Rolando González Patricio: Culture and the Defense of the Nation

This article is part of the Catalejo series Culture and the Defense of the Nation.

*Rolando González Patricio. University Professor and Researcher.


Rolando González Patricio (RGP):  This topic seems very pertinent. I cannot say categorically that this is an area in which there are many conflicting positions in Cuba, but it is, without a doubt, an issue where contrasting and sometimes entrenched perspectives coexist. This range of positions spans those who may consider that politics are not required for culture to develop, all the way to advocates of unprecedented restrictive regulations. Of course, there is a very diverse middle field, but this diversity or lack of consensus could be one of the reasons why, unlike other areas of national life, much less progress has been made in updating cultural policies.

Catalejo: In the light of that comment, what is the meaning of culture for you and how should the defense of the nation be interpreted? What is the meaning of defending the nation from a cultural perspective?

RGP: It would seem that culture, for many, remains synonymous with the duality of artistic creation on the one hand and enjoyment of the arts on the other, while for others it is simply entertainment, although the truth is that, at least since the end of the 19th century, it has assumed a role which is more ambitious, more comprehensive, more anthropological and, as a result, reflects social contexts and conditions more faithfully. Suffice to remember, in the case of Cuba, the place of culture in the Manifesto of Montecristi [José Martí, Máximo Gómez and Antonio Maceo, Dominican Republic, March 25, 1895).

We need only consider, at the risk of being imprecise, a nation's culture as a complex phenomenon that incorporates the universe of intellectual, emotional, material and spiritual characteristics that distinguish a society. Beyond the Arts and Humanities, it includes lifestyles, beliefs, traditions, values and rights. If we put it this way, culture is not a thing or a substance, but something that lives in people; it is a way of life, and therefore it is up to that human collective to choose directions based on how they identify themselves and their consensus. It is no accident that culture is associated with the ability or freedom to generate alternatives. Consequently, the notion of defense in the cultural sphere would refer to the response or responses to real or possible threats to what is understood as valuable to the nation.

In this regard, it is vital to know the overarching notion under which it operates. The broad notion of culture refers to the creation and articulation of collective feeling, thoughts and actions, when dealing with threats to the nation, in which there is a legitimate space for the arts, and it has direct connections with politics and other spheres. The narrow notion often leads to snapshots and error.

C: What distinguishes the space of culture itself in the defense of the nation? What is its scope compared to other fields (strategic-military, political, economic, ideological)?

RGP: If we put to one side those who defend the most reactionary positions, there is consensus internationally on the wide and diverse role that culture plays, and what stands out is how, through culture, human beings express themselves, become aware of themselves as individuals and as peoples, recognize themselves as an unfinished project both individually and collectively, judge their achievements, and construct the future. It is considered an essential dimension of development, recognized as a contributor to strengthening independence, sovereignty and national identity, and it is recognized as a pre-condition for exercising individual freedoms and as a dimension of the self-determination of peoples.

Although it is essential to set the boundaries of any analysis, I do not see culture as something separate from the strategic-military, political, economic or ideological fields, as areas or spheres of a way of life. The women and men who participate in each of these areas in Cuba are part of Cuban culture. Soldiers and officers, politicians, laborers and businessmen, speakers and audiences, and all the many others are, consciously and unconsciously, creators and transmitters of the most varied expressions of a rich Cuban cultural diversity. It is not possible to explain their attitudes and actions as separate from their feelings, values, ideas, customs, convictions and hopes. Nor should culture and ideology be confused as being synonymous. Experience proves that they are awkward bedfellows, although both contribute to the formation of the consensus that serves as the basis for national unity.

Culture is an ideal field in which to test any ability to make true dialectical analyses.

Cultural identity can define us simultaneously as individuals, as groups or as a people. The umbrella definition would correspond to the national identity, encompassing the others mentioned, but never the same as averaging or summarizing the others. On the other hand, in no case should cultural identity be understood as something given, monolithic, definitive and irreversible. A comparison of Cubans from two different periods of time would suffice to highlight this point. For example, Cubans at the beginning of the 20th century did not see their difficulties in the same way as the generations who lived through the hardest years of the Special Period, where resistance was much more marked by the certainty of protection, inventiveness, overtones of humor, and a deep trust that better times were on their way. A little more than two decades later, again we are not the same.

The explanation of this phenomenon must not ignore a relevant fact: the process of multiple transformations experienced by Cuban society in the decades of socialist transition. This element, more than being just a fact, is a multi-faceted matrix. The levels of education and lived experience in terms of substantive equality and social protection are part and parcel of it. However, at the individual level, other aspects have to be included in the analysis. Social equality should not be confused with levelling out identities. Not only is every human being unique and unrepeatable, but for their dignity they have the right to be so. I stand with those who claim that we build socialism so that we all have the right to be different. As a result, any exercise that threatens the identity of the nation, the community or the individual, is considered to be on the side of domination and demands a response toward freedom.

C: To what extent does the threat of cultural neocolonialism represent a greater challenge to Cuba than in earlier times? Are global circumstances more unfavorable? Are society and culture more exposed? What is different today?

RGP: In today's world - asymmetric, unequal and exclusive - governed by the interests of big money, culture is being used to articulate the essential consensus for the hegemony of capitalism, of the United States or some other hegemon in their respective contexts. Any of these dominating powers includes the desire to seize the common sense of nations, communities or individuals and force them into submission. Their instruments are well known: the education system, the press, radio and television, some institutionalized religions, as well as the entire arsenal made available by the internet, among other methods. A study of all the ways in which all these are being deployed would require a separate article.

It is relevant to remember that even American and European international relations theorists specializing in political realism, despite being overshadowed by the seat of power, recognize, like Hans Morgenthau, the contribution of what they themselves call cultural imperialism. In other words, culture, in the real conditions of economic and technological asymmetry which exist, operates in a multi-faceted way at the service of big capital and the imperialist powers. On the one hand, it serves to maximize profits as it shapes tastes and stimulates the most diverse of market demands that consumerism embodies. On the other hand, resistance is minimized by impacting the identity of everyone, including those who disagree with capitalism or might dissent in future.

That is more or less how what we commonly call cultural warfare works. It is a phenomenon which is more widely mentioned, described and questioned than actually studied in depth. In the absence of fuller studies on the topic, I take cultural warfare to be attempting to change how someone identifies him or herself for one's own benefit. Space does not allow us here to examine the huge range of possible scenarios.

In the current scenario, Cuban culture is threatened from all sides at the same time. If we express it with strategic-military vocabulary, we could say Cuban culture is being subjected to two simultaneous wars. Firstly, the one waged by capitalism across the planet, which draws on the entire arsenal at the disposal of neocolonialism. In this regard, we share the same fate as many other peoples who also find their diversity and cultural self-determination and, by extension, all possibility of self-identification, under threat. The second element is a specific cultural war against Cuba, designed and waged primarily from the United States. Its short-term aim is a kind of genetic modification of the nation's cultural identity, while selectively encompassing certain communities, groups or sectors and, by extension, include as many Cubans as possible.

It can be claimed that, in such a scenario, and in the context of growing communication links, Cuba is more exposed than in the past. We are no longer in the days of the highest equality rates, two national television channels, no Western or American tourists, minimal travel abroad, etc. Today there are millions of people who are influenced by social media, millions of tourists come every year, hundreds of thousands of Cubans who travel abroad for short periods and who come back with new experiences, and we have a much more heterogeneous society, showing signs of hedonism, and as a result the range of cultural consumption is also more diverse. Although this comparison is far from an exhaustive list, it is also true that across the board there are higher levels of education, higher cultural density and a greater capacity for discernment to make choices. The diversity is immense, but it does not seem as huge as that lived by Cuba for six decades under the control of the United States and, even so, the Cubans have known how to take the reins of their own destiny for themselves and have kept hold of them.

Pessimism is paralyzing, but blind optimism is very expensive. There is a broader bank of abilities than in the past, but we have a battle to be won every day. No wonder they say that the battles of cultural war are waged on the playing fields of everyday life.

I must add that the cultural wars that are waged against us have many common elements. One of them is to erode historical memory. The absence of memory is a good ally of domination because it hides its crimes and disorients its victims. Consequently, we unravel ourselves in an effort to recall our national history and strengthen our knowledge of the past. This is essential, but it will never be enough, even when done effectively. I call the crushing memory of the past the rear-view-mirror syndrome, a syndrome which makes it difficult to move forward confidently because one is always looking back at the well-trodden path. Memory is a strategic battle, but war is fought for the future. The strategic goal of the cultural war against Cuba is this future. It should not be forgotten that the identities of individuals and peoples are a mixture that includes the sedimentation of the past and the fermentation of the present, but it takes on the color of expectations, be they hopes or ambitions. If the history of humanity is full of abundant testimony to the marked differences between peoples and between individuals based on the appropriations of possible futures, we should not dedicate all our effort to preserving memory, if that implies putting hopes at risk. It's possible that the fusion of past memory and future hopes is what provides the utmost protection.

C: What role do you attribute to artists and intellectuals in the face of these threats? In the heart of Cuban society? In your international projection? How should they really behave? How should we facilitate it?

RGP: Artists and intellectuals are at the forefront of cultural life, although they are not the only ones, but they are historically conditioned women and men, with the ability to get things right and to get things wrong. Geniuses like Marx or Martí got it wrong on more than one occasion based on the elements available to them for making one decision or another. But without a doubt, they had the capacity and the sensitivity to intuit and alert people - sometimes before the scientists or politicians– to phenomena, situations, trends or opportunities that are central in the context of a cultural war that also targets them. When we manage to protect this sector from the worst effects of that war, and we manage to deploy them in a timely and pertinent manner, it is possible to have a kind of special task force. Then the question arises of how to operate.

Here we inevitably have to take a closer look at the role of the institutions, responsible for mapping the theater of operations, diagnosing and characterizing each possible blow by the opponent, as well as planning, articulating and deploying the counter-offensive. But let’s not forget that no war is won only from the defensive trenches. Victory is a path littered with initiative. This is particularly necessary because one of the complexities of cultural war is that the effectiveness of the very same operations is not measured so much by the damage caused to the opponent as by the casualties avoided by the home team.

In this area - and we are talking, firstly, about the national sphere - these special troops of creativity and intellect can offer an incomparable service, provided they have clear objectives and their aim does not involve sacrificing rigor and artistic quality. Literature and the arts do not exist to bring us the good news of the ideal world. Their main raw material is drawn from conflicts and human pain, and their creativity has the ability to touch the feelings of the reader of the work and encourage reflection. But this final exercise depends on multiple variables, therefore, building an audience is as necessary as the teaching of the art. That seems to be where the best results have been achieved for some time.

Artists and intellectuals abroad can make a significant contribution also through their audiences, in lifting the veils of silence or, in some cases, those of demonization. Foreign audiences respond against or in favor, as the case may be, to the vision of the Cuban nation created by the hegemony, in which we do not recognize ourselves.

It is a battle in which victory is built day-by-day and with many elements. Among them, each artist and intellectual has to be able to perceive the subtleties and costs of the ongoing cultural war and choose their own position. The perception of risk necessarily comes before the instinct to save themselves. In this case, the day-to-day basis on which this war takes place must not undermine our idea of the seriousness of its potential scope, nor the urgency in confronting it. Institutions can contribute significantly, as long as they remain effective interlocutors and are able to promptly promote actions and programs that are based more on diagnosis than on apparently unrelated opportunities or events. I speak of institutions fully capable of implementing the respective cultural policy rather than of a mechanism for administering culture.


C: If national culture encompasses diverse and changing features, do you recognize differentiated and fluid cultural identities? How important is this distinction in representing the current national culture that has to be defended?

RGP: As I mentioned before, the identity of a nation presupposes a multiplicity of identities within it, and in all cases it is about unfinished processes and on-going transformation. In this regard, the socialist project always needs to promote this diversity and avoid its erosion. In the cultural sphere, any exclusion, as involuntary or legitimate as it may seem, tends to multiply its costs in very varied and not always predictable ways.

Inclusive policies, beyond just nurturing the unity of the nation, also stimulate the development of deep roots. This does not presuppose that identities are absolutely spontaneous processes. Historical experience proves the opposite and scientific evidence documents a multiplicity of cases in which identity traits are intentionally transformed in the medium and long terms. Therefore, the ability to notice these changes is decisive to be able act accordingly. It would not be at all dialectical to suppose that in a nation increasingly exposed or interconnected with the outside and immersed in multiple economic and social transformations, identities remain immutable. When we know that the aim of the nation's enemies is to induce identity transformations, the need for this approach seems clear.

For example, solidarity reached paradigmatic practices in Cuban culture, if compared to its past and with other countries, and have contributed to unity and the socialist project. However, the current “heterogeneization” of socio-economic life, the diversification of income and consumption levels —including here different types of cultural consumption— could threaten the blossoming of a particularly castrating form of individualism.


C: If Cuban culture is not limited to the island's territory, to what extent does the protection of the nation go beyond its borders? What implications does this approach have for an effective cultural policy strategy?

RGP: I think I partly answered that question when I mentioned the considerable influence of our artists and intellectuals on audiences abroad, whatever their nationality, to avoid creating a negative image which only serves the enemies of a nation’s self-determination. I could add that, in this regard, we should also acknowledge some excellent contributions of Cuban creators based in other countries. But, in any case, it seems essential to have effective articulated programs so that the practice of presenting ourselves abroad, what we are like and how we want to be, is neither accidental nor misleading. Furthermore, we should not restrict the activities in defense of national culture solely to the contributions of the arts and literature.

C: Taking into account the history of the Revolution, what recommendations would you make for introducing a defense-of-the-nation cultural strategy? How can we guard against folklore, populism, elitism, provincialism, as representations of a national culture that we seek to defend?

RGP: The key strategy includes the national project itself and the construction of futures. The fundamental change in circumstances in Cuba from 1959 has marked our cultural development as individuals, as a collective and as a nation. This, in turn, provides critical capabilities for improved performance. In short, rigor is the grounding for that. The coordinated promotion of culture is the basis of that defense. However, I have the impression that it is taking us a lot of time and we are losing opportunities through not “updating” the current cultural policies. Fidel's “Words to the Intellectuals” will always be the foundation for the essential and inalienable principles, but the same changing scenarios that have led to updating policies in other areas of society do not justify avoiding the same upgrade in the field of cultural policy. What Fidel coined as a "battle of ideas" was projected far beyond the merely ideological arena and sought to bring about cultural change.

In our increasingly asymmetric and interconnected modern world, the boundaries for defending culture do not coincide with the geographic borders of sovereign states. It is necessary to go much further and, above all, much closer, to reach the individual's capacity for discernment. The real borders, culturally speaking, are found today in the culture of each individual; in their values, feelings, habits, preferences, practices, etc. And all these areas are influenced in each case by the (in)ability of the individual to exercise a critical appropriation of what's theirs and especially what's not.

The expressions of folklore, populism, elitism or provincialism also spring from the outdated nature of some of the existing mechanisms. If the quality of publications deteriorates in a territory, when it is a markedly institutional process, it is because more than one factor is failing. One of the ways in which it might fail may be linked to the way of reviewing and approving articles, which is usually carried out by a group of local peers who sometimes act as "judges" and sometimes as authors, and we already know where being both a judge and the plaintiff can lead. Why don't the actual editorial boards of one province draw more on competent peers from other territories?

Cultural work, like every human endeavor, is unfinished and perfectible. While there are some notable exceptions, any analysis of shortcomings will inevitably stumble, on the one hand, upon what has been lost or remains to be done in terms of focused and effective education of audiences, and, on the other, the comprehensive development of specialized critique.

C: How can we make sure that the defense of the nation from a cultural perspective is not confused with entrenchment and does not convey vulnerability? How do we promote a national culture that accepts the challenge of exchange, from a position of certainty and self-confident cultural awareness?

RGP: At this point in the conversation, I'll keep it brief. I don't think I have all the elements that give a solid enough answer. That, like everything in the cultural sphere, needs to be multi-faceted and participatory. In my opinion, we have a secular antidote in the voice of José Martí to deal with the risk of provincialism. This great thinker who ridiculed those who once denied Columbus a passage to the new world, and those who said we should fear the advance of the locomotive and who weren’t run over along the way, is the same one who was clear about the need to graft the world onto the central trunk of our republics. No culture is a solely endogenous creation. They all receive contributions from others. Sustainability in cultural terms requires the ability to make critical assimilations. This efficient assimilation is borne out of much more than necessity or defensiveness; it is also part of the ability to dialogue and influence beyond national space and physical time.


Traducido por Jackie Cannon


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