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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Minima Cuba: Heretical Poetics and Power in Post-Soviet Cuba

The Eighties and Nineties

Power practices shifted in the nineties with the emergence of a biopolitical regime. At the beginning of the so-called Special Period, Fidel Castro stated that Cuba could no longer construct socialism but had to save its achievements. His pronouncement “La cultura es lo primero que hay que salvar” (Culture is what must be saved) appears as the title of the Fifth Congress Proceedings of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) in 1993 (Memorias 1993). These claims indicate that Fidel’s political strategy following the crisis was articulated as the political necessity to make live. The intellectual voices that had been rendered invisible during the sixties had to be made visible anew. These policies responded to an erosion of national culture such as the one that had taken place during the Republic. The national building project of the revolution was based on culturally mediated forms that strongly articulated the social and the state, but during the nineties this paradigm collapsed. The crisis of this model put an end to the possibility of actualizing the myth of the New Man imagined by Guevara in “Socialism and Man in Cuba.” According to Guevara’s calculations, the New Man was to emerge in the nineties, but by then real socialism had collapsed and the ideological momentum that made the revolution possible had withered. These two facts explain why the generation of the nineties immediately identified with postmodernity and its lack of utopian desire instead of embracing the revolutionary enthusiasm represented by the New Man.

State officials were well aware of this. For example, Minister of Culture Armando Hart argued that “the generation of intellectuals formed in, and by, the revolution is interested in politics and desires to participate in it, but its members have felt the terrible impact of the socialist reversal of the eighties” (Hart 1988, 56). Indeed, since the beginning of that decade, postmodernist rhetoric and aesthetics had become pervasive in all cultural forms, especially written works. Margarita Mateo Palmer was the first scholar to theorize the rise of postmodernism in Cuban literature in Ella escribia poscntica (She Wrote Postcriticism), a book of essays that won the Premio Nacional de la Critica in 1996. The aesthetics of transgression that Mateo Palmer discussed was not necessarily at odds with revolutionary values. Postmodern trends included claims in favor of popular culture, marginal identities, and testimonial values. She failed to acknowledge, however, that recent fiction showed a general skepticism of utopian ideals, which is precisely the type of skepticism that government officials criticized in young writers: “Ahora ante la tragedia moral de la llamada postmodernidad, recuerdo otro pensamiento del Apostol: ‘No hay proa que taje una nube de ideas. Una idea energica flameada a tiempo ante el mundo, para, como la bandera mistica del juicio final, a un escuadron de acorazados’ [Today, faced with the moral tragedy of so-called postmodernity, I recall another maxim of the Apostle [Marti]: ‘No ship’s bow can cut through a cloud of ideas. An energetic idea that flutters early enough before the world will halt, like the mystical flag of the final judgment, a fleet of battleships]’ ” (ibid., 60). Through his reference to Marti, Hart sought to emphasize the continuation of the revolution’s ideological project. This gesture can only be read as an overcompensation for the regime’s political and economic contradictions.

In a context where the grand narratives were being questioned, the revival of the Grupo Origenes made much political sense. Since the unity of the nation was crumbling and the younger generation of intellectuals was contributing to this collapse, it became imperative to recover the works of writers, who, like Lezama, had focused on the crisis and construction of national identity. Two years after Batista’s coup, in a letter addressed to Spanish philosopher Maria Zambrano, Lezama had bitterly denounced the disintegration of the nation during the Republic: “No parece alzarse nunca la recta interpretacion, a la veracidad, todo para fruto de escamoteos, de sustituciones. Si los profetas le llamaban a Babilonia la gran prostituta, icomo no llamarle a nuestra querida isla, la gran mentirosa? Se corrompe la palabra [Correct interpretation and truthfulness never seem to carry the day, all because of sleight of hand and substitutions. If the prophets called Babylon the great whore, how can we not call our dear island the great liar? The word is being corrupted]” (Lezama 2001, 550). This was a corruption that the Grupo Origenes had fiercely criticized. During the Republic, the Grupo Origenes, specifically Lezama, had been very critical of Fulgencio Batista’s 1952 coup and the ensuing political unfolding of his kleptocracy. Lezama’s concern about the national project of the literary canon was then appropriated by Vitier, who read his work as an allegorical representation of the nation’s teleological destiny. Like Vitier, Abel Prieto stated that, for Lezama, the literary and political project of the nation during the Republic was exhausted. Prieto also drew a parallel between the cultural and ideological crisis of the Republic and that of the nineties. In his opening speech of UNEAC’s Fifth Congress, Prieto called for the reestablishment of a national literature of resistance capable of articulating the revolution’s teleological project: “Sabemos, aunque vale la pena repetirlo, que la cultura forma parte sustancial del esfuerzo de resistencia de la Cuba de hoy. Tambien sabemos que es una de las formas de hacer visible ese ramo de fuego, de hacer cristali- zar ese milagro, esa experiencia peculiar de sentir la ‘historia de muchos en una sola vision,’ la formula idonea para que el hombre fragmento encuentre la imantacion para hacer avanzar el proyecto de todos [We know, although it is worth repeating, that culture is a substantial part of the resistance effort of today’s Cuba. We also know that it is one of the ways to make visible this flaming branch, to crystallize this miracle, that particular experience of feeling the ‘story of many in a single vision,’ the proper formula allowing fragmented man to develop the magnetism necessary to advance the project of all]” (Prieto 1993, 53).

This cultural politics also aligned with the new ideological turn toward a Martian nationalist project that superseded the traditional emphasis on Marxism Leninism.6 The nationalist emphasis on Marti’s legacy actually revealed a political disavowal. That is, on the one hand, the country opened up to integrated world capitalism because the government recognized the economic impasse and took drastic measures to overcome it. On the other hand, the government refused to acknowledge the political crisis caused by the disappearance of socialism as realistic politics. As Rafael Rojas noted, “Paradojicamente, mientras el estado cubano flexibiliza su idea de sf mismo y cede una porcion de la iniciativa economica a la sociedad, nuestra cul- tura polhica pretende definirse desde un nacionalismo cada vez mas intran- sigente [Paradoxically, while the Cuban state is making more flexible its self-conception and ceding part of the economic initiative to society, our political culture is seeking to define itself through an increasingly intransigent nationalism]” (Rojas 1998, 53). The revival of Marrf’s legacy was one more consequence of biopolitics. Reviving Marrf and Lezama was a purely instrumental gesture. The objective was the control of bodies, because these discourses were written from the emptiness of a body devoid of subjectivity. Lezama and Pinera were ostracized in the seventies above all because of their sexuality. Their bodies disappeared, as it were, and during the nineties they were brought back. The new discussion of Lezama took on transcendental and political overtones. Like many other writers from the nineties, the members of Diaspora(s) brought the body and sexuality to the fore. Pedro Marques de Armas, for instance, wrote Fasciculos sobre Lezama, a psychoanalytical interpretation of sexuality in Oppiano Licario. Diaspora(s) also sought to debunk the biopolitical revival of Lezama.

During the eighties and the nineties, two different and ideologically opposed recuperations of Orfgenes emerged. First, a series of state-sponsored cultural events around the figure of Lezama generated a renewed interest in Orfgenes among his first critics, especially Orfgenes-affiliated critics such as Vitier and Fina Garda Marruz, as well as Fernandez Retamar, whom Lezama had mentored. Second, the younger contemporary poets took increasing critical interest in Orfgenes. Why were Orfgenes’s first critics involved in this new critical reawakening? Mainly because of the ideological proximity between them and cultural officials. During the eighties and nineties, intellectuals belonging to this older generation held important positions in cultural institutions and followed the ideological line of the Ministry of Culture and the government. Cultural officials looked on Vitier, Fernandez Retamar, and Garaa Marruz as the experts on Orfgenes. The expertise of Garaa Marruz and Vitier on Lezama was legitimated by their intellectual involvement in Orfgenes. Above all, they won official support because, despite their Catholicism, they read Lezama teleologically, coinciding with the utopian version of the revolution as a historical process. Vitier, Garda Marruz, and future culture minister Abel Prieto were selected by the Ministry of Culture to attend the international colloquium on Lezama’s work in Poitiers, France, in 1982. The degree of institutional involvement in this conference indicates the ideological importance of a topic that would not have received official support during the two previous decades. In the discus?sion of sexuality in Lezama’s novels, these critics’ interpretations contributed to the dissemination of a biopolitical discourse.

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