Cuban poet discusses artistic freedom

By Vanessa Knapton, in the Militant,
Vol. 59, no. 40. 30 October, 1995

LOS ANGELES - "Despite the increased economic hardships caused by the U.S. embargo, there is greater artistic freedom than ever before in Cuba today," Norberto Codina explained. He was speaking to a group of students who had turned out to a meeting at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA) to hear the Cuban poet and editor.

Codina, editor of La Gaceta de Cuba, a cultural magazine published by the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), spoke at several events in Los Angeles as part of a four-week lecture tour that began in Washington, D.C., and continues in Houston and New York. Carlos Ugalde, a professor at Glendale Community College, and John Shapley, president of UCLA's Graduate Students Association, gave introductory remarks at the meeting. Both are part of the Norberto Codina Lectures Committee, which sponsored his four-city tour.

Codina noted that in the United States there is a perception that the Cuban government interferes with artistic freedom and that artists in Cuba must either be underground or on the payroll of the government, and that they have to be members of the Communist Party to travel abroad.

"This is not true," Codina said. "I myself am not a member of the Communist Party and though I am an employee of the government, I am not a docile one." As editor of La Gaceta, Codina added, "I face no censorship board; I answer to no censors." In fact, he stated, artists and "art have never been more audacious, have never been freer in Cuba than they are today."

About 80 people turned out to hear the Cuban writer speak at Macondo Cultural Center on the economic and political conditions artists face in Cuba. The event was chaired by Paula Solomon, co-chair of the Los Angeles Coalition in Solidarity with Cuba.

Even with the current economic crisis, exacerbated by the added restrictions on trade and travel imposed last year by the Clinton administration, Cuba still has been able to maintain its most important cultural institutions. It continues to sponsor numerous cultural events - international film festivals, the Havana Book Fair, and international photography exhibits - and provide scholarships for artists.

This is only possible, Codina underlined, "because of the generalization of culture and art at all levels of society." He explained that one of the significant achievements of the Cuban revolution of 1959 was the encouragement of artistic and cultural development for students, workers, and peasants. This began, he said, with the literacy campaigns of the early 1960s through which virtually all workers and peasants in Cuba learned to read and continued with systematic efforts to raise the level of schooling of the entire population, young and old. These campaigns opened up academic possibilities for Cubans that are unparalleled in Latin America and even in much wealthier countries.

With the creation of art schools all over the country from primary to high school level, Cubans "fought against the concept of art only for the elite," Codina emphasized. It became possible for artists, even for those who were from working-class or peasant families, to "become professionals and travel to other countries to show their work."

Many of the current discussions in Cuba on art and culture are reflected in the pages of La Gaceta. Hotly debated topics like gays, religion, and the problem of prostitution in Cuba are all discussed in the magazine.

Cuba is not a dreamland, as some people may want to say, Codina remarked, but also it is not as bad as some portray it. "Cuba is not a paradise, and it is not a hell." Cuban artists are conscious of these realities and they reflect that in their art.

For example, the recent phenomenon of beggars in Cuba has been a shock to him as it is to other Cubans, Codina commented, and he incorporated it into one of his poems. "Until recently, I had only heard stories about homeless Cubans in prerevolutionary Cuba. Still, the small number of beggars in all of Cuba today would pale in comparison to the beggars in Washington, D.C. alone."

During his one-week visit in this area, the editor of La Gaceta was sponsored by faculty members at California State University-Los Angeles, UCLA, and Glendale Community College. He also spoke at two bookstores, including a meeting of about 30 at Arroyo Bookstore, which was attended by a number of people from the largely Mexican community.

Codina met with Mayor William Paparian of Pasadena and some of his staff. Paparian expressed his strong opposition to the U.S. embargo of Cuba. He extended an open invitation to other Cubans to visit the city and expressed interest in visiting Cuba himself. Also at the meeting were the city manager and the director of the Pasadena city libraries.

By the end of the week, Cuba solidarity activists had sold 25 copies of La Gaceta at Codina's meetings. They also made plans to sytematically contact a number of people who expressed interest in subscribing to the magazine, which is distributed in the United States by Pathfinder.

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