The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.60/No.44           December 9, 1996 
`A Great Moment In Cuban Literature'  


CHICAGO - "This is one of the greatest moments in Cuban art and literature," Norberto Codina, editor of La Gaceta de Cuba, told 40 students and others at DePaul University here November 11. La Gaceta is published by the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) and is the country's foremost journal of arts and culture.

During a six-day tour here, Codina spoke on the topics of art, literature, and culture. This year, in recognition of his work as a writer and editor, Codina was given the National Culture Award by the Cuban Ministry of Culture.

Codina explained throughout his tour that in spite of economic difficulties and political polarization, also reflected in Cuba's art and culture, the revolution remains strong.

The tour was organized by the Norberto Codina Lectures Committee, headed by Félix-Masud Piloto, director of the Center for Latino Research at DePaul University. The committee worked in collaboration with other faculty members and other campuses in the Chicago and New York areas.

Between 250 and 300 people heard Codina speak at universities and other meetings during his tour here. Twelve people bought subscriptions to La Gaceta.

During the discussion period at DePaul, one student asked if the Cuban revolution increased literacy among the population. Codina responded that before the 1959 revolution only 22 percent of those on the island could read or write. Through a mass literacy campaign, combined with free education under a planned economy, that figure is over 90 percent today, the highest in all Latin America. He called the revolution "the most important cultural event" to take place in Cuba's history.

In many of the meetings, Codina described what he called a "cultural renovation" taking place in Cuba in the fields of literature, theater, painting, film, and music. He referred to the new themes and issues being taken up - ones that have previously been considered taboo - including homosexuality and immigration.

The following day, Codina spoke at two campuses, Waubonsee Community College and Benedictine University. Some 45 to 50 people attended each event. At Benedictine University, Digna Castañeda, a Cuban professor of Caribbean history, was to join Codina on the platform to speak on the subject of women's rights. However, Castañeda had been denied a visa by the U.S. government just prior to the meeting. In light of that, Codina addressed issues relating to women in Cuba. He said that although a relatively small number of Cuban women have been recognized in the field of literature, there have been many other gains. Some of these include the right of women to free, safe abortions, paid maternity leave, and guaranteed return to work after one year of infant care leave.

How many women are ministers in the government? was another question asked. There are only three currently, Codina stated, but the solution is not just having more women in government, but increasing women's role in society as a whole.

Seventy people turned out for a meeting November 13 at El Yunque, a bookstore that specializes in Puerto Rican and Latin American books and crafts. The event was chaired by Dr. Inés Bocanegra, the owner of the bookstore and a professor at Truman College in Chicago. Codina is the author of several published collections of poetry and he began the meeting by reading five of his poems, including one entitled "Certidumbre." This poem is about Codina's reaction to the appearance of beggars in the streets of Havana, a relatively new phenomenon in the Cuban revolution.

Codina discussed the history of La Gaceta. At its founding in 1962 by Cuban poet Nicolás Guillén, the magazine was a forum in which artists from all over Latin America participated. La Gaceta was influenced, as were other areas of cultural life in Cuba, by the retreat of the Cuban revolution in the 70s, a result of copying the Soviet system of bureaucratic planning. In this context, the publication began to be labeled "la Maceta," or "the Flowerpot," a term used to describe nonproductive elements who just want to "soak up the sun." In a later period the editors attempted to simplify its content by appealing to so-called popular culture. The publication's editors eased up on the more serious and complicated questions of culture, publishing instead articles so light and breezy that some began to call it "La Gacela" or "The Gazelle."

In 1990 La Gaceta stopped publication entirely, due to the economic squeeze on the island after trade with the Soviet Union was cut off. The next issue was not published until 1992. "The tightening of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba has also made publication more difficult today," said Codina. "The Canadian paper manufacturer that used to supply paper now refuses to do so after feeling the pressure under the Helms-Burton Bill." La Gaceta is now printed on paper bought from Mexico of inferior quality, he added.

Another 70 people gathered the next night to hear Codina at Calles y Sueños, at a small Latino cultural theater in Pilsen, a largely Mexican working-class neighborhood. Codina made a point of recognizing Cuban painter Elsa Maria Mora, who was present and is in Chicago exhibiting her work at the Phyllis Kind Gallery. A number of those present were also artists, such as a small group of Latin American writers who produce a quarterly magazine known as Fe De Erratas.

One member of the group, Marco Escalante from Peru, asked about whether works by non-socialist or even anti-communist writers such as Mexican author Octavio Paz, or Mario Vargas Llosa were available in Cuba. Escalante said he was interested in this question after seeing the Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate that contains a scene in which a homosexual gives a young communist the Vargas Llosa book Conversations in the Cathedral, as though it was a semi-underground work.

Codina explained that not only are these works available, but that the latest edition of La Gaceta carries the prologue to Vargas Llosa's new book, The Perfect Idiot, even though Codina said he disagreed with Llosa's reactionary political positions. Codina also related how a Cuban editorial house tried to publish some of Octavio Paz's works, but failed when Paz refused to cooperate with the effort.

While in Chicago, Codina also spoke at Northern Illinois University, Northwestern University, and Harold Washington University. From here he traveled to New York for a week of speaking engagements in that area.

Mark Curtis is a member of Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers Local 7-507. Tami Peterson is a member of the Young Socialists.  
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