Portrait of the Artist As a Communist Bureaucrat

Cuba's Minister of Culture Abel Prieto faces a daunting challenge: Sell Cuban culture to the world, but don't sell out the revolution

An author of poetry, essays, and fiction (his new novel will be published in Cuba this fall), Prieto previously held several prominent positions at Cuban cultural institutions. From 1988 to 1997 he was president of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC), an organization independent of the Ministry of Culture, formed to advance artists' interests and sponsor conferences and cultural events. He was also director of the Art and Literature Printing House, a state-owned book publisher. Married for the second time, he has a teenage daughter.

Prieto's father served as vice minister of education in the early days of the revolution. But according to a former classmate at the University of Havana, as a student the younger Prieto expressed no interest in holding government office. "He was a sensitive young man, passionate about literature," says his school friend, who now lives in Miami and asked that his name not be included in this article. "Like the rest of us, he was always after the new books that came out, curious about new literature from abroad. He had nothing to do with socialist realism or official lines. He wasn't a dissident either. He was a young man trying to find himself."

Today artists still tend to see Prieto as one of them, or at least as someone who is sympathetic to their concerns, a sympathy best demonstrated by his strong support for their petitions to travel abroad. "A minister of culture who's an artist is different from a mere bureaucrat," says Cuban poet and essayist Antonio Jose Ponte. "Prieto is a writer, he's an intelligent essayist, and an intelligent person. He's a receptive man, someone who can listen to what you're saying, someone you can have a dialogue with. He has strengthened the writers' position with government officials."

Cuban independent journalist Raul Rivero has repeatedly clashed with authorities for working outside the official government media and for contributing reports to foreign news outlets, including El Nuevo Herald and the Miami-based Radio Marti. He has been detained for questioning numerous times and complains that he has not been allowed to leave Cuba for more than ten years. Still he believes that in the cultural realm a more liberal environment has emerged under Prieto. "I think policy regarding the arts and literature is much more open," Rivero says from Havana. "The cultural sector has become more tolerant, and I think that's due to Abel himself. He's not just a government official, he's an artist and writer, and it's because of him and other cultural functionaries like him, that the relationship between the government and artists and writers has improved."

But others who know Prieto reject the notion that he is as open-minded as he appears. "He's a bluff," says Jesus Vega, a writer and translator now living in Miami who worked at UNEAC during Prieto's tenure there. Vega recalls that when Prieto arrived at UNEAC, he did seem very liberal. "He was put in the position to try and give the administration a new image, with his long hair and everything," Vega recalls, adding that he and other members of the writers and artists union were soon disappointed. "We realized it was a maneuver to actually impose stronger controls on intellectuals," he contends. "Whatever Fidel says, he does, and any behavior to the contrary is just a performance. Abel is the voice of the [Communist] Party."

On a sunny Monday morning in May, Prieto sat in a rocking chair at a large round table in his spacious office at the Ministry of Culture, a bright, spotless, marble-floor mansion in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. He was preparing to catch a flight to London, where he would attend the opening ceremonies of a festival of Cuban film and music. Prieto had agreed to meet with New Times for a rare interview, and his press attache and a protocol officer sat with him at the table, taking notes.

The table and a desk behind it were cluttered with stacks of papers and new books by Cuban authors published inside and outside Cuba. Strikingly expressive paintings by Cuban artists hung on the walls. The minister's celebrated hair was black and curly, long in back and shorter on top. Owlish glasses rested atop his button nose, incongruously small for his stature -- well over six feet tall.

Dressed casually in khaki pants and a white shirt open at the collar, Prieto proved to be a convivial host. He cracked jokes and rocked in his chair as he spoke, his demeanor less that of a high government official than a graduate student surprised to find himself in such a position. "I was with UNEAC for nine years. I've been in this post just two years," he ventured. "Which is to say I was a member of the opposition. It's like the drunk who jumps over the bar and becomes the bartender. That's the sensation I have -- that of a person who's been doing the complaining and all of a sudden has to give all the answers."

Indeed many perplexing questions await answers in a rapidly changing society awash in contradictions. Over the past two years, Prieto has presided over a cultural explosion that both feeds and is fed by a burgeoning dollar economy, which in turn is creating a rift between haves and have-nots. And while Cuba's artists have served as goodwill ambassadors, exemplifying the nation's progressiveness abroad, at home there have been repressive crackdowns, codified in harsh new laws that limit freedom of expression. Prieto touts liberalism while defending the socialist cause, extols international exchange while decrying globalism, and gamely tries to encourage free-market savvy while respecting revolutionary dogma.

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