This is an exclusive extract from Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt’s book To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture, on the role of popular culture within the Cuban Revolution.

In November 1966, Che Guevara had surreptitiously left Cuba for Bolivia, to open up a new front in the Bolivarian e ort to establish a federation of independent Latin American republics. Less than a year later, on 9 October 1967, having been betrayed by a deserter and captured after a prolonged battle, Che was assassinated by young officers of the Bolivian Army, acting under instructions from the national government and Washington. Nine days later, in the midst of uncertain about the circumstances surrounding the execution, Fidel hosted a rally to honour Che’s memory in Havana’s Revolutionary Square, describing him an ‘artist of revolutionary war’. In considering the poignancy of Che’s death, Fidel surmised that ‘the artist may die – especially when he is an artist in a field as dangerous as revolutionary struggle – but what will surely never die is the art to which he dedicated his life, the art to which he dedicated his intelligence’. In the process, the leader of the Cuban Revolution made a commitment to ensuring that Che’s message would continue to be heard and acted upon across the continent.

The week after Fidel delivered his memorial speech, the Minister of Education, José Llanusa, was called upon to give the opening address at a seminar which had been organised to discuss a putative international cultural congress. In welcoming around a thousand Cuban intellectuals to a seaside resort in the west of Havana, the affable Llanusa expressed his great regret that the seminar precluded the mass participation of the Cuban people, in part because of the great sadness that abounded in the wake of Che’s death.

In the immediate aftermath of revolutionary victory, a new beginning for world culture had been anticipated, with Cuba as its vanguard:

‘We want to hear […] a Chinese Communist Party member discussing with a North American Republican Party member the meanings of freedom! Let a Polish economist discuss with a Cuban economist the problems of the collectivization of land. Let a Mexican oil expert discuss the issues of nationalization of oil resources with a Venezuelan expert, employed by Standard Oil of New Jersey. Let a British Labour Party man discuss with a Yugoslav politician – whatever they want to discuss. And put it all on tape. Print it in the newspapers of Cuba. Make books out of it. Make Cuban intellectual life a truly international, truly free forum, for the entire range of world opinion, study, art, judgment, feeling.’

More specifically, the idea of an international cultural congress can be traced to the Tricontinental Conference, which had been hosted in Havana from 3 to 14 January 1966 with the aim of building links between Africa, Asia and Latin America. At this landmark conference – to which Che sent a letter of support, calling for ‘two, three, many Vietnams’ – intellectuals conducted a survey which highlighted the urgent task of defining their role within revolutionary society.

One consequence of the Tricontinental Conference was the formation of the Latin American Solidarity Organization (OLAS), which hosted a conference in Havana, chaired by Haydée Santamaría, from 31 July to 10 August 1967. The phrase ‘What is the history of Cuba if not the history of Latin America?’ was emblazoned in luminous letters behind the OLAS stage, alongside portraits of Bolívar, Martí and Che, the latter of whom was depicted fighting in the front line of a new Bolivarian army. Two central contentions dominated proceedings – that armed struggle was the only way to revolution, and that Cuba should be considered the vanguard of the Latin American revolution – both of which countered the orthodoxy of Moscow.

The death of Che and his comrades in Bolivia caused the armed element of the continental struggle to be postponed. It was assumed, by many Latin American communist par members, that this would lead to a return to orthodoxy on the island, but Cuban-Soviet relations had deteriorated to the extent that speculation about an open rupture was rife. At the same time, US-led counterrevolutionary activities combined with mass emigration and ignorance to e ender widespread indifference (verging on hostility) towards the Revolution across the continent. In Cuba, this led to the conclusion that anti-imperialist action was needed on the ideological front, in the underdeveloped world in general and Latin America in particular.

Between the two landmark conferences described above – on 18 January 1967, the birth centennial of Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío – a group of Latin American intellectuals met in Havana to reiterate the necessity of defining their revolutionary role. The following month, the Cuban artists and writers involved took the idea of an international cultural congress to Fidel, who responded enthusiastically while also criticising attitudes assumed in the cultural field by Soviet authorities. The aforementioned preparatory seminar – which ran after 8:30pm every evening between 25 October and 2 November 1967 – refined the topics that would eventually be discussed. This process gave rise to five main themes, which, it was understood, in no way precluded the addition of other topics. The prevailing subjects were:

  1. Culture and national independence
  2. The integral formation of man
  3. The responsibility of the intellectual with respect to the problems of the underdeveloped world
  4. Culture and the mass media
  5. Problems of artistic creation and of scientific and technical work

Presidency of the preparatory seminar was split between four people, including Haydée, and a president, vice president and secretary were elected to oversee the individual commissions. Each commission was given the autonomy to organise work according to its preferred methodology, which it was understood might involve the formation of sub-committees.

Notable in relation to this study is the participation of Ambrosio Fornet and Roberto Fernández Retamar in discussions around intellectual responsibility under conditions of underdevelopment and that of Alfredo Guevara in the commission pertaining to artistic creation, scientific and technical work.

Their involvement, alongside many other creative practitioners, grounded the preparatory seminar, and the eventual congress, in the individuals and institutions at the heart of the Revolution. Yet Lisandro Otero (who served as President of the group on culture and the mass media at the preparatory seminar) alludes to persistent tensions between diverse cultural sectors, which resulted in organisations competing for majority participation of their members. For him, this fierce battle for cultural hegemony exposed the fact that old confrontations had not ceased. With this in mind, the ensuing congress would be noteworthy for its unity – of surrealists, Trotskyists, communists, Catholics, guerrillas and pacifists – which Otero partly attributes to the diversity of its national organising committee. In his closing speech to the congress, Fidel would commend the fact that the intellectuals in attendance had not come as activists from political organisations but as a vanguard nucleus, capable of grasping the nature and severity of the problems facing humanity, thereby aiming a sideswipe at orthodox forces.

 To Defend the Revolution Is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution

(Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, PM Press, 2015)

This extract was originally published in Alborada magazine issue three (Winter 2016/2017)