Cuba at LASA 2015

The island viewed from diverse perspectives.

The recent meeting of the Latin America Studies Association (LASA) in San Juan, Puerto Rico, registered figures that surpassed previous conclaves: more than 5,500 participants who took part in a programme with more than 1,200 panels in just four days, from last May 27 to 30.

Following the fundamentals of contributing to the intellectual debate, research and education in the area, this 33rd International Congress of the association that brings together the largest amount of experts worldwide on subjects related to Latin America, had the aim, since it was summoned, of converging a greater diversity, with this edition bearing the slogan of “Precariousness, Exclusions and Emergencies.”


The programme coordinators’ message, signed by academicians Luis E. Cércamo-Huechante and Rosalva A. Hernández Castillo, highlighted the participation of specialists “who carry out significant researches, forge ideas and knowledge and are collective and public leaders of indigenous peoples, Afro communities, immigrant populations, women’s movements or organisations, sexual minorities, or abused, vulnerable, excluded and precarious human groups in the context of the current neoliberal age and of other state and social models that reproduce the contradictions of the global scenario.”


Meanwhile, it had been confirmed that more than one hundred Cubans from dissimilar origins and political tendencies would present papers. The fact also demanded interest in the context of the new possibilities in U.S.-Cuba relations made known last December 17 by Presidents Barack Obama and Raúl Castro, with the announcement of changes and the promise of others in the bilateral sphere.


The “Cuba issue” was discussed from the morning of the first day of the Congress, confirming the renewed interest that the island and almost all its topics have awoken in the international arena as a sort of virgin land, promising in commercial opportunities. The multiple sessions centred on Cubansophy were the academic resonance of the visits by fashion and pop music figures to Havana (very shared through the social networks), or the first-time allowed aerial photos taken by Lithuanian Marius Jovaiša and published in a book whose title does not need an explanation: Unseen Cuba.


In “Political Reform in Cuba,” Sharon L. Wrobel, of the University of Memphis, spoke of the administrative decentralisation under the 2011 Communist Party guidelines; Dayane Proenza, from the University of Havana, listed the strategic possibilities for economic work from the local levels on the island; and Concepción Nieves Ayús, from the Institute of Philosophy of Havana, followed the “continuity, separations and emergencies” in the socialist model currently being outlined. Late in the session of that Wednesday a forum was held on the diasporas and migrations in Cuba and their historic impacts and present challenges.


The new terms in the historic dialogue with the United States make Cuba a focus of attention as a market, now that U.S. companies are predicting their entrance in the largest of the Antillean islands, and with this the shift of other foreign investors is being forecast. A change in Washington’s foreign policy toward Latin America, a scenario in which Cuba had traditionally played the role of counterpart, is also being augured.


“Cuba in times of Raúl Castro: tendencies and new developments” summoned Ramón I. Centeno and Sara García Santamaría, from the University of Sheffield; Joseph Van de Voort, from Aarhus Universitet; Allesandro Badella, from the University of Genoa; Sara Romanò, from the University of Turin; Dayma Echevarría León, from the Centre for Cuban Economy Studies; and Ted A. Henken, from the City University of New York. The need for updating the Cuban journalistic model, civil society, private enterprise and the recent political changes were reviewed there.


At the end of his lecture, Professor Ted A. Henken said that what he had seen that day was impressive in the contribution of young Cubans from institutions as well as from the University of Havana as more independent and less pro-government groups.


Aspects of the new tax policy and the currency reforms were described in “The socio-economic changes in Cuba in light of the Guidelines,” with the participation of Ricardo Torres, Anabel Díaz Hurtado, María de los Ángeles Arias Guevara, Omar E. Pérez Villanueva, Mayra P. Espina and Paolo Spadoni.


Economists William A. Messina Jr., from the University of Florida; Armando Nova, from the Centre for Cuban Economy Studies; Federico Sulroca, from AZCUBA; Lázaro Peña Castellanos, Betsy Anaya Cruz, Aniciá E. García Álvarez and José Manuel Febles from the University of Havana; and Frederick S. Royce, from the University of Florida, in “The agricultural sector in Cuba: the economic transformations and their external insertion,” analysed the determining factors and alternatives of this sector, in the specific field of sugar as well as its industrial projection.


Almost at the end of LASA 2015, in one of the Murphy Halls of the Caribe Hilton Hotel, “Exclusions, exile and return in Cuban literature and its diaspora” was held, where papers were presented by researchers Iraida H. López about the visibility of Cuban-American literature on the island; Norge Esinosa about Reinaldo Arenas; Elizabeth Mirabal about Carlos Victoria; Carlos Velazco about Guillermo Rosales; and Omar Granados about Cabrera Infante.


Granados, professor at the University of Wisconsin, in the midst of what he defined “such an antagonistic and politicised literature,” highlighted in the novels La ninfa inconstante, Cuerpos divinos and Mapa dibujado por un espía “an intense exercise of reflection by Cabrera Infante about the process of literary creation itself, memory and its relationship with power. These texts, as I see them, attempt a different rescue of a kidnapped reader, perhaps giving a peep of the anxiety of another writer, now concerned with the disappearance, I say, of his ideal reader.” In his paper “Carlos Victoria: the return that repeats itself,” Mirabal noted Victoria’s work: “It is not a correlative literature of the exile, since it concentrates on achieving a Cuban destiny beyond geography.”


This panel lasted during a 45-minute debate, in which poet Michel H. Miranda insisted: “The idea of transition we had is a waste of time, everything has to be rewritten, everything has to be re-founded,” and he assessed the current importance of “ensuring that the memory, that the symbolic reservoir of the exiled writers” is not lost, while narrator and journalist Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo affirmed: “There could be a void of six months or of six years, where no more essays or philosophy will be published in Cuba, and that doesn’t mean there aren’t brilliant persons thinking inside or outside of the island,” making an invitation to assess as alternative means of publishing works: the digital format, printed matter and libraries, which are “leaving a corpus.”


Parallel to the Congress, on the night of May 28 the release of Cartas a Consuelo, published by the Puerto Rican Folium Publishers, took place in the Tertulia del Viejo San Juan library. A great many of these letters of Julia de Burgos to her family, the first intimate text by her that has come to light, a part of which is dated between 1939 and 1953 from Cuba, gives us the Puerto Rican poetess’ perspective of cities like Havana, Santa Clara, Trinidad, Santiago de Cuba and Holguín, and the proof of her relations with Cuban intellectuals Serafina Núñez, Herminia del Portal, Renée Potts and Manuel Navarro Luna.


It is necessary to recognise that this LASA 2015 represented a fragmented event of panels and lectures in simultaneous presentations. The debates took place most of the time in small halls, and in the case of the larger ones, before audiences that were not always numerous. Much was discussed about Cuba, but in Puerto Rico, and we still have to see how much of that thinking as a result of the discussion will reach its natural implicated persons on the island and if the strategies that knowledge can advance will be taken into account. (2015)

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