From Buenos Aires to Paris, for a conference on culture in Cuba. Unfortunately the organisers invited Cuban speakers from both Havana and outside, without realising that those from Havana would not attend, not out of individual choice but because it’s policy — the Cuban government operates a ban on allowing its artists and intellectuals to appear in public alongside those who have opted to leave the country and call themselves exiles. Since the final session is given over to a couple of the latter, Abilio Estévez and Zoé Valdés (although Estévez, who now has Spanish citizenship, goes back on visits), the conference ends on a downer. It’s certainly instructive to hear what they have to say, but it’s impossible to enter into dialogue with them, because they tend to have a rather fixed perspective.
I listen to their accounts and it strikes me that I have friends in Cuba who have personal stories almost exactly the same as these but who haven’t chosen to leave. This is to say that the term ‘exile’ is misleading: it’s a self-exile. It’s true that the State imposes pressures on writers of a kind that are hardly acceptable in the western democracies, but this is a kind of half-truth. For one thing, the mainstream media in the latter are hugely censorious in the attitudes they deem acceptable; to get new ideas taken seriously is a hard and bitter struggle. In other words, the State doesn’t need to intervene — except when it feels threatened by a broadcaster, say the BBC, stepping of line.
But there’s another side to this. Let me draw what will seem to some an outrageous comparison: with Israeli intellectuals who have chosen to take up residence abroad because they reject the basis of the Zionist State. They are not forced to leave, indeed their freedom to publish in Israel is not curtailed, but their position, were they to stay, would become extremely uncomfortable. But again, there are others — not many, but a few, who occupy similar positions but nevertheless remain. Should we call those who have left exiles or emigrants?
What you also have to take into account is that the bitter rejection within Cuba of those who left as gusanos and counter-revolutionaries and escoria belongs to history, and since the early 90s, an increasing number of emigrants have left for economic reasons. Among the first were film-makers and technicians and musicians, for whom overseas employment was relatively easy to obtain — although there was also a wave of emigration by a generation of young artists, the avant garde of the 80s, as the result of official disfavour. None of this is a secret in Cuba: the themes of emigration and divided families, exile and internal exile, the desire for forbidden travel, all these have been played out in Cuban films of every genre since the early 90s.
The final session of the event also revealed a certain difference between generations in the audience. Almost all the questions to the two writers came from the younger listeners, the postgraduate students whose politics will have been shaped by post-communism. The questions were neutral (‘Would you go back to live in Cuba if it were possible?’ asks one) and produced subtly different responses.
Clearly both writers were aware of the susceptibilities of an academic audience, and the experiences they described did not amount to a claim that Cuban communism can be equated with Stalinism. Indeed Estévez, recalling the 70s as a grey decade, emphasised grey, not black, and enumerated all the things it wasn’t — there were neither disappearances, nor concentration camps, nor labour camps (which is also to say, though he didn’t actually say so, that the labour camps of the late 60s, the UMAPs, were short lived, and no longer a threat to non-conformists like himself).
None of this, I should add, implies any judgement on whether they are good writers — I cannot say, because I haven’t read them. What I know a little bit about, and spoke of when it was my turn, is that there’s a very lively and exciting independent video movement in Cuba, which is taking on the role of a cultural vanguard that isn’t cowed by the weight of the one-party state. In this field, at least, Cuba is not living in the past, any more than the rest of Latin America, which has brought Cuba back into the fold in defiance of Washington — in short, a contemporary hemispherical reality which Obama has not yet recognised.