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  • Intellectuals, Civil Society, and Political Power in Cuba
  • Rafael Hernández (bio)
    Translated by Jackie Cannon

how has cuba's civil society changed over the past quarter-century within the new social, cultural, and ideological context, combined with the effects of economic and political factors? How has the public sphere changed? What role do intellectuals play? Do they have a place in shaping the public political agenda or the critical debate on the country's political problems, including international relations? To what extent have politicians' attitudes changed toward thought and culture? What role do economic and political "updating" policies play? What is the relationship between intellectual debate in the Cuban public sphere and the problems of civil society, inside and outside Cuba? How would the current intellectual and political avant-garde be defined?


Most intellectuals and artists embraced the national impulse underlying the Revolution (1961). The majority of Cuban intellectuals and artists identified with the intellectual projection of revolutionary leadership, especially Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, on issues such as unrestricted access to education and culture for all; the recovery of Cuban cultural heritage and identity through a new historiography; the use of artistic media, including film, in the debate of ideas; the value of knowledge and theory for social engagement; the contribution of intellectuals to a new political culture; the design and role of cultural and educational institutions; the content of art, literature, [End Page 407] and creative projects in general; and the sense of the Revolution itself as a cultural phenomenon. Fidel Castro in Palabras a los Intelectuales [Words to the Intellectuals] (Castro 1961) and Che Guevara in Socialism and Man in Cuba (1965) put forward their theses on freedom of expression and creativity, which were in direct opposition to the socialist realism doctrine that prevailed in the USSR and Eastern Europe, and in line with the ideals inherited from the Cuban intellectual tradition and civic culture.

Although intellectuals were in the minority in the political leadership of the 1959 Revolution (compared, for example, with the 1917 Russian Revolution or the Cuban Revolution of 1933), their participation in the ideological debate was legitimized within the new revolutionary cultural order since 1959. Intense controversies over conceptions of cultural policy and interpretations of Marxism appeared in the pages of La Gaceta de Cuba (a periodical published by the Union of Cuban Artists and Writers), the Hoy newspaper, and the Lunes de Revolución literary supplement; debates surrounding the theoretical notions of the socialist economy were published in magazines like Nuestra Industria (Our Industry), Cuba Socialista, and others, reflecting the vital mood of that period (Pogolotti 2007). The idea that intellectuals should devote themselves to art and literature, and not engage in polemics about revolutionary ideology and political theory, was not the established canon. Many intellectuals and artists from other countries—Latin American and African, Western and Eastern—considered themselves participants in the atmosphere of creativity and debate of ideas that the Cuban Revolution represented.

Since most Cuban intellectuals acknowledged the ideological and moral authority of the revolutionary leadership, its role in regulating the debate of ideas became decisive, particularly in the second half of the 1960s. Against the backdrop of Cuba's growing international isolation, and marked by US aggression against Vietnam and defeats of the armed struggle in Latin America, the interpretation and adoption of original ideas forming cultural policy became polarized and more restrictive, especially after 1968. [End Page 408]

Fidel Castro's phrase in Words to the Intellectuals, "within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing," validated in 1961 all avant-garde art produced in Cuba, even if it was not political or did not defend socialism. He only objected to art expressly directed against the Revolution (Castro 1961). Since 1968, as the sense of national vulnerability worsened, the ideological context rapidly became polarized, such that the parameters for critical art "within the Revolution" were narrowed, as were those that were "neither for nor against." In these political circumstances of survival and increasing polarity, the mere idea of "apolitical" became suspect—a global phenomenon that had a particular implication on the island. Hence the original idea ended up distorting...


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pp. 407-428
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