‘Intellectuals are revolutionaries who criticize and think with their own heads’
An interview with writer Eduardo Heras León
By Manuel Alberto Ramy
Last week, I interviewed two musicians about the next Congress of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC). Music was present at the birth of our nation, and poetry wrote the lyrics for our national anthem. The wars of independence and revolution, as well as the Cuban reality, have been told in novels and stories by many writers. Writers like Eduardo Heras León, one of the most important story-tellers our country has produced.
Heras has been very committed to the truth, to the search for a high literature that reflects the lives, the here-and-now of Cubans. There are two books in his oeuvre that I would describe as pinnacles. One is “The War Had Six Names,” winner of the 1968 David Award, where he dealt with the 1961 Bay of Pigs battle. (Heras, a militiaman, fought in that transcendental historical event.)
The other is “Steps on the Grass,” which won the 1970 Casa de las Américas Award. In it, he gives a gritty portrait of the men and women who fought against the counterrevolutionaries on the Escambray mountain range in the 1960s. Some scholars call this period a civil war; others, a struggle of classes.
His unorthodox vision of the revolutionary combatants cost him dearly. At the dawning of the Gray Quinquennium, he was separated from the University of Havana, where he studied journalism, and was sent to work as a common laborer at a steel factory (Socialist Vanguard) outside the capital. Years went by before he could return to the university to get his degrees in journalism and Spanish literature.
In the interim, as a writer, he extracted from his daily life stories with a labor theme. The topic had not been explored until then, even though society was defined as a working society. With his book “Steel,” the writer-laborer (or laborer-writer) vindicated the essence of his concerns and anxieties: the human being.
Today, we talk with this multiracial man with an orderly mind and a facile tongue. Winner of the 2006 Publishers National Award, his vocation as an educator led him to found the Onelio Jorge Cardoso Center for Literary Formation, which he directs.
Progreso Weekly: What are, in your opinion, the fundamental topics that the Seventh Congress of the UNEAC should deal with?
Eduardo Heras León: The 1998 Congress was really a very special Congress, to such an extent that many comrades compared the issues discussed and the conclusions reached with those made during the Party Congress, particularly because topics of national incidence were discussed that were a concern not only to the writers and artists but also to the entire intellectual movement. In other words, not only the professional problems typical of any institution but also the problems that had to do with society, with the crisis of values we were experiencing.
Other problems broached were racial prejudice (zones of racial discrimination that exist in the country), marginal zones for the youth, hegemonic globalization and the penetration of that globalization in sectors of the nation's life such as tourism, the economy, the press. And above all, what has always been a fundamental concern of the intellectual community: the role of the writer, the artist, in our society.
I think this is one of the essential issues, because in our country the teacher, the doctor, the engineer, the architect have a pretty clear idea of what their role in society is. The teacher knows he must educate. The doctor knows he must save lives, he must cure. But, what is the role of the writer. Simply to write?
No. If we are -- as I like to phrase it -- a participating conscience of what is happening in the country, we need to participate actively in the whole set of problems that are under discussion, more so today, when the fate of the country assumes a special importance.
I am the First Vice President of the Writers Association, whose board of directors will change when the Congress ends. I am a member of the UNEAC Congress' Organizing Committee and I think that, logically, we have to deal with the guild's problems, which involve the writer's or artist's economic situation. For example, in the case of writers, the problems of copyright, promotion, printing and literature are very important.
Along with that, a series of topics will be broached that will place the UNEAC at the heart of the nation's problems, same as in 1998. On the table again will be the UNEAC's insertion into that agenda and the UNEAC's reflections on the political, economic and social situations in the country during a period that many people call a "transition." This is a period that is being felt at a social level. There is an awareness among the people that these problems should be discussed, and the country's leadership is stimulating those reflections.
Right now, I would tell you that the whole of society is reflecting about how to do things better and how to improve the society we are building. So, I think that the UNEAC will have an effect on the problems, on the work with the young people, which seems to us to be most important because -- although the UNEAC is not a youth organization -- it has a very important relationship with young people. The Saíz Brothers Association, which brings together young writers and artists, is closely linked with the UNEAC, and the UNEAC is enabling and evaluating those links.
Therefore, I think that the role of the intellectuals in society is one of the topics that will be discussed and reflected upon during the Congress.
There is something that often seems a common site: what the Commander in Chief called the Battle of Ideas. Culture has a capital importance in that Battle of Ideas. Culture is the nation's moral shield, its ethical shield, and we are -- as Cintio Vitier said -- a nation that can be characterized as a flag inside a trench. We are defending our identity and that's where the role of the intellectual acquires meaning. By defending our identity we defend our culture.
Culture is the first thing we must save, Fidel said in a UNEAC Congress (in 1992, I believe) and he paraphrased Martí by saying that "without culture, freedom is impossible." Or, as Martí said, "To be educated is the only way to be free."
Fidel pointed out something that's essential. In other stages of the revolution, culture possibly did not have the role it has today, but, to the degree that our leaders matured and we ourselves matured, culture has come to occupy the place it deserves. In other words, culture is the nation's moral shield and it's the first thing we need to safeguard.
That's one of the topics we shall reflect on during the Congress. As we have seen in the meetings prior to the Congress, there's going to be a very serious approach to the problems of education, of education as part of the enormous plans the Revolution has in mind. We can already draft a balance sheet on the latest modalities of education.
To some, that subject has not been as positive as it should be, so I think we must reflect on that; writers and artists have things to say. But we're dealing not only with the problems of education and the press -- which to us are essential -- but also with the problems of popular participation, because the society we are building and the system we want to make and perfect is based fundamentally on the people's participation.
In other words, when we talk about democracy we talk about participation, participation with criteria, with decision-making, participation by the real people in the making of decisions in this country.
That's where we are headed. All the reflections being made at this time and the decisions that indisputably will follow point to that end. So, I think the Congress will be held in a very important point in time and I think it will be as important as the 1998 Congress.
PW: Do you think that, at any time, there will be a reversal in the nation's cultural policies, or at least in the government's policy toward creators, as happened during the so-called Gray Quinquennium?
HERAS: Look, I lived through that period.
PW: In your own flesh.
HERAS: Yes, I was one of the victims of that process, but I am absolutely convinced that it will not be repeated. For several reasons: firstly, because the country's leaders have matured, have grown intellectually and now have a better understanding of the problems of intellectuals and of literary creation.
On the other hand, the leaders' trust in intellectuals has increased enormously. The 1998 Congress demonstrated that intellectuals are revolutionaries, just like anyone else, they are intellectuals who worry, who criticize, who have their own opinions and think with their own heads.
Sometimes those opinions, those reasonings trouble some thinkers who are more dogmatic, who are conservative, but I think that the  Congress demonstrated the valor and revolutionary quality intellectuals have. That's on one hand.
In second place, intellectuals also have matured. They have a better understanding of the role they must play within society. And on the other hand, there is a unity in the intellectual movement that never existed before, that didn't exist in the 1970s. A unity based on principles and, what's important, in diversity. In other words, don't look for unanimity because it doesn't exist.
As Cintio Vitier said in a lecture, "We are a universe and universe means uni-verse, unity in diversity." And that's precisely what we see now. And, let's be honest, Culture Minister Abel Prieto is the best thing that has happened to Cuban culture in the past 30 years. He really is an intellectual, a revolutionary and a leader, something that has seldom been seen in the culture world.
[Prieto] is a man who enjoys not only the support but also the trust and admiration of the intellectual movement, because he has earned them. This is not adulation, I am not praising the leader, on the contrary. I am bound to him by ties of friendship. I published his first tale, because he was a student at the School of Letters at the time I was a professor at the School of Journalism. At this moment, he enjoys that support and understands what the cultural processes should be, what cultural policy should be.
As he said not long ago during a meeting at the Writers Association: "The role of the leader and functionary of culture is to serve the intellectual movement, to permit the intellectual movement to find a channel, to create the conditions so that movement may create, because as it grows it enriches the nation's culture." Do you understand?
PW: Will the UNEAC have greater access to the formulation of policy, of the cultural programming broadcast on TV, for example, or on the mass media in general?
HERAS: Look, that's another problem, and I'm glad you mentioned it. That's another problem that is at a crucial point and evidently will be discussed during the Congress. There are many criteria about the mass media, something that was discussed in the previous Congress. It's going to be a permanent concern.
What we don't want is two cultural policies, that is, the ICRT (Cuban Institute of Radio and Television) has one cultural policy and the Culture Minister has another. There must be only one cultural policy. I think we're going in that direction and the UNEAC has a lot to say about this and will say it, I'm sure, during the Congress.
I don't know if there will be an immediate change of policies at the ICRT, but we shall make our influence felt. At this moment, I would say there is a rapprochement; in some ICRT committees there is open and critical talk about the existing problems. Of course, they have a difficult task; they must maintain a daily programming for everyone, for every taste.
But I think there are many things that can be improved, that are problems of principles, problems of policy. And agreements can be reached, so I think the Congress will debate these issues in depth and will accomplish something.
Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief of Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.