Cuba in Nottingham

A short note on the Cuba Research Forum conference which has just taken place at Nottingham, which suggests that international research on Cuba is in good health. Under the as-ever cheerful helm of Tony Kapcia, we heard from speakers of various nationalities, either based in the UK or abroad, and several Cubans, ditto, including, from Havana, the redoubtable Fernando Martínez Heredia, who spoke about the diverse origins of Cuban socialism. We also enjoyed a special lecture delivered with great verve by the distinguished Cuban-American historian, Louis Pérez, outlining his current work on the nineteenth century Cuban middle class and the figure of the coquette, a suggestive rethinking of cultural history. As always the forum was multidisciplinary and covered an impressively wide range of topics: Cuban postcards of the early twentieth century in one session, a bibliometric study of Cuba’s international scientific cooperation in another, the prospects for the entry of international pharma into the Cuban market in a third. There were papers on expectable topics—race, politics, sexuality—and new ones, like the internet. A generous sharing of knowledge by scholars young and old. In a final session, ‘The Perpetual Question of Identity’, Tony himself spoke about the changing vocabulary for describing Cuban emigrés, and Jean Stubbs reported on her research (with Cathie Krull) into emigré communities in Canada and Western Europe.

The presiding spirit was that of the late Alistair Hennessy, a consumate historian, whose library forms the core of Nottingham’s invaluable Hennesy Collection on Cuba. (Another American visitor, Christopher Schmidt-Nowara, talked lucidly about Hennesy’s work on Spanish history.) The overall effect was that a powerful sense of history weaving in and out of this multifarious research, including several papers that foregrounded questions of social memory, so that even synchronic investigations came across as diachronic snapshots. The interesting thing is that this historical sense was open and exploratory. More than that: there was a palpable undercurrent running through the three days that historical judgement can only be provisional and open-ended because Cuba is a country on the verge of an unknown future—a problematic which several papers (like Steve Ludlam on the reform of the Labour Code) addressed directly. A transition is well underway but its destination remains quite uncertain. Raúl Castro’s dictum about a process to be carried out carefully and without haste came up several times. What we’re looking at is unfinished business.

I came away with the same impression that I’ve had on recent visits to the island, that Cuba gives you a sense of time suspended.  A feeling that puts me in mind of Derrida’s distinction between the ordinary future, the expectable passage of tomorrow and next week, and l’avenir, the yet-to-come, the future as unanticipated, unforeseen, unknowable. As if Cuba is hanging between the two, knowing that the unknowable future is just around the corner. But not quite like waiting for the Scottish referendum, because here we know that whatever the result, l’avenir will arrive on 18th September.

My own contribution was about ‘The Changing Shape of Cuban Cinema’. By way of a teaser, here’s the abstract:

In May 2013, Cuba’s new Culture Minister, Rafael Bernal, announced that the time had come for the film institute, ICAIC,  to be ‘restructured’—the term serves as a euphemism for slimming down, in line with reforms in Cuba’s state-owned economy announced by President Raúl Castro three years ago, which have recently entered a new phase. An official commission is currently exploring how to accomplish the task, but there is also an action committee of filmmakers, dubbed the group of 20, which has its own agenda of demands. This committee was set up at an emergency meeting in response to the Minister’s announcement, which by all accounts was an extraordinary event,  the first time that Cuban filmmakers of all generation have assembled together, old and young, members of the Institute and independents, to discuss a series of problems which have been troubling them for several years. This paper will try to unravel the issues and assess the prospects.

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