Defending Cuban culture, defending Cuban socialism

(Alfredo Guevara, Director General of the ICAIC with Che)

Review: To Defend the Revolution is to Defend Culture: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution

Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt

PM Press, 2015, 398pp, £17.99

This book assesses what Gordon-Nesbitt calls revolutionary Cuba’s ‘Marxist-humanist’ cultural policy, ‘the most ambitious reconciliation of art and society to have taken place [in the world] to date’. She describes the conscious democratisation and radical rethinking of the role of the arts by revolutionary Cubans from the triumph of the Revolution in 1959 onwards, without idealising her subject matter.

Its publication coincides with the escalation of further US attempts to foster regime change in socialist Cuba by a combination of increasing cultural influence and financial investment, having failed to bring this about via its 56-year economic blockade. The US State Department agrees some $30m to be spent every year on ‘democracy development’ programmes, in Cuba, such as those developed by USAID and NED (see FRFI 239 and 241).

Exploring the relationships between culture, the socialist state and the masses, Gordon-Nesbitt describes the roles art and cultural producers have been expected to play in socialist society, and the socio-economic framework created to support culture in Cuba – primarily between 1959 and 1976, when the Ministry of Culture was established. She focuses on leading institutions and tendencies rather than genre and individual works, and on ‘plastic arts’ and literature rather than performing arts or sport. Historic debates are animated with extensive historical research (drawing on Cuban arts journals and state documents) and the opinions of contemporary culture workers. Along the way, she provides useful explanations of aspects of art theory and Marxism.

Socialism, the arts and man in Cuba

This book demonstrates how the Cuban Revolution identified cultural development and the fulfilment of cultural needs as essential for facilitating the material and spiritual recovery of the nation following decades of underdevelopment by US imperialism. Upon seizure of power, the revolutionary government, tasked with the creation of new social relations and the transformation of the people’s consciousness into a socialist one, enlisted the support of creative intellectuals, practitioners and the masses in leading the direction of Cuban culture.

A Cultural Directorate led by Camilo Cienfuegos was immediately established in 1959 within the Ministry of Education (MINED), overseeing the production of a documentary explaining agrarian land reform for mass broadcast. Che Guevara set up a film school in the La Cabaña fortress at Havana harbour with artists such as film director Tomas Gutierrez Alea. The victorious 26 July Movement rebels immediately utilised television, radio and other mass media apparatus inherited from the defeated dictatorship to broadcast educational programmes and communicate with the masses politically.

Nuestro Tiempo

Gordon-Nesbitt locates an important source of Cuba’s early revolutionary cultural trajectory in the anti-Batista, anti-imperialist Nuestro Tiempo [Our Time] Cultural Society, founded in 1951 by composers, painters, poets and playwrights to counter the dictatorship’s regressive cultural programme. The signatories of its first manifesto included Gutierrez Alea and poet and essayist Roberto Fernandez Retamar, who would become the Director of the Casa de las Americas from 1986 to present.  In 1954 they began publishing a magazine illustrated by Cuban painter Wifredo Lam with an editorial board including members of the pre-revolutionary Communist Party of Cuba (PSP) (see FRFI 252), followed by an accompanying film journal. In 1953 the PSP, despite persecution from the Office for the Repression of Communist Activities, formed a Commission for Intellectual Work around a Central Bureau of activists and film-makers including Gutierrez Alea and Alfredo Guevara. On 2 January 1959, following the triumph of the Revolution, the society published the manifesto ‘Free Culture in Free Cuba’ in celebration and calling for a National Congress of Culture.


Eleven weeks after the triumph of the Revolution, the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industries (ICAIC) was founded, with Alfredo Guevara as President-Director. The ICAIC, like Lenin, acknowledged cinema to be the most direct artistic vehicle for promoting revolutionary ideas and mass education. In 1960 ICAIC established the Department of Cinematographic Dissemination to cultivate a mass audience for and participation in cinema, nationalising most of the relevant distribution networks by mid-1961, commissioning films and film journals (including ‘Cine Cubano’), and slashing the price of cinema tickets to allow all sections of the population to access cinema. The following year mobile cinemas were sent to some of the most remote locations on the island. By 1970 the ICAIC mobile cinema network had facilitated more than 363,000 screenings for 40 million spectators.

Casa de las Americas

ICAIC was followed by the establishment of the Casa de las Americas cultural house by leading revolutionaries (1959), including Haydee Santamaria, who became its Director.

Initially created as a free cultural centre providing courses and seminars for working class adults and an American library, it quickly became a Pan-American house of culture, facilitating conferences of Latin American plastic artists, and a hub for revolutionary Latin American artists and writers, founding the prestigious Hispanic American Literary Competition award, now the Casa de Las Americas Prize.

Since the US economic blockade against Cuba began, the Casa has played an important role in using culture to undermine the blockade and break the isolation imposed upon Cuba by imperialism, and to promote revolutionary culture internationally. Conservative estimates put the economic damage caused by the US blockade at $754bn.

The year of education

In January 1961, a National Council of Culture (CNC) was created. A ‘year of education’ was declared in which all schools were nationalised, experimentation in developing revolutionary pedagogy encouraged, and a literacy campaign mobilising young volunteers from the masses increased national literacy by 30% to 96%. Today, Cuba has the second-highest literacy rate in the world (99.8%), in contrast with the imperialist US and Britain, in 44th and 45th place (UN Development Programme).

A requisitioned country club in Cubanacan, suburban Havana, was transformed into a prototypical National Art School (ENA) with a 3,000 student capacity. Similar schools were established for Modern Dance, Plastic Arts, Dramatic Arts, Music, and Ballet. Tens of thousands of arts teachers were trained. The state subsidised the publication of a wide variety of literary works, including fiction, Marxist theory, and poetry, in editions of tens of thousands for millions of new readers. The aficionados programme of amateur art education was initiated, producing a million amateur artists.


Between 18 and 22 August 1961 the First National Congress of Writers and Artists was held to debate cultural matters towards formulating the cultural policy of the Revolution, leading to the creation of the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) by Nicolas Guillen, a poet and veteran communist. The congress was attended by artists, intellectuals, representatives of established workers’ organisations, including the Confederation of Cuban Workers (CTC), and the Association of Rebel Youth. Topics included the creative responsibility of artists and writers to the people of Cuba, recovery of cultural tradition, cultural criticism, and cultural exchanges and co-operation within Latin America. Bursaries and grants were awarded to artists and writers, and a Literary and Artistic Fund established. Later artists received direct state salaries and subsidised materials and facilities more generally, in addition to the guaranteed social security that had already freed them from the need to produce for private capitalist sponsors to survive, releasing artistic production from the law of value to become another form of social production. In 1967, with artists’ support, copyright was abolished to accelerate the reprinting and distribution of works from around the world.

The 1968 Cultural Congress of Havana

Gordon-Nesbitt devotes a substantial chapter to the Cultural Congress of Havana 5-12 January 1968, when 644 delegates from 67 countries, including 200 Cuban representatives, met to discuss five commissions including ‘Cultural and National Independence’, ‘The Integral Formation of Man’ and ‘Culture and Mass Media’. This took place shortly after the death of Che and during the ‘Revolutionary Offensive’ which sought to nationalise all remaining private enterprises and smallholdings. The participants included several out-of-favour intellectuals from European socialist countries, and more Europeans than Latin Americans.


Gordon-Nesbitt does not shirk from controversy, devoting numerous pages to the closure of the ‘Lunes’ arts journal, once the most popular supplement in Latin America, the prohibition of the film ‘PM’ in 1961, and the ‘Padilla case’ of 1968-71, involving the arrest of a prize-winning poet on ideological grounds. Crucial she puts them in their wider contexts. Gordon-Nesbitt explains the errors of cultural policy in the ‘five grey years’ of military control of culture following the 1971 Congress of Education and Culture.

Central to her work is the contradistinction between on the one hand what she calls ‘orthodox Marxist’ (a term by which she means Zhdanovist) cultural frameworks, organisations and individuals, as represented in the USSR by the ‘anti-formalism’ of Andrei Zhdanov (1896-1948) and in Cuba by Edith Garcia Buchaca, a PSP veteran and the first leader of the CNC, and on the other hand the ‘Marxist-humanist’ tendency. Garcia Buchaca, claiming to base her position on the absolute rejection of idealism, paradoxically confined culture to the ‘superstructure’ with no connection to the economic ‘base’ whilst simultaneously regarding culture as ‘being entirely determined by the economic context in which it is produced and consumed’.

Gordon-Nesbitt articulates the theoretical positions of the group around Garcia Buchaca and shows how they bureaucratised the field of culture and inhibited access to it via a hard line in relation to the cultural inheritance from bourgeois society to the working class as ‘the alienated society of the past’, rather than subjecting works to a dialectical process of acceptance and critique. They inhibited creativity, attacking abstraction in art as ‘individualist’ and ‘intellectualist’ in favour of a didactic and mimetic ‘socialist realism’. They excessively conflated authors’ class origins with their works’ artistic and political qualities.

The author conveys the tone and the content of the polemics exchanged between leading Cuban cultural figures and bodies during this early period well, in confronting ‘anti-formalism’ and the hostility to ‘ideologically impure’ art.


In 1976, following a year of debates initiated at the First Congress of the CCP in December 1975, the CNC was dissolved and replaced by the Ministry of Culture (MINCULT), with leading communist and former urban guerrilla Armando Hart as Minister and Alfredo Guevara as his deputy. The 1976 Constitution decentralised decision-making related to cultural production. MINCULT created a national system of Casas de Cultura (cultural houses) to meet the increasing demand for cultural education and participation in local neighbourhoods.

Another world is possible

The roles of the revolutionary artist and popular art space in people’s Cuba must be contrasted with the roles of the elite artist and culture industry in imperialist Britain.

In Britain, form and content are subordinated to profit motives, the law of value and the needs of the ruling class and international finance capital. Artistic and educational institutions are saturated with the logic of the commercial art market and exist to accumulate profits and serve the ideological dictates of capital. Parasitic, super-exploitative and environmentally destructive multinationals, including armaments, oil and pharmaceutical monopolies, responsible for the deaths and poverty of millions, commission and sponsor art spaces, artworks and exhibitions, for advertising, improved public images and tax breaks.

Against imperialist capitalism’s ‘avant-gardes’, Gordon-Nesbitt shows how the Cuban Revolution has developed revolutionary artistic vanguards united with the political vanguard, to support the creativity, initiative and needs of the masses and their Revolution. Institutions such as the Casa and ICAIC have consistently facilitated exchanges and co-operation between artistic vanguards, just as Cuba has facilitated political co-operation and regional integration between nations via organisations such as ALBA and CELAC.

This book inevitably raises as many questions as it answers about the roles of the art worker and the arts in capitalist and socialist society and the contradictions between form and content, revolutionary praxis and ‘freedom of expression’, the author, art and the masses. However, many will be better informed to explore and attempt to answer such questions after reading it.

Andrew George