This article is part of the series La cultura en defensa de la nación [Culture and the defense of the nation]
Rafael Hernández: Eduardo, when you speak about culture’s role in the defense of the nation, what do culture and defending the nation mean to you? What does that defense entail in the field of culture?
Eduardo Torres-Cuevas: First of all, we must define those concepts. The term “culture” has been used with very different meanings, and there are many ways to understand it. In my view, culture has to do with a people’s way of being and doing; it is the foundation of any cultural process. It can manifest itself in the streets, in our way of thinking, doing and saying. And this leads eventually to the consolidation of that culture in its intellectual, artistic and musical expressions.
Cuba’s overall historic evolution reveals the emergence of fields born from the Island’s own internal process. A great diversity of people, ethnic groups and nationalities came from all over the world—Spain, Africa, other European countries, Asia—at different stages of our history and converged in what I call the acriollamiento (or “going native”) process. Criollo means being raised at home; not born, but raised, regardless of your descent. This paves the way, first of all, for a process of creation of all kinds of cultural traditions and customs—eating, dressing, speaking and other habits. Every city, town and village creates its own traditions, and from there a more nationwide tradition arises even if there is still no nation per se. Culture precedes the nation, which will be the outcome of a cultural process.
I have always liked very much one of Fernando Ortiz’s phrases. «What is being Cuban? It’s an ajiaco», he says, «made of diverse ingredients», with a quality of its own that is different to its original components. And he adds, «Our culture is the quality of Cubanness». That is, its quality is that of its people.
As those criollos and reyoyos start to take shape, such a mixture of elements becomes a combination that creates its own expression as the ultimate characteristic of a nation. For instance, eighty-five ethnic groups came from Africa, where many of whom were even rivals.
RH: Eighty-five African ethnic groups!?
ET: Those eighty-five ethnic groups had a single identifying feature: they were black people. But in Africa, since they were all black, there was no such identifying factor. The same thing happened in Spain, and in Spanish America. In the 16th century there was an assortment of kingdoms and dynasties that included titles like king of Aragon, Castile, and Leon… Spain only came into being as a concept when there really was a vision of the Hispanic world, just like American-ness did during the same process in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries.
Our culture identifies us by the way we are, do and speak as much as by the habits, traditions and customs that we created throughout those first three centuries, especially after the 19th, when the process became rational. Until then it had been more about feelings that could not always be described or narrated, but the predominance of the Age of Reason and modern science in the 19th century and the philosophy sprung from the French and British Encyclopedias of the late 18th century allowed for their rational articulation.
RH: When we speak of defending the nation we think first of all about a clash with external hostile, negative, alienating factors, originated mainly in the United States. That is the most usual context of the phrase.
Now, when we speak about it not in military, economic, or political-diplomatic terms but from the viewpoint of culture, it implies that we are defending a culture with ingredients that originate in the North. How does this cultural relation affect the defense of the nation?
ET: When I said that Cubanness is made up of all those transcultured ingredients I am also including the North American one. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Cuba and the United States had close commercial and cultural relations in every field, which became more political in the 20th century.
When Martí said that we lie astride the pivot of America and that the struggle for Cuban independence was also for the balance of the world, he took into account the North American factor, mainly because this vast Latin America and the American-ness that I mentioned before had to do with the characteristics of the Spanish Empire. But throughout the 19th century Havana had a permanent link with New York and New Orleans. Havana is not on the southern coast; it’s not a Caribbean city. It faces the North Atlantic, right opposite Florida, and it’s very close to the port of New Orleans, where there are French and Spanish criollos. That is why when Napoleon sold Louisiana to the United States many of those French criollos came here and established big coffee plantations in western Cuba. Others who came as a result of the Haitian Revolution settled mostly in the eastern region and in the city of Cienfuegos, founded by Don Louis de Clouet, a French criollo.
Now, that link with the United States made many things possible for Cuba, particularly to be close to the processes of development not only in Europe but also in Anglo-Saxon America. This even led up to the annexationist movement and the disagreement between [Jose Antonio] Saco and El Lugareño [The Villager], which remains, without any difference, a very current issue nowadays. El Lugareño argues: «An annexed Cuba means five hundred thousand Yankees; devils and demons, but white devils and demons with enough capital to make the Island advance. What do you expect from Spain, that it will bring you five hundred thousand African blacks?» To which Saco replies: «I understand, it’s true that we would get all those benefits», and goes on sarcastically, «but I still see a slight contradiction in that project: the loss of the Cuban nationality». It’s true that Saco is referring to a white nationality, but at the same time he was stressing the fact that this country had been raised in the Catholic religion. But religion is the least significant component of this concept; what’s most important are the whole cultural, ethical, and even artistic elements inherent in the original Catholic view of the world. At the other end are the Anglo-Saxon and Protestant whites. That is why he speaks of «the loss of my nationality», and says: «While I have been able to be a foreigner abroad, I would not be able to be a foreigner in my own homeland, nor will I ever bow to the gleaming stars of the American flag». He’s saying that he will not allow himself to lose his culture. So every economic effort has to be channeled into the preservation of independence and of the Cuban nation.
Therefore, speaking of the nation involves not only political but other more profound considerations. It’s about who we are and whether we can stop being what we are, and that’s the crux of the cultural matter.
RH: The present is also history, and all antecedents that you mention are key to understanding it. But if we look at the confrontation between the Revolution and the United States, and the former’s claims to national culture and the nation as part of its project, would you say that this moment is more challenging and threatening to the defense of the nation than back in the 1960s? Or have not that nation and its culture been under attack and harassed since the beginning of the Revolution? If we agree that is the case, what’s different today?
ET: It’s a wide-ranging question, but yes, I would say that never before has the nation and its culture been in greater danger. I will quote someone who is not exactly a supporter of the Cuban Revolution: Mario Vargas Llosa, from his excellent book La civilización del espectáculo [Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society]. This is also related to the way modernity has dismantled all contemporary rationalistic projects and even the very concepts of nation, homeland, and people’s sense of duty. For the last thirty years we had a rational discussion which included the arguments that the right wing used in its political discourse, so it was possible to have a clear-headed debate. Today we no longer need that rational discourse because there are other post-modern considerations about ethics and esthetics that affect not only the revolutionary ethics, but also the religious ethics itself, like, say, in Catholicism. This phenomenon is much broader and global; it’s not limited to a certain region, nor is it a Cuban problem, but a universal issue.
On the other hand, in the 1960s the mass media—radio, television, the press, the news exchanged between agencies—were, in retrospect, seen as primitive. Now you can use a cell phone to send messages all over the world. There are examples, particularly of what has been called the fourth generation warfare, as in the case of the Arab Spring, the effects of which differed considerably from the expectations that many of the millions who took to the streets really expected.
Moreover, the concepts have changed or modified their content. Nowadays everybody speaks of democracy, but the problem is how to know what democracy you are talking about, the extent of its scope, and its mechanisms and power groups, which existed to some degree. Now the control over the media is absolute. For instance, in the 1950s there were in Havana eleven national newspapers, ranging from the communists’ Hoy to the Diario de la Marina, on opposite ends of the spectrum. We also had El Crisol, Prensa Libre, El Mundo, El País, and there was a visible debate in which we would either gain or lose ground every day. Today the right-of-center, the rightists and the centrists have much stronger control over the media than the left-wingers, among other things for economic reasons. On that score, nothing to do with the struggle of the 1960s, when the debate, the way to debate and the purpose of that debate were different. There were multiple choices, but all were intended to make improvements. Now even the worst can prove to be the best, since everything depends on your discourse and your powers of persuasion. Furthermore, the simplest discourse is usually the most convincing; the more theoretical it is, the less the great masses will understand it. The semi-fascist and far-right leaders, among others, use sentences and phrases, at times even without verbs, and thus they make affirmations that people accept. But the axiom of saying something that could be totally false hinges on the old principle of lie, lie and lie. Something always sticks, and then when you put up a defense, it’s too late. All these factors make these times all the more complicated.
The left-wing movement around the world went through a phase of confusing views, when the left attacked the left following the crisis of the socialist bloc, the Soviet Union, etc. I am not judging the communist parties, but after this phase they took a considerable nosedive, and now the socialist parties, who thought they would rise at the former’s expense—as they did in the beginning—find themselves at a disadvantage. The discourse that prevails today has knocked down some of the traditionally strong parties in Latin America. That’s what’s happening in Costa Rica and Peru, where parties long aligned with the left or the center, and even with the right, are faced with such a crisis that they don’t even have a strategic program. What’s the only strategic program on the table now? The neoliberal and neoconservative one, with both forces engaged in a discussion to which the left can only reply.
ET: Yes, as long as there is a proposition I respond. What the left is lacking now is a coherent discourse and the capacity to say things in simple terms that everybody can understand, but based on finely elaborate theoretical thoughts.
RH: Is our own position or the message that we are sending also defensive?
ET: Of course. One of the most interesting aspects is that we are not measuring up to the proposal that we must bring forward. Our responses, more or less elaborate though they may be, are excellent. We only have to be goaded and there will be a response, be it by reminding the speaker about their mother, delivering a fancy speech, etc. As I see it, our problem is that we are currently designing a new proposal that is not yet articulate or tested; the very dynamics of the process can provide the answer.
Let me respond to your question from a different angle. The offensive being launched today is not neoliberal, but neoconservative in nature, and I make a distinction in that respect. Obama may be the embodiment of neoliberalism, while Trump is that of neoconservatism, as he even attacks some elements of the former. Such a neoconservative offensive seems to be the extreme right’s usual response whenever left-wing thinking is in crisis; they also become more aggressive against economic movements. In other words, it happens every time there is a crisis and it’s necessary to organize the advance of big business.
RH: When it comes to defending the nation in the field of culture and the culture that represents us, today our nation is more present than usual beyond our borders, and not for the first time. There are Cubans all over the world, as there were during the independence wars, etc. From the strategic viewpoint, what does the inclusion of the Cubans who live abroad, who are part of our nation, who are not our enemies and do not behave as enemies or collaborate with them, mean to a cultural policy or a plan to defend the nation from the field of culture?
ET: Being Cuban is not conditioned by the part of the planet where you live, be it the North Pole, Hawaii or Burkina Faso. And a most important thing, going back to Fernando Ortiz: today I’m…
RH: A fan of Ortiz.
ET: Yes! He asked, «What is being Cuban?», that is, the awareness and willingness to be it. You choose whether or not you want to be Cuban, but that involves a cultural, not a political definition, even if the political consequences follow close behind. In the beginning, I want to be like the other, not like I am; I want to acculturate. But among the Cuban émigrés—we both know plenty of them—there are many who have discovered who they are as opposed to others; that is, I realize that I am Cuban because I act and think in a different way, and maybe I have to hide to eat black beans, but that’s the dish I want, rice and beans. Like Cuban music, which gets you on your feet wherever you are and makes you say, ‘That music!’ Culture keeps us being Cuban regardless of where we are.
RH: If defending the nation engages Cubans here and elsewhere, and if culture is what unites us, what do you recommend to include in a cultural strategy to defend the nation that will not be overcome by populism, folklorism, or the small-town provincialism that Martí criticized? How to guard against that danger?
ET: It’s a complicated problem. There is what you could rationalize about the problem and also what is an irrational part of the concepts and attitudes related to it. We must start by identifying those values, wherever they are, and place them where they should be. Now, that means that you must harness every available media to sensitize the relevant spheres, be they political, social or economic.
It’s a way of identifying ourselves with those feelings and thoughts related to the evolution of Cubanness which, incidentally, has evolved and will keep evolving because it will always live through different historic periods. Martí wrote many of his best works—in fact, most of them—in the United States, all of the above notwithstanding.
The solution lies in the realization that any new space will keep creating or growing insofar as we are capable of enlarging them. It’s a clever, slow-moving task that cannot be expected to produce results overnight. Many people, many Cubans everywhere can contribute to it. We know that many of them, who live in the United States even since the days of Operation Peter Pan, are excellent sources of integrative thinking and producers of Cuban culture from abroad. It would be absurd for us to disregard them, but they have to be recognized, just like they have to become aware of many things.
RH: My last question is related to the previous one. If we defend our culture and nation by reinforcing the proper cultural institutions and by avoiding any form of entrenchment or attitudes that might make us look fearful mainly when coming into contact with foreign things: how to develop that defense by bolstering and promoting exchange instead of closing our mind to it? How can we do this in order to strengthen a more self-assured cultural awareness?
ET: Your last phrase is very important. The question is how self-assured we are in our awareness. It´s not about building trenches of stone. They do not allow for any progress nor for the defense of what must really be defended. Ideas know no bounds; culture has no borders. Our culture is ours, but it’s also universal, because it’s another component, not a small-town culture. If nothing else, what makes Cuban culture so rich—maybe because of what you asked before; Cuba is close to the United States and closer to Europe than to other places, with the sea connecting us rather than isolating us; it’s harder to reach the center of America on horseback than travel to Europe by ship—is the character that Cuban culture has always had. If you don’t let it breathe and give it room it becomes weak, and the weaker you make it the more exposed you are to lose territory and end up in an unfortunate situation.
We need to have a dialogue and spaces to understand what everybody has achieved and done. The Cubans in other countries have jobs because, first of all, they had an education that included the influence of all the aspects originating in the more developed world. And even if you say, «I don’t want to go through that», somehow you will, because there are no limiting boundaries in today’s world. And it will happen in such a way that we will not always know—unless we have a clear policy in place—what is valid and what is not, so we have to enter into a dialogue that makes room for what is valid. Otherwise, you are doomed to die.
RH: Thank you very much, you have my appreciation.