Friday, July 1, 2011

Translation: Alfredo Guevara & students 1

Regular readers of my blog need no introduction to Alfredo Guevara, a key figure in the Cuban Revolution from Fidel's generation. I translated an earlier exchange between Guevara and Cuban university students here and made some introductory comments on Guevara's role in the Cuban Revolution historically and today. This one is just as interesting and informative, if not more so, and covers new ground. It took place in March at Havana University in a forum hosted by the Faculty of Chemistry, the first in a series of such forums students from the faculty have initiated by creating a "Debate Space".

This in itself reflects the gradual opening up of more spaces for public debate on internal problems and the renewal of Cuba's socialist project. Equally interesting are the words of introduction by one of the student organisers on behalf of Debate Space, which I include in the translation. Given the length of the Spanish transcript, some 14,000 words, I've heavily abridged the translation to focus on what I think would be of greatest interest to readers of this blog, leaving aside the many detailed anecdotes and explorations of various topics related to cinematography and other cultural themes. I've tried to convey as many of the nuances and as much of the style of the original as possible. 

This is the first instalment of the translation. In the next instalment I'll post a selection of questions or comments from members of the faculty, both students and teaching staff, and Guevara's responses. I'm really looking forward to sharing these with you, I hope you find them 
as fascinating and encouraging as I do.

Debate Forum dialogue with Alfredo Guevara in the Faculty of Chemistry, Havana University

Part 1

Cubadebate website, June 22, 2011

Translation: Marce Cameron

Debate Space: OK, I'm going to start by reading out what we prepared, it's a bit all over the place so let's see how we go.

Since the collapse of the USSR and the disintegration of the Soviet socialist model, which many saw as based on scientific principles, our society has been experiencing, or has experienced, a marked economic deterioration. This has led to a serious economic and spiritual crisis among adults and youth alike. These harmful consequences have caused a great deal of uncertainty among everyone who lives in this marvellous archipelago, having waited for so long for a promised future that didn't materialise. At the same time it created an ideal breeding ground for all those who want to see the country torn apart, for all those who want to hand over their sovereignty on a silver platter in the glare of the great spectacle of global capitalism, the same capitalist world that has in recent years dispatched some of its most loyal lackeys against the social project we've been trying to advance.

It's because of this that the Cuban reality must be urgently changed by us Cubans, and in this task the country's youth have a protagonist role, not because somebody important says so but because it's in their nature to do so, and we are reminded daily that the life of a human being is ephemeral and it cannot, nor should it, be associated with the life of an entire country. To ensure the spontaneity of the social system we're building will be our great challenge, a system that doesn't depend on a single individual, a transparent system of which we would speak well not because it would be morally correct to do so, but because we believe it to be so. 

It's for all these reasons and many other that we've decided to create a forum for debate in the Faculty of Chemistry of Havana University, to which we'll invite intellectuals and well-known Cubans so that through a lively and uninhibited discussion with the public we'll be able to take up the key themes of national life. It will aim to be a tolerant space where reason and the truth prevail over forcefulness, or the truths of each participant, over the harmful pretence of unanimity.

The fundamental objective of this space is to stimulate the thinking and action of Cuban youth. The only idea that its tries to defend as immutable is the need for constant change. Our future socialist model will necessarily have to be distinct, different from that conceived by our principal historical leaders. Because of this, apathy must be killed. The youth of today cannot wait to receive orientations, they have to promote their initiatives even if these are not fully understood by others.

The creation of this space was an initiative of our Faculty, but this acknowledgement is purely formal since this space will belong to everyone, embodying the necessity to involve all those who feel themselves to be revolutionaries in this modest and sincere initiative for transforming Cuban citizens, above all the most youthful.

Our first guest could be no other than the compaƱero militant, film maker and professor Alfredo Guevara. This is not a happy coincidence, but is due to the fact that Professor Alfredo has been involved in the Revolution for more than half a century, and is one of the few revolutionaries to have been a protagonist in the most important events in the history of our homeland during this period. What's more, he has a magical touch when it comes to relating to young people, whether by conversing with them and drawing them in with his wonderful chats, or by listening to them attentively, understanding them and putting himself in their shoes.

When we went to see him to ask if he'd come and speak with us he had no objection, and what was going to be just a brief formal meeting turned into a very informative half-hour chat. The list of his merits is long and numerous, but since Alfredo is part of Havana University the only thing we're going to say in introducing him is that before us today we have a piece of the living history of our country, and we need to take maximum advantage of this so don't hold back from your questions because Alfredo won't hold back in responding to you. This is what I wanted to say.

Welcome, professor.

Alfredo Guevara: Well, good afternoon again. Thanks everyone for coming, I know everything's been a little stormy, as it is for me. It's tempestuous for me because for a year or so I've been having these kinds of meetings in various faculties and high-level study centres on my own initiative, and also by invitation, but always in some way making myself available. Because I believe that at this point in my life, after so much living and so much seeing and doing, this is a time in which I want to be, above all, bound to the youth, to the university youth in which I see hope for the future, all the more so in recent times, when I feel — I had felt it approaching — that perhaps we're going to find the path, the path out of this long period of difficulties.

Difficulties that aren't going to cease, of course, because they don't depend on us, but I think that the decisions taken, already taken publicly since December, and which we're in the middle of — I don't see everything I'd like to see now in March, but I don't lose hope — lead us to a situation in which, by necessity, these decisions will have to bring about profound changes in the structure, the functioning and the goals of our society. Since the meeting with the students at the Central University in Santa Clara, I've taken to calling these changes "destatisation", a word that hasn't been picked up by anyone, but I love it. In any case, somebody has said to me: "OK, this is your language and this is how you express yourself".

I believe that if we really want to de-bureaucratise and de-statise Cuban society — I'm not going to repeat what I said in Santa Clara — if we really achieve this, by necessity, society as a whole will show another face which will be, to me, that of the true society. That's to say we'll rediscover it, not because it existed before, but because it existed in the dreams, in the proposals of the Revolution since the beginning, we'll rediscover the true face of the society that my generation dreamed of.


I believe, and I don't want to avoid saying it in broad terms, I believe that the country regressed with the fall of the false socialist bloc, it was already beyond false when it collapsed, including the Soviet Union, false in terms of socialism and in terms of society ... we painted it as having certain characteristics that were completely nonexistent, and I can assure you that this is not theoretical speculation because I knew intimately and experienced first hand the nomenclatura of those countries.

I remember when I visited the USSR and Czechoslovakia every two years for the Moscow and Karlovy Vara Festivals, on these occasions we'd meet with the ministers — that's the title they were given — of cinema, and I realised then that apart from the Hungarian minister they were real phonies, real fakers, I had to go along with it. They were declaring victory as if we were beating Hollywood, and not only were we not matching Hollywood, but we haven't been able to and it won't be easy to do so because there are two Hollywoods: the B grade stuff which is what our TV is full of, and which poisons and stultifies everyone with the complicity of our media directors, but there's also a marvellous Hollywood of extraordinary films, artists, directors and screenwriters.


The collapse of the socialist bloc in 1990-1 led to the situation we find ourselves in today. At that time our leadership already had a mass — the word "mass" is awful, there were a sufficient number, I withdraw the word "mass" — a sufficient number of specialised university graduates, of young cadres that they could have handed over the leadership to, or rather they could have begun the transition from our generation to the young generation. But as you know, this collapse destroyed the basis of our economic development momentum, which was not great but we felt that we were advancing cautiously, but we had a structural dependence on the Soviet bloc's Council of Mutual Economic Assistance that meant that the leadership of the Revolution had to above all find ways of surviving.


I've said it before and I'll repeat it now, the greatest crime we could commit would be to accept that ignorance occupies leadership posts, ignorance embodied in people, that ignorance has power over others. There's still too much ignorance in our state and social organisations, including the Communist Party, there's too much ignorance with power over people. I think this is a state crime, and it's a crime that we must fully rectify: No to ignorance! To be able to have power over others one must have, above all, true knowledge about what one is going to lead and, of course, an ethical training. I'll dwell for a moment on ethical training and I'll try to finish up so I can hand over the floor to you.

We constantly talk about cadres here and there, of a crisis of values, of the neglect of certain formative values. I share this concern, and I think everyone has to be concerned about this and put as much emphasis as possible on the solution to the problems implicit in this. But it has to be said: the problem is not talking about a concern, the problem is finding solutions. Of course, one of the ways is addressing, in a most serious manner, education from the bottom up, from primary education and even at the preschool level. [...] An education that is not only patriotic but I'd say an education for civility, for living in society.

Our country, thanks to this enormous effort we've made during the past half century, with mistakes but with some virtues and this is one of them: we've reached this point where it can be considered feasible to have citizens, not just people who vote in elections if there are elections, or that give an opinion somewhere, and I hope that such opinions are acted on, because one of the principals to arrive at true citizenship is that People's Power is no longer simply popular but has real power.

I think we can hope that the proposed changes in the social fabric, that need not be eternal, can be modified and enriched and they must be modified and enriched permanently, the social fabric of popular power already exists, and for what purpose? I don't know where you all live, but I'm sure that if your parents or you yourselves actively participate in your neighbourhood, if someone contacts their People's Power municipal delegate it's because they're an extreme optimist, because the poor delegate is a poor devil who has had the courage to accept the role of delegate because surely nobody in the neighbourhood would want to be a delegate and do it under Party discipline, or state discipline or whatever, because he or she knows that it serves no purpose and all the citizens know it's useless. 

But if we reinvigorate this fabric that is actually embedded throughout society, if we reinvigorate it and instead of being People's Power it would be popular and have real power, I believe that we'd be taking a critical step towards socialist democracy which cannot be top-down, or bottom-up but constrained by 17,000 transmission belts. The transmission belts [i.e. the discouragement of grassroots initiative by Communist Party or state directives via a highly centralised administrative apparatus — translator's note] have become, instead of transmission belts, given that they encroach on everything, a true hindrance. In other words, a thick jungle in which nothing can be cultivated. I think this is the right moment to change this.

At present I'm studying with my team, a team of youths, a personality that I'd like to revive the memory of, that nobody here has heard of but that the whole world admires, Paul Lafargue. Lafarge was the first Cuban socialist, a native of Santiago de Cuba who later went to France and ended up becoming the son-in-law of Karl Marx, married to Laura, and Marx's representative in some of the gatherings of the First International, founding organisation of the socialist movement in Spain and other countries, and so on. Yet we've forgotten him, and he could be a treasure and an example for us.


I'd be very grateful — I know we've only just met — to hear any observations you may have, it may not be about the things I've said, we could take the discussion wherever we want, any question or opinions you'd like to express because I too must learn from you. I don't come here as a teacher, I come here to learn from you.

[Translation to be continued]

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