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Why Cubans Call the Ministry of Culture the "Mystery of Culture"

On June 30, 1961, Fidel Castro uttered these words: "Within the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing."

Seldom quoted in its full context, the phrase was part of a speech Castro made to Cuban intellectuals at a meeting of the young government's Cultural Council, convened to discuss the limits of artistic expression in revolutionary Cuba. "In that the revolution constitutes the interests of the people, in that the revolution signifies the interests of the entire nation," Castro elaborated, "no one can rightfully make claims against it."

Delivered at the conclusion of a showdown between artists and government officials over a controversial documentary film, PM, created by Saba Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jimenez-Leal, Castro's speech became the cornerstone of his regime's cultural policy. In the years since, the immortal "within the revolution everything" has been the subject of continual debate both inside and outside Cuba, analyzed and critiqued according to the political climate of the day.

"It's been interpreted all kinds of ways," notes Pamela Smorkaloff, a New York University professor and author of an extensively researched book on Cuban revolutionary writers. "Some have taken it to mean there was an iron hand over cultural expression in Cuba. Others have said it was very flexible and meant you were allowed to do anything within the revolution."

The cultural policy was laid out in more detail during subsequent Communist Party congresses, as well as in Cuba's 1976 constitution. These tenets, as expressed in official declarations, denounced the proliferation of "false intellectuals, snobbism, extravagance, homosexuality, and other social aberrations." Art was to be used as a tool to perpetrate revolutionary values, to promote Latin American culture. The "best" of international culture could be assimilated, but without it being imposed upon the Cuban people. Among other things art was to be a weapon in the fight against Yankee imperialism.

"Capitalism leads to alienation," warned one Communist Party document. "It keeps art from realizing its beautiful destiny of contributing to the elevation of man and [it leads to] the downfall of a just society."

One goal of the revolution was to bring uplifting art and literature to everyone, regardless of race or class. Officials set up a network of cultural institutions to administer the creation of visual and performing art, music, literature, and film. State publishing houses were created to ensure that books would be plentiful and inexpensive, an effort aided by Castro's 1967 decision to suspend the principle of international copyright.

Children who showed promise of artistic talent were to be trained from an early age in specialized schools. Artists graduating from those schools would be awarded professional status and earn a state salary to subsidize their creative work.

Jose Luis Cortes, a virtuoso flautist and composer, and founder of the popular band NG La Banda, says he would have been "just another poor black guy" if not for his free musical education. Buena Vista Social Club guitarist Eliades Ochoa, who as a young man supported himself by shining shoes and playing his guitar in bordellos, clearly recalls the changes fostered by the revolution. "I started to feel like an artist," he recounts. "They paid me a salary. Then they asked me to be on another show and they paid me more. I was finished with playing on the street. I felt good."

Cuba's cultural infrastructure developed around Soviet models. As in Eastern bloc countries, artists working in the revolutionary system were judged on ideological as well as artistic merit. In the Seventies the Cuban film institute produced flattering portraits of the nation's agricultural industry and health system. Singers of the nueva trova folk movement wrote ballads about oppression in Latin America. And while the revolution gave Cuba's lower classes increased access to the arts, it also created a new elite of officially endorsed artists and cultural bureaucrats who were part of the so-called red bourgeoisie. The state awarded them cars, houses, and opportunities to travel abroad, mostly to Eastern Europe.

Those artists whom officials judged to be counterrevolutionary or otherwise unworthy were marginalized, censored, and denied the professional status that would provide them with salaries. They were also ostracized by their fellow artists, who feared that contact with them would result in their own persecution. Students were kicked out of the university for perceived improper conduct and assigned to menial jobs in the provinces. Homosexual artists and writers were shipped off to work camps.

By the Eighties Cuban officials, including Castro, conceded that the repressive measures applied to artists and intellectuals in the previous decade had been too harsh. The Ministry of Culture had been created in 1976 to centralize the administration of the state's cultural institutions, and its first leader, Armando Hart Davalos, a former minister of education, was credited with decreasing Soviet influence and creating a more lenient environment for artists.

But tensions between the intelligentsia and government officials continued during Hart's tenure. By the late Eighties, a generation of highly educated visual artists, musicians, and writers were using their prodigious talents and analytical skills to make art that questioned the system. In the early Nineties, to ease the growing strain, Hart advocated for regulations that would allow them to travel abroad more often.

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