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The Americas 61.2 (2004) 312-314

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Looking at Cuba: Essays on Culture and Civil Society. By Rafael Hernández. Translated by Dick Cluster. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2003. Pp. xviii, 145. Illustrations. Notes. $24.95 cloth

As its title indicates, this book is a look at Cuba with the specific claim that it is an insider's look. One of the striking, and indeed important points that the author makes is that Cuban scholars living on the island are listened to only when they [End Page 312] become dissidents in their own country or when they decide to live abroad. When they are critical, as Hernández is, but do not profess opposition to the revolution, Cuban intellectuals are regarded as representing the state. Thus there is disbelief in the role of intellectuals as independent thinkers in Cuba and even in the mere existence of a civil society, understood by Hernández as "the sphere of relations among individuals, groups and social classes outside the institutional power relationships characteristic of the State" (p. 27). The essays compiled here were originally published in Spanish on the island, and Hernández is also the editor of Temas, a leading journal for current debates in the social sciences and the humanities in Cuba. This shows that the insider's look can be more informed, and certainly more nuanced than is generally allowed.

A significant contribution is Hernández's critique of Carlos Castañeda's Utopia Unarmed (1994), which argues that intellectuals filled the gap created by the absence of civil society in Latin America. For Hernández, the collapse between civil societies and intellectuals, whether as a uniformly resisting or consenting body, mistakenly simplifies intellectuals' positionings and deprives other individuals of their agency in society. In line with Ernesto Laclau's seminal Politics and Ideology in Marxist Theory (1979), Hernández emphasizes that ideologies emanate from all individuals as active political subjects, and that Cuban civil society in particular is made up of heterogeneous political actors, with intellectuals among them. Hernández also concedes that political decisions have often taken precedence over the free flow of ideas in the Cuban cultural arena, with the unfortunate result that intellectuals have been restricted in how they contribute to shaping consciousness.

Throughout, Hernández gives reasons for the current ideological crisis in Cuba and the importance of culture as an element of renewal. The changing times have rendered previous ways of expressing things stereotypical, and there is a growing resistance against what is now paradoxically perceived as "dogmatism," or left-wing ideas. Hernández calls for the bridging of ideological rifts through culture. Literature could thus be conceived as one of the spaces of exploration and reconfiguration of political language. In the context of the current debate on the direction of socialism in Cuba, the author emphasizes that whatever positive change occurs will come from the Cuban government itself, the island's institutions, and individuals exercising their political will. He disputes the widespread belief that change will not take place in Cuba until Fidel Castro dies, and gives a detailed analysis of the many areas where the revolution has evolved since the rectificación.

In several of the essays there is a controversial claim that should provide material for reflection, especially if it represents the opinion of other professionals in the field of culture on the island: that Human Rights group in Cuba should properly be called "political opposition groups," as they "do not represent any given social groups whose rights might have been infringed in some way" (p. 95); they are not "dissident of particular policies...but of the socialist underpinnings" (p. 129). The reader wishes for a more detailed analysis of these groups and Hernández's assessment [End Page 313] of the treatment they have received from the regime. In contrast to the idea of a binary Cuba, with Fidel and supporters on one side and the dissident groups on the other, Hernández offers the analogy of three Cubans talking about baseball. The baseball culture in Cuba, with good...


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