Sunday, February 14, 2010

Feb 13, Feria del Libro: Cubans call for Anti-Racism and Gringo Marxists call for Class Struggle

Feb 13
Feria del Libro: Cubans call for Anti-Racism and Gringo Marxists call for Class Struggle

The Feria del Libro in Havana is like no other book fair I have attended. The site for the fair is the Cabaña-Morro fort complex, sitting on a bluff with a magnificent view of the city’s skyline. Thousands of people arrive by the busload, school kids, families, the elderly, making the fair feel like a carnival more than a literary event. The passages of the fort are filled with bodies moving in and out of labyrinth cells that had at one point been a prison. The prisoners have been replaced with mountains of cheap books. The lines for the greasy food are often longer than the lines for the books. Feed your body and your soul for just a 3 Cuban peso entry fee.

Cuban books are incredibly cheap, around 10-20 Cuban pesos (40-80 US cents). This makes books accessible to the population but publishing is a losing financial proposition on the island, and so the more they sell, the less money the press has. Authors of books published by foreign presses must arrange to have the copyright donated to Cuban presses to allow this heavily subsidized system to make their books accessible to Cubans.

I saw a panel by historians discussing the history of race and racism in Cuba. They mostly spent their time talking about the silences that exist in Cuban historiography around the issue of race. Foreigners have made far more use of Cuban sources about race than Cubans because it has been hard to get approval in Cuba to study such topics. Recently there was a TV roundtable, Mesa Redonda, dedicated to the issue of race, suggesting more “official” openness on the topic. The historians recognized this opening but also complained that publishing books and having conferences will not change anything until the school curriculum is changed. One of the issues an audience member mentioned was the absence of the history of Africa in their curricula, something that many US universities, including mine, face. Eurocentrism thrives on this tropical socialist island, despite the rhetoric of solidarity among the people of the “South”.

The Cubans had some very insightful and open comments about racism in their society. Nobody there claimed that racism had been eliminated by the Revolution. Two foreigners, one a Spaniard and the other a guy from the US, spoke in the question and answer period, using a Marxist Leninist discourse that had been in vogue up the 1970s. When the gringo began talking about the “dictadura del proletariado” in Cuba as a positive thing, and commenting on the working class struggle in the US, I had to hang my head in shame. Que verguenza! It is a strange irony that the last hard line Marxist Leninists in Cuba should be Spaniards and North Americans, representatives of the two former colonial powers.

Nadine Gordimer, the South African nobel literature prize winner, released a Cuban version of her book “Caprichos de la naturaleza” at the fair. With all of the TV cameras rolling, Gordimer began by condemning the US occupation of Guantanamo Bay. “How can the US simply take possession of a piece of another country?” she asked quite astutely. But then, in what seemed like a scripted or at least prompted intervention, she also condemned the treatment of the five Cubans who have been convicted in US courts of spying for Cuba. I have not met one Cuban who cares much about the “5 Heroes,” in spite of government posters everywhere exhorting the public to demand the return of los Cinco. Whether or not the alleged “spies” have been treated fairly in US courts, it seems like there are more pressing issues facing Cuba that she might have addressed. In a later comment, she mentioned the problem of ghettoes in South Africa and also in Cuba. The Cuba part was left out by the Spanish translator. Gordimer also made the distinction between “committed writers,” who she called propagandistic writers, and other writers, who she explained, need to talk about all of the aspects of real life, not just from the perspective or for the benefit of one political party. Gordimer is a shining example of a writer, notwithstanding the Cinco Heroes comment.

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