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The rich cultural life of Cuba thriving and democracy will not be exported to Cuba from the US, it is already working in the form of participatory democracy, says James Early of the Smithsonian Institute and Sujatha Fernandes, Professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at CUNY.

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

Opening up of U.S.-Cuba relations announced last week in simultaneous telecasts by President Raúl Castro and President Barack Obama were hailed around the world congratulating the ending of the lingering Cold War era policies that fogged the small island nation of Cuba.

Now joining us to discuss the developments are two guests.

From New York, New York, is Sujatha Fernandes. She is a professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center at CUNY. She’s the author of several books, including Cuba Represent!

Joining us from Washington, D.C., is James Early. James is the director of cultural studies and communication at the Center for Folklife programs at the Smithsonian Institute, but he has spent the better half of the last few decades traveling back and forth to Cuba forging cultural partnerships. He is also a member of The Real News Network–I should say the board of The Real News Network.

Thank you both for joining us.



PERIES: So let me give you an opportunity, both of you, to respond to the historic measure announced last week. Let me start with you, Sujatha.

FERNANDES: I think my main reaction is just it’s about time. I’m very happy at this news and glad that these steps have been taken. I think there’s still a long road ahead to see exactly how it’ll be implemented and what will happen on the ground, what this will mean for ordinary Cubans. But I do think that this is a really big and historic decision.

PERIES: And James?

EARLY: I think this is monumental. It comes at a time when Cuba has been engaged for the last few years in very widespread serious debate within the Cuban Communist Party with–across Cuban citizens, within the official organs of the state. There are debates about everything everywhere, keeping in mind that Raúl Castro, when he was elected to the head of the national parliament, said he thought there was far too little criticism in that country and really invited criticism. And there have been thousands, literally, of meetings to talk about what’s good about their system, what’s wrong with their system, what the recommendations are.

It’s also momentous in the sense that it is, in a manner of speaking, a re-entrance of U.S. statecraft within a new, realigned Latin America and the Caribbean, to which the U.S. has been explicitly excluded with regard to the new community of Latin American nations, along with Canada, because it shows that there is mutual interest in Latin America across a broad ideological spectrum.

And so the U.S. is really joining the protocols of the rest of the world, and Cuba is really embedded in Latin America and in the Caribbean. The E.U. was well underway with its rapprochement with Cuba. It’s the United States that has stood outside of the [pail of nations (?)]. So it’s a win-win. And this moment, it just brings a new debate about what the contradictions will be, what the fights will be about.

PERIES: So let me point you in a direction. Now, there’s been a lot of political and diplomatic pressure brought about in terms of the Latin American countries–the OAS, for example, the Summit of the Americas, the formation of new bodies like ALBA putting the pressure on the U.S., in fact isolating the U.S. on this particular decision to maintain this Cold War old policies, and also in terms of not inviting Cuba to sit at the table at some of these multinational forums.

Now, is the United States responding to this, James?

EARLY: I think indeed the United States is responding to the realpolitik that is taking place in the region. Recall that about a year ago, Santos, the president of Colombia, perhaps the main ally measured by the amount of funds, the military bases, and the like that the U.S. has put into Colombia went to Cuba to speak openly and publicly to Raúl Castro, apologizing for not being able to invite him to the Summit of the Americas and indicating that that would be the last time that Cuba would not be invited into the family of nations of Latin America and the Caribbean. Hugo Chávez was alive and in the hospital in Cuba at that point, so he also went to visit him. That was a very bold statement. And so, in April that Summit will meet in Panama, and the U.S. will now likely go, and Cuba will not be the main point; it will be about regional affairs issues that are going on.

PERIES: Right. And, Sujatha, get in on this. What is your take about the diplomatic pressure and obviously economic and cultural pressures brought on the United States to open up its relations with Cuba and end the embargo?

FERNANDES: Well, for some time I think it’s been fairly clear that American policies within–the U.S. policies within Latin America are not working. There’s been the rise of a number of left leaders over the past decade who have sought to create regional ties in opposition to things like NAFTA and the free trade agreements that the U.S. has been trying to push on the region. And the continuing support that leftist leaders are continuing to get, the continuing ability to build alliances outside of the United States, just like what James was saying, I think is really pushing them to either take a stand and actually recognize Cuba and reach out to these countries, and hopefully to also respect their sovereignty, or to just be left out.

PERIES: Right. And, Sujatha, you wrote a book called Cuba Represent! What do you think? And you’ve been examining and studying the cultural movement, mobilization in Cuba as well. What do you think will be the cultural implications of this decision?

FERNANDES: Well, I think, for a start–and I know that James has worked a lot on doing these cultural exchanges, and I think that tihs opens up honest possibilities for these kinds of exchanges to continue for on-the-ground collaborations, for more /ˈædəz/ and cultural workers from Cuba to visit the United States and vice versa, to visit Cuba. And I think that this will just give strength to cultural movements in Cuba, which are already fairly strong.

PERIES: Right. And, James, now, you have already been a part of various cultural exchanges and education initiatives between the two country that has taken place under the embargoed conditions. Now, how do you think that will change in the coming years?

EARLY: Well, I think it will just grow by leaps and bounds. As you point out, there are just hundreds of exchanges of artist and dancers and poets and rap artist and intellectuals of all sorts, whether it’s at the Lincoln Center in New York or at the Kennedy Center or they’ve been here at the Smithsonian Institution over the years, and all around the country–Manuel Mendive, Cuba’s most well-known contemporary artist; Viengsay, the national ballerina, has been at the Kennedy Center once or twice; the GALA Theatre here in Washington is always producing some kind of play with Cubans. And literally all across the nation [incompr.] the West Coast and Seattle and other places, I think that will just be increased.

I think there’s a broader, though, framework on culture that is beyond the performance of aesthetic dimensions that we’re keeping in mind, that the Cuban revolution has posed, that culture really is the end goal of its revolution beyond the material improvements in the quality of life. It is about a sense of identity and a sense of nationhood. And I think that this move has sort of deepened the nationalism, which is a cultural identity question, which has always characterized the strength for Cuba since its defeat of Spanish colonialism. And I think that too will be deepened even as critiques about Cuban socialism internally will be advanced. I think we’re going to see more intensified critiques about what is national identity from the point of view of an active citizenship, the discourses about participatory democracy, which is a framework that is going across Latin America. I think we’ll see Cubans who support the revolution actually take that up in a more active way. And I think this will also put big limitations on the minority dissident voices who are anti-Cuban socialism.

FERNANDES: If I could just jump in there, I think that James brings up a key point, because much of the discourse we’ve seen here in the United States has been about how we need to bring democracy to Cuba, how, yes, we will open up [incompr.] and this is not just from Republicans; this is from the Democrats and Obama and others saying, we will only do these things if Cuba’s willing to open up, if it’s willing to become more democratic, and if the authoritarian state is going to loosen its hold over the citizens. And I think what that ignores is all the different spaces within Cuban society where there is critical activity taking place, where these kind of projects for participatory democracy are already being advanced and will–as James says, will be strengthened. But I think much of the U.S. discourse misses that by focusing on the fact that it’s going to be the U.S. who’s going to introduce democracy to Cuba.

PERIES: Right. And on the cultural aspects, now, one thing that’s wonderful about Cuba is it’s managed to foster a fairly dynamic cultural scene, whether it’s dance, art, music, museums, exhibitions, and so on. However, what we are now introducing with the engagement with the United States is a highly capitalistic, highly monetized kind of cultural activity that’s going to come in to clash with what Cuba has managed to foster for decades now. What do you think the implications of that will be, Sujatha?

FERNANDES: Well, I mean, I think you’re right [incompr.] sort of the very heightened U.S. consumer culture that has been exported across the globe has somehow missed Cuba. And I think one of the results of that has been the very kind of rich life, cultural life of Cuba that has taken place somewhat in isolation, not from the world, but from U.S. consumer culture.

And that’s not to say that in recent years it hasn’t been a part of Cuban culture. I mean, [forums (?)] such as [reggaethon (?)] have had a tremendous impact in Cuba and have been very widespread and are also fairly commercial. So I don’t think that Cuba has necessarily been isolated from those. But I do think that we are going to see changes. Those changes are going to be moderated by the impact of an incredibly strong and self-sufficient cultural scene already that I think can handle these other kind of competing cultural influences coming on can work with them. It’ll be interesting to see what happens. But I think it’s not simply the case that someone’s saying that, oh, Cuba’s been completely isolated, now all of a sudden it’s going to be hit by consumer culture, because it has to some extent, and it will continue to resist that to a certain extent, I think.

PERIES: And, James–.

EARLY: Yeah, I would just add to that that on the cultural front Cuba really has never been isolated. I wouldn’t put it quite in the terms of export, but one could put it in those terms. Cuban culture is known literally all over the world. I mean, you’ve got highly successful artists, one of the greatest jazz players in the world today, Jesús Chucho Valdés, who has been traveling about the world [incompr.] Manuel Mendive, who was a very successful artist with his income; Silvio Rodriguez, the revolutionary troubadour; these are very successful people who have been traveling. I think what we will see now is an increase in that, and the marketplace will open up and provide more money to support other Cuban artists who have not had as fertile a marketplace in terms of income.

That will bring certain pressures that the Cuban government is already talking about, and that is: how do you raise salaries, both from the vantage point of the state, and how do you bring more flexibility for individuals who raise money without establishing monopolies and an uneven social plane? This is where the notion of the market economy will still be qualified by certain state control, certainly with regard to health and education. The instituto of superior arts, for example, where many of these artists are trained, will probably receive more finance now. And that will benefit more emerging artists. But they will be trying to balance that high personal income against a social needs and social development question.

PERIES: Right, which we will try to unpack in our next segment. Let’s bring this segment of culture to a closure. And in our next segment, let’s look at the implications this decision has on the economic and social life of Cubans.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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James Early is the director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage. Prior to his work with the Smithsonian, Mr. Early was a public program officer at the National Endowment for Humanities in Washington, D.C. He was host of Ten Minutes Left, a weekly radio segment of cultural, educational, and political interviews and commentary at Howard University's radio station. He is a former board member of TransAfrica, and a current board member of the U.S.-Cuba Cultural Exchange as well as the Institute for Policy Studies.

Sujatha Fernandes is a Professor of Sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of several books including Cuba Represent! Cuban Arts, State Power, and the Making of New Revolutionary Cultures (Duke University Press, 2006), Who Can Stop the Drums? Urban Social Movements in Chavez's Venezuela (Duke University Press, 2010), and, most recently, Close to the Edge: In Search of the Global Hip Hop Generation (Verso, 2011).