in Cuba. But this local story also speaks to issues that go beyond the island, demonstrating how a public sphere can thrive in the absence of autonomy from the state — and, more specifically, how intellectuals under socialism fought for an alternative public sphere that would take political commitment as its foundation — and how anxieties about the attenuation of autonomy can themselves shape and limit public debate.

Paranoid Traditions and "Palabras a los intelectuales"

Born in the midst of the Cold War, the Cuban Revolution was characterized from the start by conspiracy thinking. Faced with the real threats of rebels in the Escambray Mountains and invasion by Miami-based exiles, political leaders called on citizens to scan everyone and everything for signs of enemy activity. The establishment in 1960 of the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (CDRs, Committees for the Defense of the Revolution), neighborhood organizations entrusted with social welfare programs and the task of rooting out "counterrevolutionaries," helped establish suspicion and surveillance as everyday parts of life. Even the terms with which the enemy was designated — el imperialismo (imperialism), in reference to the United States' nineteenth-century expansionist policies and twentieth- and twenty-first-century interventions in Latin American and world politics; and gusanos (worms), for Cubans who actively opposed the Revolution or went into exile — suggested a far-reaching plot carried out by morally corrupt and inhuman adversaries. Such conspiracy thinking and Manichaean divides also quickly came to characterize cultural politics. In May 1961, six weeks after Fidel Castro declared the socialist nature of the Revolution and Cuban military forces fended off a group of exiles backed by the CIA in the Playa Girón (Bay of Pigs) invasion, the head of the ICAIC, Alfredo Guevara, denied an exhibition license to P.M. (1961), a short documentary directed by Saba Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez Leal that used a free cinema style to record Havana nightlife.

Many Cuban intellectuals argue that this act of censorship was part of an effort to secure the ICAIC's control over cinema. Saba Cabrera Infante was the brother of author Guillermo Cabrera Infante, who at the time directed the weekly cultural supplement Lunes de Revolución. One of the outcomes of the confrontation was the closure of Lunes de Revolución and the eventual exile of the intellectuals associated with this project. More broadly, the censorship of P.M. also ignited a debate over freedom of expression in the Revolution. As tensions over the incident rose, a three-day conference was organized at the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) in June 1961. Historically, few records of the interventions made by the intellectuals and artists who gathered for those three days were made public, and secondary accounts of the exchanges are often in flagrant disagreement over what transpired. Fidel Castro's closing remarks, however, were released under the title "Palabras a los intelectuales" (Words to the Intellectuals) and subsequently became one of the Cuban Revolution's most frequently cited and hotly contested sources of cultural policy. Explaining that his opinion was only one among many, Castro opened his speech by gesturing toward a climate of dialogue between politicians and intellectuals on the question at hand: "the freedom of writers and artists to express themselves" ([1961] 1980, 10). But he quickly moved on to assert a threat that trumped this question. As he listened to the intellectuals express their concerns over the course of the three days, he explained, he frequently had the impression that "we didn't have our feet on the ground." If there was one fear that everyone should share, it was the survival of the Revolution itself.

What should be the primary concern of every citizen? The concern that the Revolution will surpass its limits, that the Revolution will asphyxiate art, that the Revolution will asphyxiate the creative genius of our citizens, or should we not all be concerned for the Revolution itself? The real or imaginary dangers that might threaten the creative spirit or the dangers that might threaten the Revolution itself? It is not a matter of invoking this danger as a simple argument, we are merely pointing out that the state of mind of all citizens of the country and the state of mind of all revolutionary writers and artists, or of all writers and artists who understand and justify the Revolution, must be: what dangers threaten the Revolution and what can we do in order to help the Revolution? ([1961] 1980, 10)

Protecting and fostering the Revolution, he concluded, must therefore be the guiding principle in managing all other questions, including that of freedom of expression.

At the same time, Castro insisted that the Revolution was not simply a negative limit but was also a positive horizon for artistic production. Intellectuals should not fear the asphyxiation of creativity by the Revolution, noted the political leader, because the Revolution "defends liberty" and "by its very essence can't be the enemy of liberty" ([1961] 1980, 11). More concretely, he reassured his audience that one of the goals of the Revolution was to "develop art and culture, precisely so that art and culture will become a true patrimony of the people" (15). To prove this point, he went on to elaborate at length the various material and institutional supports the government was in the midst of constructing to achieve this goal, including the establishment of the Unión de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos (UNEAC, Union of Cuban Artists and Writers), which continues to act as one of the most significant institutional groupings of artists on the island (22); the transformation of a country club and golf course into a national arts university (the ISA) where working-class students would have the opportunity to study while residing in what were once the "mansions of millionaires" (29); and even the construction of an artists' retreat on the Isle of Pines, which was later renamed the Isle of Youth (25).

Castro also offered reassurance to the numerous artists and intellectuals who feared the imposition of socialist realism. Endorsed in 1934 as the official style of the Soviet Union and under some revision by the 1960s, by the time of the Cuban Revolution socialist realism was associated in Cuba as elsewhere with excessive restrictions on aesthetic form and an idealized and impossibly heroic vision of reality. Everyone was in agreement, Castro insisted, that artists should enjoy absolute freedom of form; it was only when it came to content that the question became more complicated ([1961] 1980, 11). And while the Revolution's objective must be to ensure that "cultural goods reached the people," this did not mean that artists had to sacrifice quality or aesthetic complexity. Rather, every effort should be made not only to make sure that "creators produced for the people" but also that "the people elevated their cultural level in order to close the distance with creators" (16). If protecting the Revolution from its enemies took precedence over an absolute freedom of expression, then this was because true freedom — including the freedom to create formally sophisticated art for the people with all the necessary material and institutional support — would be provided through the Revolution.

The challenge remaining was to determine the appropriate parameters for content. Castro engaged this question by asking for whom freedom of expression in the new society was a concern. The artist or writer who was a revolutionary could never fear for his creative liberty, he declared, because such a person would place the Revolution and its needs above all else, including his own creative vocation. The question was also "not a problem" for counterrevolutionary artists or writers because they knew "where they should go." It was only those intellectuals who "don't have a revolutionary attitude before life but who, nonetheless, are honest people" for whom the Revolution could pose a threat. To this group, Castro provided questionable reassurance. "The Revolution cannot renounce having all honest men and women march alongside it," he declared. "The Revolution has to aspire to converting everyone with doubts into a revolutionary." In a phrase that governed Cuban cultural policy well into the twenty-first century, he concluded that all artists should be guided by the dictate "dentro de la Revolución, todo; contra la Revolución, nada" (within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing) ([1961] 1980, 12–15). With the preservation of the Revolution as an absolute limit, Castro thereby guaranteed those intellectuals and artists who were neither revolutionaries nor counterrevolutionaries the dubious freedom of continuing to create while revolutionaries worked toward the anticipated day when the entire citizenry would line up behind their ideals.

"Palabras a los intelectuales" thus cast artistic production in the shadow of the enemies of the Revolution and made determining the difference between allies and foes a question of detecting intellectuals' interior political beliefs and allegiances. Despite his distinction between form and content, artistic works themselves were not the principal objects of concern in Castro's speech. Rather, as evidenced by his description of artists as "honest" or "dishonest," "revolutionary" or "counterrevolutionary," it was the political intentions of artists that were to be put on trial. Making political belief the basis for deciding which art and artists counted as "within" the Revolution, "Palabras" instituted an anxious symptomology as its measure.

The Limits of Tolerance

This speech and its subsequent citations, however, also ensured a paranoia that cut both ways. In a divide that has played an important role in Cuban cultural politics ever since, interpretations of Castro's speech split into two dominant positions: those who viewed Castro's declaration as the establishment of a totalitarian control over the Cuban cultural field; and those who saw in his words and in the Cuban Revolution a guarantee of freedom of expression within limits that they accepted and that, especially in later decades, they fought to expand. For those who adopted the first position, Castro's speech confirmed the Cuban government's adoption of a system of censorship antithetical to meaningful debate. From this perspective, any effort to foster change that fell short of directly challenging Castro's rule could only be complicit with state repression.

The second position, by contrast, grew out of efforts by Cuban intellectuals in the 1960s to theorize an alternative public sphere, one that would preserve a significant role for criticism within the Revolution while calling attention to the ideological nature of liberal aspirations to autonomy. In a 1965 essay, Herbert Marcuse argued that, in twentieth-century capitalist societies, efforts to guarantee tolerance in fact only stifled dissent and reinforced power and exploitation. By burying news reports among advertisements or printing progressive and regressive views side by side, capitalist media paid lip service to freedom of expression while ensuring that a population indoctrinated in the dominant ideology reproduced the status quo. In his essay "El socialismo y el hombre en Cuba" (Socialism and Man in Cuba), also published in 1965, Che Guevara decried the hypocrisy of art under capitalism in similar terms. Under capitalism, argued Guevara, artists were free to express alienation through their work, provided that they avoided turning art into "a weapon of denunciation and accusation." Artists who respected "the rules of the game," he concluded, obtained "all honors — the honors that might be granted to a pirouette-creating monkey" ([1965] 1967, 635).

Roberto Fernández Retamar echoed such arguments in a 1969 conversation among Cuban intellectuals about the role of the intellectual in the new society.

The intellectual who fulfills or believes himself to have fulfilled the "function of the permanent critic" in the heart of capitalist society considers himself ideally dissociated from society. In practice, he frequently remains integrated within the system, which retains and uses him through its editorials, magazines, and in some cases prizes, and jobs, etc. His criticism remains merely ideal; it is lacking in practical efficacy. For this reason, so long as he does not go beyond certain limits ... the system tolerates him and even encourages him, and the supposed critic can rest easy in his conscience pretending to exercise a virulence that doesn't really go beyond the verbal. (Dalton et al. 1969, 59–60)

By contrast, Fernández Retamar continued, revolutionary intellectuals "know themselves to be integrated into revolutionary society." This did not, however, mean that they should "applaud [the errors of the Revolution] like seals." Rather, the duty of the intellectual was to "criticize" these errors, but to "criticize [them] desde adentro [from within], as our own errors" (Dalton et al. 1969, 60).


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  vii
Introduction: Criticism from Within  1
1. Symptomologies of the State  27
2. Paranoid Readings and Ambivalent Allegories  60
3. Faith without Fidel  90
4. Staying and Suspicion  127
5. Montage in the Parenthesis  166
Coda: "Cuba está de moda"  209
Notes  231
References  265
Index  281

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