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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

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ISC 18. Part Three : Cuba, Culture and Development

8. Culture, Comrades and Castro

By John Pateman

"One white rose I plant In June as in January For the friend that is sincere And offers me his honest hand" (Jose Marti)

I have just returned from a feast of cultural debate and entertainment in Havana, Cuba. I am referring to the Third International Congress of Culture and Development, held at the Havana International Conference Centre, Cuba, from 9-12 June 2003. I was invited to this congress last year by Ismael Gonzalez, Vice Minister of Culture, when he presented me with the National Culture Award. This year comrade Ismael was to do me an even greater honour inviting me onto the stage with Fidel Castro at the closing ceremony of the congress.

The congress was a forum where professionals and intellectuals from all parts of the world could meet and exchange ideas. Working together, our aim was to contribute to the future development of all people and to a more peaceful world. The congress was also an opportunity to celebrate the life and work of the Cuban National Hero Jose Marti, in the year commemorating his 150th birthday. The congress programme was complemented by an excellent cultural programme, which show cased the best of Cuban culture.

The opening event in the cultural programme was a performance by the Contemporary Dance Group of Cuba at the Mella Theatre. This included modern dances to music by Philip Glass, Dmitri Shostakovich and Duke Ellington. There was some audience participation which was great for shaking off the last of our jet lag. The opening ceremony of the congress was held in the National Theatre of Cuba in Revolution Square. This concert included dance, music and singing and featured Conjunto Folclorico (a folklore dance group) and Omara Portuondo (from the Buena Vista Social Club).

The congress programme, which was organised in 10 Forums, also included lectures, round tables, workshops and panels. I was a member of Forum 8 which looked at Libraries in the Developing World. The Forum was chaired by Eliades Acosta, who is the Director of Cuba's National Library. Eliades is a giant in every sense of the word. He is big physically, with a full beard which gives him a passing resemblance to Fidel. And he is big intellectually, as well, with excellent analytical abilities and his interventions at the congress were both powerful and profound. Always looking for opportunities to put idea into action, Eliades lead us through the week and Forum members have pledged to stay in touch and continue our work of building solidarity with Cuban libraries.

There were two other Forums with a close relationship to libraries: Reading, Books and Literature in the Third Millennium; and Culture in the Digital Era. Other Forums included Art, Theatre, Music and National Heritage. In the afternoon there were visits to cultural institutions such as the National Museum of Fine Arts, Higher Institute of Arts, National School of Ballet, San Alejandro School of Fine Arts and the Teacher Training School of Art. The first day of the congress was taken up by a plenary session followed by the formation of the Forums. In the evening we were taken to the Amadeo Roldan Theatre for a performance by the Brazilian musician Egberto Gismonti. He played a series of pieces on classical guitar and grand piano, including Selva Amazonica, Ciranda Nordestina and Lundu.

The opening session of Forum 8 started with a round table discussion on Libraries and the cultural identity of Developing World peoples, with participants from Cuba, Chile and Mexico. This was followed by a debate about National Libraries: the defence and preservation of the historical legacy and the bibliographic heritage of the nation. One of the papers was about the destruction of the National Library of Iraq on 14 April 2003. We resolved to call on the international library community to mark 14 April with a series of events each year to remember this atrocity.

The afternoon session - Libraries, reading and community - featured some brilliant papers from Cuban librarians about the excellent social intervention work which they are engaged in. We heard about the National Reading Programme, and we met a real independent librarian (as opposed to those which are funded and supported by the US Interests Section). Agustin Marquez is a maths teacher who has a collection of books at home which he lends to his pupils to develop their love of reading. We also saw an example of children's oral story telling

"Singing and playing" at the Julio Antonio Mella Provincial Library in Camaguey. And we were introduced to a Literary Pharmacy where prescriptions are issued recommending good books.

There were also papers on reading and the social integration of children with learning difficulties, "Journey to the Dragon's Dwelling" (promotion of reading in the community) and activities that encourage reading in the borough of Uruapan, Michoacan, Mexico. In the evening we went to the Grand Theatre of Havana to see the world famous National Ballet of Cuba. The opening piece

La Casa de Bernarda Alba (Federico Garcia Lorca) was very dark and modern; the second piece, Canto Vital, featured four of Cuba's best male dancers; and the final piece, Paquita, was very traditional with delightful costumes and solo performances.

The next session of Forum 8 discussed libraries, programmes of sustainable development and the role of libraries in the training of human resources. This was followed by a debate about libraries in the globalised world, with contributions from Mexico, Cuba, Great Britain and Venezuela. I presented a paper on libraries contribution to solidarity and social justice in a world of neo-liberal globalisation, in which I spoke about the work of Information for Social Change and the Cuban Library Support Group.

The afternoon session libraries and current social challenges included contributions from Columbia (libraries, information, literacy campaigns and the culture of information), the USA (the new roles for librarians at Historically Black Colleges and Universities in the United States) and Turkey (online academic libraries in Turkey).

The Plenary Session which followed was dominated by the announcement that the European Union was taking a series of measures against Cuba: to limit bilateral high-level government visits; to reduce the participation of member states in cultural events (which was of particular interest and concern to congress participants); to invite Cuban dissidents to national holiday celebrations; and to re-examine the European Union's Common Position on Cuba. There was a general feeling of outrage about these measures by congress members, many of whom spoke in defence of Cuba and its right to independence and sovereignty.

The cultural event that evening was a concert of Cuban music at the Amadeo Roldan Theatre, featuring the National Symphony Orchestra. The concert included Danza de Fin de Siglo and Tema del Mar (featuring Victor Rodriguez on piano) and Fresa y Chocolate and Contradanza Festiva (featuring Jose Maria Vitier on piano). A Round Table discussion on the European Union measures, lead by Fidel Castro, took place on Cuban TV that evening and protests were called for the following day outside the Spanish and Italian embassies.

Evidence of these protests was apparent the next morning when we woke up to find rows and rows of empty buses, trucks and coaches parked outside our hotel, which was near the Italian embassy. These vehicles had been used to bring in protestors and the demonstrations started at 7.30am. We joined in and waved our Cuban flags as a TV helicopter hovered above the crowd, which was a million strong. Loud speakers broadcast messages from Cuban school children and students, which included "Viva the Italian People" and "Long live the Cuban Revolution". Many protestors held placards featuring photographs of "Benito" Burlesconi and "Adolph" Aznaar (the Italian and Spanish Prime Ministers who are leading the EU measures against Cuba). The protest rally finished with a rendering of the "Internationale". This protest was a good example of how well organised and disciplined the Cuban people are to organise a demonstration of one million people within 24 hours.

Back at the congress, the topic of discussion at Forum 8 was libraries, historical memory and identity. Presentations included: The Public Libraries of Havana- a place for discovering socio-cultural identity or storehouses for books?; Greatness lies in truth the ideas of Jose Marti; Jose Suri, First Cuban poet; Bibliography of Dr Jose Rafael Rojas Bez; and Bibliographic records of Havana in the archives of the National Library of Spain. These were followed by the review and approval of the final reports of Forum 8 and the congress as a whole, copies of which can be viewed at the Biblioteca Nacional Jose Marti website.

The final Plenary Session, chaired by Eliades Acosta, took place during a dramatic storm which flooded the conference centre and blew the lights. It was an apt metaphor for a country that is constantly battered by the storms of US and EU foreign policy. After dinner we were taken by bus to the closing ceremony of the congress at the Karl Marx theatre. We knew that Fidel Castro would be present and we were shown to our seats which were very near to the platform. Behind us the 5000 seats of the theatre filled up with an invited audience, including many Latin American students who were studying, for free, at the Latin American Medical School in Havana.

Eliades Acosta gave us radio ear pieces for simultaneous translation and returned to his seat. Several minutes later I saw him speaking to Ismael Gonzalez, the Vice Minister for Culture who had presented me with the Cuban National Award for Culture in August 2002. Eliades then came over to me and said that the Vice Minister would like me to join him on stage with Fidel Castro and other invited guests. And so I was taken back stage (the curtain was still down) and placed in a seat on the stage. I started talking to a Mexican comrade next to me, when there was some activity to our left and when I looked up I saw Fidel Castro walking towards me, dressed in a suit, and surrounded by his entourage. Fidel took his seat next to the Cuban Minister of Culture, Abel Prieto, the curtain was raised, and we all stood up while the Cuban National Anthem was played.

The closing ceremony began with a reading of the final resolution of the congress. And then Fidel took to the stage and talked about the EU measures in the context of the Cuban Revolution and the continual attempts by the Empire (the US) to overthrow it. Fidel talked about the achievements of the Revolution in terms of health, education, literacy, sport, culture and social welfare. Armed with a battery of facts and figures he poured scorn on the governments of the US and EU, while expressing solidarity with their peoples. He concluded by warning that a military attack on Cuba by the US, with or without international support, was a serious possibility.

And so my sixth visit to Cuba came to an end, crowned with the honour of sharing a stage with comrade Fidel Castro, commander of the Cuban people and the Revolution. Having visited the Museum of the Revolution at the start at my visit I could only marvel at and admire the way in which Fidel has kept the Revolution on course for 44 years. This is an incredible achievement given the constant level of foreign intervention (including the illegal US blockade) and the fostering of internal dissent (including the so-called "independent librarians"). But I left feeling that the Revolution was strong because it is rooted in the people and that the culture of Cuba is the culture of the Revolution.


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