Thursday, November 29, 2007

Rafael Hernandez: It is imperative that we make changes"

'It is imperative that we make changes'

An interview with Cuban politologist and editor Rafael Hernández

Progresso Weekly

By Manuel Alberto Ramy

The following is a condensed version of a long and revealing interview broadcast by Radio Progreso Alternativa on Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2007.

"Cuba today is experiencing an intellectual movement never before seen," affirms Cuban politologist Rafael Hernández, who for years has promoted a culture of debate in our country.

That statement explains the existence of the quarterly magazine Temas, edited by Hernández, which -- in 52 issues -- has touched on practically every problem that affects intellectuals worldwide, particularly the most pressing problems of today's Cuban reality.

To Hernández, "the magazine is in some way the mirror of that intellectual movement, of that output of ideas, of that diversity of Cuba's contemporary thinking that looks not only inwardly but also outwardly, at the rest of the world."

In a small office on the fifth floor of the ICAIC building [Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry], Hernández sits in his trench of ideas. This thinker of average height, a forehead so ample that it has displaced his hair, of fragile appearance and solid thinking, chats not only with words but also with his eyes, which often appear tired of traveling to the future with a round-trip ticket.

To him, Temas "is a sort of stethoscope, the device doctors use to hear the heartbeats of contemporary society, primarily Cuban but also the state of thinking in Latin America."

This monitoring of Cuban hearbeats began in 1995 under the sponsorship of Culture Minister Abel Prieto, who asked Hernández to edit the magazine "so it could become a space for debate, from the perspective of a critical reflection of Cuba's and the world's contemporary problems. That was a necessity at the time, and still is."

The date is significant, because it places the promotion of the debate of ideas 12 years earlier than its beginning in Cuban society. In addition, Hernández says, the publication of the magazine for the purpose of debating -- and "debate is discrepancy" -- reprises a rich process of criticism and introspection that were interrupted by extraneous events that affected Cuba.

The politologist takes out his return ticket because "to understand the present, you have to look backward." He tells me that between 1986 and 1990 "a very important process of public discussion took place, which in my judgment is the most profound and democratic critical debate ever staged in Cuba, and it culminated with the call to the Fourth [Cuban Communist] Party Congress."

The debate "developed a docket of problems, of basic things that had to do with the mismanagement of the Cuban socialist model, not only in connection with economic aspects but also political, social, cultural, etc. At that point, an expectation for change was created; the temperature of public opinion, of the critical social consciousness about those problems, was already high.

"At that exact moment, the crisis of the Special Period unraveled and amid that crisis it was clearly impossible to go ahead with the agenda of the so-called 'rectification' and to implement policies that provided answers to the problems."

As I listen, I recall that Hernández is not the first of the personalities that I have interviewed who refer to that period (1986-1990) of strong critical debate, which I immediately associate with the early alert sounded by Fidel Castro about the likely collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc in general.

Another detail that many of the analysts and Cubanologists who write in the foreign press should be aware of is that the current debate in Cuba is focused on the need to perfect the "Cuban socialist model," not on the option between the socialist system and some other system.

"The system's principles must be defended, but the model itself must be transformed" so it may be buttressed, Hernández affirms. "I have heard -- and I don't know if the figure has been used officially -- that more than 2 million proposals have been received and recorded.

"No doubt, some of the proposals are not viable, but I am sure that all the proposals involve every important problem in Cuban society, all the problems that affect the operation of the Cuban socialist model. And I think that that's what the discussions have been all about."

The fluidity of the dialogue returned us to the present, so the question was inevitable: The open debates in the workplaces, nuclei of the Comunist Party and the barrios throughout Cuba -- are they a simple exercise by the people on the psychiatrist's couch, a simple catharsis?

"That cannot happen," he replies, emphatically. "We are in a crucial moment in the history of our country. Into this moment have come together an immense capacity of intellectual creation and an immense social energy. We have a truly educated population, people who think with their own heads. As a result, after all these years, we have at our disposal a public opinion, a citizenry with a capacity for consistent critical analysis, consistent and committed.

"The fact that the leadership of the Revolution summons us to a discussion of the nation's problems and asks us to express ourselves openly is a measure of the willingness for change that exists in the country. I don't think that the leadership of the Revolution can call to a discussion of a number of problems and then do nothing."

Before I can formulate my next question, Hernández answers it. "It's not a question of whether we should make changes or not. The fact is that it is imperative that we make changes. Politics is not the art of exercising human will; politics is the art of what's possible and meeting the needs that reality imposes upon us. Cuban society today demands changes and it is a fundamental element of socialism in Cuba that consensus should be articulated around the response to those changes."

Applying to the problems a traditional Cuban song, I tell him that the accumulated difficulties "are so many that they trip each other up" and that, in my opinion, they could exceed the responses.

Hernández's reply: "We have a number of material problems; we have a number of problems related to the scarcity of resources, but other problems don't have anything to do with that. They have to do with mentalities, with ways of thinking and conceiving socialism, with ways of thinking and conceiving participation.

"Without the effective participation of the citizenry in the control of politics and the decision-making process, we cannot solve any important problem, whether it's the production of milk, local transportation, energy supplies, the savings of resources or the construction of homes.

"All that involves the participation of citizens in the making of decisions involving priorities and in their control of politics. No bureaucratic administrative mechanism can control politics or prevent corruption like the people can."

Hernández tells me that, in its 52 issues, Temas has broached issues such as transitions, the role of the market in socialism, national consensus, socialist property, and the citizens' effective participation, among other topics.

In round tables and articles, the magazine has published the opinions of economists, sociologists, anthropologists, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and designers, as well as the discussions and criticism made daily by the ordinary Cuban. Not just print them, but also present them in forum-debates, which any citizen can attend and join. These discussions are even advertised on television, Hernández says.

Has the magazine received phone calls or reprimands for the articles it publishes? I ask. Has anyone tried to censor it?

"Everything that is displayed in the intellectual terrain with ideas, with critical points of view, has to overcome obstacles," he answers. "That's natural, that's normal. If someone doesn't want to fall ill with lead poisoning or silicosis, one should not work in a mine. If one doesn't want problems with the spine, one should not work at a computer.

"Professions, jobs have their own occupational diseases. Our job has them, too; it runs into mentalities that at some point resist the airing of certain things."

I try to interrupt him, but he continues: "In Cuba in the past 15 years, the battle has been waged in an adequate, negotiated manner, through dialogue. The dialogue between the institutions that make decisions and the institutions in the world of culture, the world of thinking, is increasingly fluid. And 'fluid' doesn't mean there is no disagreement.

"The resistance to new ideas, criticism and changes is something that I find in my neighborhood. I don't have to go to any government office to meet with resistance. In our civic culture, there are elements that resist change and refuse to accept specific criticism or reject the convenience of discussing specific problems in public.

"It's not a mentality that's exclusively installed in the head of some bureaucrats but in the heads of many citizens I know who are reluctant to discussion. They don't really believe that a debate can unfold and go to the core of an issue and contend that we are often not ready for debate.

"When we talk about debate or criticism, we often talk about censorship, restrictions, control, but we never talk about our own lack of a 'debate culture.' We must foster a culture of debate from the start, because our society doesn't have it.

"We often call a debate 'good' when the participants say the same as we think. That's not debate; debate is discrepancy. And it is very important that in a debate we express divergent positions in a spirit of dialogue, of mutual respect. And I think that politics is going through that stage right now."

To this Cuban politologist who has given courses in several U.S. and European universities as an invited professor, participation and criticism are essential to build the model of Cuban socialism.

"All the discussion about Raúl's speech on July 26 is a discussion that calls to discrepancy. And that is something that, to me, is essential for the vitality of a political culture. In our case, socialist cultural politics cannot be healthy if it is not developed from the debate and criticism of an immense majority of citizens.

"Public opinion in Cuba is represented by the immense majority of citizens, not by a group that controls a specific number of communications media. And that's essential to make changes and to express, to permit the media (including magazines like Temas) to confront and deal with the problems facing the ordinary citizen."

Hernández final words seem to coincide with the idea held by many
Cuban intellectual and politicians about the future of Cuba.

"All the formulas destined to promote, emphasize and deepen the social contents of socialism are formulas directed at the core of the central problems of Cuba's development. The Revolution must go forward and leave more and more room for the new generations.

"Those new generations are demanding capability, power, a degree of decision over their own ideas, their own problems and criteria about the meaning of a socialist society. And I think that the socialism of the future is the socialism of the young."

Manuel Alberto Ramy is Havana bureau chief of Radio Progreso Alternativa and editor of Progreso Semanal, the Spanish-language version of Progreso Weekly.

Eduardo Heras Leon: "Intellectuals are revolutionaries who criticize and think with their own heads'

Progresso Weekly

‘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 [1998] 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.