1971. Anatomy of a crisis

A necessary dissection of a not too distant past.

When in early 2007 what would be called the “small email war” was launched by Cuban writers, artists and intellectuals, once again a conflict that, despite the years had still not been resolved, at least in the memory and soul of that social community, was brought up in the Cuban cultural sphere. Because the processes that took place in Cuba’s society and cultural policy starting in 1971, with their alarming antecedents and painful and dilated consequences throughout a grey quinquennium or black decade, demonstrated that it was still an open wound, to which the attempts of acritical recovery of certain protagonists of the cultural policy of that time added salt to the open wound.

During those days in which the Cuban servers were full of messages that went from surprise because of the inadmissible to the petition for a definitive reparation of the events of the past and the need to establish the impossibility of their repetition in the present or in the future, it was curious that many of those who sent their opinions barely knew in their most complex details the principal landmarks of what had occurred three and half decade ago. Because while the existence of a terrible period for Cuban culture which everyone referred to as grey quinquennium or black decade, with its dramatic and castrating results, was a well-known phenomenon, the internal dynamic (and even international) that led to such a state of things in the Cuban cultural sphere had been darkened by the relief of the passage of the years, the silence and the gradual overcoming of its conditions, written as well as practical. But, even from the lack of knowledge and from the certainty that we were living a different moment to the one that had generated the repressive state that became concrete in 1971, with the “small email war” it was confirmed that the Cuban cultural sphere was not ready to again suffer such lacerations and, above all, that it did not want to forget, as if that painful past had not existed for the individuals and for national culture.

Then it became well-known that stories and new analyses were missing of how and why a period had come about in which, from the power structures, it was hoped – and it was achieved to a great extent – to establish a cultural policy that with its Caribbean variant, copied the one that had characterised the Soviet Union with the rise of the aesthetics of the so-called socialist realism and the orthodoxy of trying to establish a single conception of intellectual work in a socialist society.

Undoubtedly, that absence of all-encompassing and deep views on the dynamics of that process has led, in a few days, for a book like El 71. Anatomía de una crisis (1971. Anatomy of a Crisis), an essay by Jorge Fornet (Letras Cubanas publishers, 2013), to be practically impossible to find. Its print run of barely 1,000 copies – as the printing house admits in a note – has served to materialise its existence, but without boosting its presence, even when it was known that a study of that year and of its crisis in the Cuban cultural sphere would have a great many readers, avid to find out about the twists and turns and conditions through which the crisis came to a dramatic climax and to make out its terrible direct and indirect, immediate and mediate consequences in the cultural history of the country.

El 71 is thus, above all, a necessary book, and it carries out that mission in several senses. Above all because of the organic recovery of a social, political, economic and cultural atmosphere of so much tension, like the one lived around that year, with the recounting of the most important and even trivial events that gave the period its character and colour. Then, because of the organisation and setting of facts, documents, speeches and even political needs and economic situations that preceded and contextualised the two summit moments of the history that was then culminating and opened its doors to the darkness of the future: the Education and Culture Congress held during the last week of April 1971 and the arrest and subsequent confession of faults by poet Heberto Padilla, a memorable event that occurred on the evening of April 27 at the venue of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba. To these two events, closely related and with very serious effects for Cuban culture and politics, the author dedicates the central chapters of his study, ordering and clarifying them, analysing and contextualising them not just for what they meant in themselves, but also seeing them as results of an evolution and as the start of a period of tragic consequences. But perhaps what gives character to the study of that crisis and what makes it a text of greater analytical depth and of indispensable recovery of the past, is precisely the tour that Jorge Fornet makes of its antecedents – above all those that occurred starting 1968 and the Cultural Congress of Havana – and of the immediate results they caused, especially Padilla’s detention and confession that produced so much talk and no action about the situation of intellectuals in Cuba on a local and international level.

I believe the higher value of this book can be found in the establishment and recounting of those antecedents and immediate causes unleashed by the landmarks of April 1971. Because while there was greater knowledge about the Education and Culture Congress, with its unfortunate Theses – on art, society, even on religion and homosexuality – and about Padilla’s public confession (increased with the discussions generated by the already mentioned “small email war”), the same did not happen about its internal and external, cultural and political surroundings where the reasons and signs that led to the crisis were found. Thus, the analysis of the close Cuban political alignment with the Soviet Union, the Latin American political situation after the death of Che and with the coming to power of Chilean Salvador Allende (1970-1973), the national economic situation after the failure of the Ten Million Sugar Harvest and the gradual fuelling of the country’s cultural atmosphere – especially with the successive articles of the character (or characters) that was hidden behind the pseudonym of Leopoldo Avila, which appeared in the magazine Verde Olivo and which were like a trial test for what would later come – serve the reader as a panorama in which it is possible to identify the how and why of the bigger events and, above all, of later ones: those that gave rise to a grey quinquennium or black decade in the Cuba of the 1970s…and even to understand the reasons for a subsequent change of cultural policy.

In Jorge Fornet’s description and dissection of the anatomy of that crisis one can take in the tremendous drama that took place inside Cuban society, especially its always volatile cultural world. The attacks and damaging remarks, which were followed by punishments and marginalisation of dozens of creators who were considered intellectuals not sufficiently revolutionary or, at least, not aware of the “historic moment” of the time, reveal the paths and styles with which the sentences of “civil death” were handed down to many artists and the way in which attempts were being made to impose a socialist realist aesthetics under the pretext of creating a real art of the people and for the people, alien to all pretended intellectual elitism.

The results of that crisis – against which the senders of the 2007 emails reacted – are announced by the essayist, though not in detail: their dimension is better known and, therefore, can remain implicit. But when putting in black and white the turmoil of the moment, Jorge Fornet makes an important contribution to the study of the recent Cuban cultural and social past while warning about the danger and unfortunate results to which an excess of political orthodoxy and a narrow vision of the complexities of the universe of artistic creation and the creators’ personality can lead to.

Fortunately, El 71. Anatomía de una crisis refers to a past that has been surmounted. This is the only way to explain the publishing – though limited – of this book or the chain reaction of the “small email war,” among other possible examples of the new circumstances. But even from the light of a diverse period, the study warns in a very revealing way how the methods, concept, empowerments that were used or executed based on orthodox and narrow-minded positions can affect the development of a culture, and weigh down for years its artistic production, as occurred as a result of the 1971 crisis, of whose anatomy Jorge Fornet makes a necessary autopsy. (2014)

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