CUBA REPRESENT! By Sujatha Fernandes

April 10, 2008


by Sujatha Fernandes, 2006, Duke University Press, 218 pages,
$21.95 paperback

I arrived in Havana in June 2002, fully unprepared for the strength of the summer sun and the Cuban penchant for smoking fervently in small, enclosed spaces. I quickly acclimated to both, but I wouldn’t come to realize for some time that I was also rather unprepared for the complexity with which Cubans analyze and address their political situation and their lived realities. The dollar economy was at its height, and I was there to study the impacts of the dual currency system and the partial legalization of small private enterprises—paladares and casas particulares, mainly—for a research project on tourism for a small nonprofit here in the U.S. While the project was steered in a different direction by my colleagues at the Center for the Study of Tourism at the University of Havana, I continued my own research on the impact of what is most often referred to here in the U.S. as the “opening” to market mechanisms necessitated by the economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the onset of the Special Period.

For all of my official research—at the University, at various Cuban ministries and at the several divisions of the United Nations set up in rambling expropriated mansions in Miramar—the vast majority of what I learned about tourism in Cuba, and the impact of the dollar, came from ordinary Cubans. It came from the three generations who lived in the home where I stayed, talking into the night over strong rum cocktails and what seemed like endless overdubbed episodes of Murder, She Wrote on state television. It came from the friends I made while dancing in the rain at UNEAC, the Writers and Artists Guild. It came from the kids outside a rock show I encountered while wandering lost through Havana one day, and the young men fixing bicycles in a small shack on the street in Cayo Hueso. Often, it came during conversations held over the ubiquitous speeches of Fidel, when Cubans were eager to share with the only yanqui in the room their thoughts on what they had gained and what they had given up for the revolution.

The complexity and contradictions of Cuban self-reflection are referred to by Cubans as the doble moral—a term that was once used pejoratively and is literally translated as “duplicity” but has come to mean the simultaneous desire to maintain the ideals and values of the revolution and to recognize their dissonance with aspects of lived reality. The way in which Cubans and the Cuban state grapple with this dissonance is at the heart of Sujatha Fernandes’ new book, Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures. In trying to understand how the state has sought to maintain hegemony since the beginning of the Special Period, when the economic foundations upon which the Revolution had previously rested collapsed, Fernandes examines the ways in which the arts—specifically film, hip-hop and visual art—have become spaces for the negotiation of a new, cultural model of the Cuban state’s hegemony.

Because autonomous political organizing is proscribed, the arts have become an important location for critical analyses of the Cuban situation. At the same time, because the economic foundations of the Revolution have seriously eroded, the Cuban state has sought new ways to define the revolutionary project and “reincorporate and reintegrate” the Cuban people into the state through selectively supporting artistic projects and institutionalizing “underground” or previously unorganized groups of artists. Negotiating this reconstruction of hegemony does not, Fernandes finds, rely solely upon the imposition of bureaucratic domination. Rather, critical artistic expression both shapes and is shaped by the state, with constant concessions and compromises from both above and below. By complicating the notion of hegemony and its maintenance with the critical role played by culture, Fernandes has made a key contribution to the scholarship on hegemony.

That said, because the onset of the crisis that necessitated this renegotiation was economic in nature, the market is nearly always a factor in these negotiations—but Fernandes’ model of “partial reincorporation” of critical culture fails to provide a cohesive framework with which we are to understand the role of the market in this process. In each of the areas she studies (with varying methodologies), the role of the market—the black market for everyday goods, the official and informal tourist markets, and the international markets for art, music and film—is central.

We are told that “the state may shield cultural producers from the global market, just as it plays an important role in the external promotion and internal commodification of culture and artists. Likewise, commercialization provides opportunities and alternative strategies for artists as it submits them to new criteria of marketability and profit.” And she describes, often in great detail, the role that the market plays for various cultural actors in shaping their work.

And yet, somehow, the market—and the central role it has played in changing Cuban society in the last 15 years—is not cohesively incorporated into her model of the reconstruction of hegemony through culture. The critical art that Fernandes examines is situated firmly within the economic realities of contemporary Cuba, and much of it deals directly with increasing polarization and inequality since the onset of the Special Period. But in arguing that the state has attempted to shift some of its hegemonic project from a socialist (and therefore economic) one, to a nationalist (and therefore cultural) one, we are left with a concept of the market that is incidental to the negotiations of hegemony, varying from actor to actor, and playing little part in the construction of the “permissible” within the new hegemonic model. Given the massive transformations that have taken place since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the even greater changes to come when the Revolution loses its leader, questions about the role of the market in constructing the Cuban state and its revolutionary project are critical. So while Cuba Represent! makes an important contribution to our understanding of how a surprisingly permeable and flexible state deals with and incorporates criticism, her analysis chooses to pretermit, rather than confront, the role that capitalist pressure plays in the negotiation of hegemony in Cuba.

Christy Thornton is NACLA's Executive Director.


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