Cuba’s Intellectual Blockade: U.S. Embargo or Cuban Censorship?
By Mae Henderson
R ecently, I had the opportunity, for a second time, to visit the small island nation of Cuba. I first went there during the 1970s, when I was a graduate student, and saw that nearest, and most distant, of neighboring countries. During a rare window of opportunity (Cuba had been closed to U.S. citizens), I and my best friend, having successfully survived our oral exams and both eager for adventure, joined an NAACP charter flight bound for a Latin country once reputed to be the playground of the Western world — then in the throes of social, political and economic transition, a land of mystery, romance and revolution.
Almost three decades later, in the spring of 2001, I returned to Cuba as part of a delegation of American artists and scholars participating in an academic conference sponsored by the U.S.-based literary and cultural journal Callaloo and the Cuban institute Casa de las Americas. Unlike the first time, when traveling to Cuba was something of an exotic journey to a foreign land, my return was more akin to a homecoming.
Today’s Cuba is still a land of transition — not, as previously, from capitalism to communism, but now from communism to capitalism. Unexpectedly, contemporary Cuba reminds me of nothing more than the Black Southern culture in which I grew up during the ’40s and ’50s. In the first instance, the automobile culture of Cuba takes me back to the era of the 1950s, with its wing-backed, chrome-plated, two-and-three-toned Chevy, Buick Electra, Dodge Imperial, Olds 88 and Ford Fairlane coupes and sedans, images that now invoke black and white photographs of cars parked outside the African Methodist Episcopal church on Sunday afternoons in my hometown of Fayetteville, N.C.
But it is not only the automobile culture that is reminiscent of an earlier era of my youth; it is the richness of an indigenous Afro-Cuban popular and folk culture that, once again, invokes for me the Black South of a bygone era. The rhythms of jazz emanating from the local clubs and cafés reminded me of nothing so much as the forbidden juke joints and house parties of the Black South of my childhood.
But on this trip, I encountered not only popular and folk culture, but contemporary Cuban intellectual and academic culture. The conference in which I participated, The Changing Academy in the United States, was organized in an effort to encourage greater dialogue and exchange between American and Cuban artists, performers and scholars. The Cuba I witnessed during this visit had not only survived the revolution, the missile crisis, and the Soviet Union; it also had survived the economic embargo. Cuba’s economy has been boosted, in part, through the assimilation of U.S. dollars into the peso economy through tourism, limited foreign investment, local private enterprise (e.g., the paladores, or privately “home-run” restaurants and what are, for the typical U.S. or European tourist, affordable bed and breakfasts and home rentals) as well as through personal remittances sent by Cubans in exile to relatives on the island.
For me, the most powerful and poignant moment of the conference occurred when a middle-aged Afro-Cuban professor of the social sciences responded to issues addressed by my panel, “Critical Theory, Literary History and Cultural Studies.” At the outset, she addressed the consequences of the embargo. Her comments both shocked and saddened me, for the embargo to which she referred was not economic, but intellectual — in effect, an information embargo that has functioned to keep scholars, artists and academics out of touch with contemporary currents of Western intellectual thought. It is this informational, or intellectual, embargo that affects all facets of Cuban academic, intellectual and scholarly life, especially in the arts and social sciences. And, for this reason, there was a kind of asymmetry in our discussions, since subjects such as U.S. feminism or poststructuralism or cultural studies draw on ideas that have been circulating only in the U.S. academy, some for the last 25 years or so.
The Cuban embargo, then, has been not only economic, but intellectual, and its impact has been as effective in barring the entry of information as it has been in barring foodstuffs and medical supplies to Cuba. With immense difficulty, Cuba has managed to survive the economic embargo for 40 years; the pressing question now is whether it can survive the information or intellectual embargo.
Historically, the ancient trade routes transported goods and information, commodities and ideas (thus reinforcing the notion that information and ideas are, in fact, commodities in the world of intellectual exchange). These transport routes for raw materials, foodstuffs, and luxury items also served as transit routes for the dissemination of knowledge. Like the Incense Route and the Trans-Saharan Route, the Silk and Spice Routes not only linked the major trade centers in Europe, Africa and Asia, they also served as information networks and communication highways, along which art, religion, culture, language and new inventions were transmitted. The point here is that ideas and information are our most valuable currency and commodity. Information and transport technologies inevitably change, but the value of intellectual commerce and information exchange remains as vital for the survival of our global community in the 21st century as they were in antiquity.
Thus, when it comes to communications and economics, to deprive any country or nation of open access in the sharing of ideas and information impoverishes all citizens of the world community. Open communication and knowledge dissemination in the arts and sciences are fundamentally incompatible with economic bans and prohibitions. In other words, the consequences of a trade embargo not only limit goods and services vital to a community’s material subsistence, but also those that are equally vital to its intellectual subsistence.
While critics as well as supporters of the economic embargo have recognized the fundamental importance of information and technology to Cuba’s growth and survival, few acknowledge the importance of access to advances in critical and social thought to the growth and development of Cuba’s academic and intellectual community. Without access to the eruption of subjugated knowledge as well as to the theoretical and critical advances that have transformed not only the modern academy, but social and political practices beyond the academy, how can we expect Cuba, to enter into the global community of scholars, intellectuals and academics? Given the success of the literacy initiative, and the high level of education and literacy in Cuba (recent studies have revealed that Cuba’s adult literacy rate is perhaps the highest in the world), free and unhampered knowledge access and circulation would seem as imperative to Cuba’s intellectual and academic economy as trade is to its material economy.
Not surprisingly, it is precisely this issue of intellectual commerce that preoccupies contemporary Cuban scholars, academics, intellectuals and artists. Throughout the conference, our Cuban colleagues called attention to the pressing need for printed matter — journals and textbooks. The independent libraries that have sprouted up throughout Cuba give eloquent testimony to this need (See David Gonzalez’ Santiago de Cuba Journal, In Book-Starved Cuba, Little Feasts for the Hungry, NYT International, June 6, 2001).
However, if the West has undergone something of an intellectual and philosophical paradigm shift during the last quarter century, resulting in what is now popularly described as postmodernism, it is Cuba, that is modeled popularly on the notion of the family state. In some respects, this provides the praxis for Western postmodern theory: its racial and cultural diversity and difference, its emphasis on the subjugated knowledge of popular and folk culture, its justly celebrated Afro-Cuban jazz performances,and its idealism tempered by pragmatic necessity in an economy undergoing rapid transition. All these represent sites of learning for those of us outside Cuba. Indeed, we have as much to learn from her history and culture, especially that of the last half-century or so, as Cuba has to learn from us.
Let us as scholars, intellectuals, and members of the global community, empower the Cubans with knowledge and culture of the world in which we all must live and learn from each other in order to survive in the 21st
— Dr. Mae Henderson is a professor
of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
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