Jay Kerr finds a surprising engagement with ordinary people in Cuba Represent!
Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power,
and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures
2006, Duke University Press
Reviewed by Jay Kerr
CUBA IS SEEN by many through rose-tinted glasses that portray a romantic, independent nation valiantly defending its own agenda from the economic imperialism of its superpower neighbour, the US.
To some, the iconic figures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevara epitomise revolution and all the ideas of a free and equal society that this implies. To others, however, the Cuban Revolution died soon after Castro and his followers took power and sided with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. For the detractors, all that is left from the promise of 1959 are hollow slogans and empty rhetoric.
Assumptions have been made about life in Cuba from across the political divide. The typical liberal critique of Cuban society focuses on the authoritarian, bureaucratic nature of the socialist state and how this represses independent association and social development. The common socialist view clings on to the romanticism associated with the overthrow of the Batista regime in 1959 and challenges both the inequalities of capitalism and the stagnant socialist model of Soviet communism. Just as the former highlights the human rights abuses that have occurred throughout the decades since the glorious march into Havana, the latter plays them down in favour of a focus on the universal healthcare and greater social equality that have resulted from almost half a century of “socialist” rule.
Cuba Represent! challenges all previous assumptions about life in Cuba by examining the country at a social level, listening to the voices of the people and finding out how ordinary Cubans see their revolution now. What is unique about this work is the way it focuses on how forms of popular culture – particularly film, music and art – relate to Cuba’s socialist ideology and the resilience of the revolutionary state. The book brings together an interesting mix of academic insights and personal perspectives. As the author Sujatha Fernandes puts it, “I locate myself among those scholars who seek to create space for alternative epistemologies and for the unorthodox blending of creative, political and personal pursuits.”
Traditional views rejected
Fernandes rejects traditional views of oppressive state control because her investigations have shown an independent culture in Cuban society where lively discussions about politics and political values are widespread. Even in cinema, an art form she identifies as highly dependent on the state, there is direct experience of ordinary Cubans passionately discussing topics that come to the fore in films such as Fresa y chocolate and debating these even while the film is still playing. Such examples suggest that conventional notions of the restrictive state control of society are unfounded and are, instead, ideas that have merely been imported from visions of Stalinist repression in Eastern Europe to a country that became closely allied to the Soviet Union.
Her studies have led Fernandes to question previous assumptions about the role of the state and its interconnection with society, as well as general questions of power and hegemony. She does not see the state as “a repressive centralised apparatus that enforces its dictates on citizens from the top down but as a permeable entity that both shape and is constituted by the activities of various social actors”.
This may be heavy reading for anyone not engrossed in cultural or political theory but does not detract from the overall character of the book, which will fascinate anyone interested in learning about Cuban film, music and art and their impact on society.
However, while Fernandes leans toward highlighting the greater degree of freedom in the public sphere in Cuba Represent!, she does not gloss over the repressive aspects still apparent within Cuban society. The contradictions are highlighted in many varied examples of state interference in artistic endeavours, particularly those that criticise the government, but also in personal observations about economic conditions on the island. More could be said about direct political repression, the lack of democracy and the imprisonment of undesirables; however, it could be argued that this would not be in keeping with the focus of the book. Instead, Cuba Represent! aims to show how the authoritarian state seeks to incorporate elements of dissent, and highlights how the nature of Cuban politics ensures notions of dissent or rebellion that may stir the imagination in other countries are co-opted by the state.
Cuba Represent! is a fascinating work that focuses on the public sphere in Cuba rather than the state or the charismatic figure of Castro, and in doing so creates a vibrant picture of ordinary life in Cuba that is rarely portrayed in academic works. Fernandes demonstrates how the Cuban people continue to believe in the importance of the revolution and how many aspects of the values it has nurtured; collectivism, egalitarianism and solidarity, echo in national consciousness through cultural and artistic expression. Fernandes argues: “The arts are not simply a reflection of what’s going on in Cuban society… artistic activities are constitutive of what’s going on in that society and the changes taking place within it.”
Given Castro’s recent resignation, this book is of great importance to anyone who wishes to get to grips with the current state of Cuban society. To move beyond the debates and arguments about whether Castro was a dictator or how repressed the Cuban people are under the authoritarian one-party system, one needs to look at the lives of ordinary Cubans, the views they hold about the present state of their society and what the future may bring. Cuba Represent! does this and does it well, by engaging with ordinary people at the level of their own experiences.
We are given a view of Cuba without the rose- tinted glasses and, as a result, can see that Cuban life has a tint all of its own.
Jay Kerr is writing a history of anarchism in Latin America