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Cuban Artists Fight 2021 Censorship in the Spirit of José Lezama Lima’s 1960s Dissent

A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021.
A man is arrested during a demonstration against the government of Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel in Havana, on July 11, 2021. Thousands of Cubans took part in rare protests against the communist government, marching through Havana chanting "Down with the dictatorship" and "We want liberty." | YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images
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When more than 100,000 protestors took to the streets on July 11, 2021, rebukes and denunciations of Cuba’s Communist government resounded across the island for the first time in more than 60 years. For those unfamiliar with the laws and domestic history of Cuba since Fidel Castro established Communist rule following the Revolution of 1959, the sheer ferocity of protestors who deplored the hypocrisy of Cuba’s leaders was a surprise. While some protestors expressed outrage over the government’s constant reliance on the United States Embargo as an excuse to monopolize and control the distribution of basic food and resources, others openly called for the collapse of the regime. Scenes evinced a clear consensus: Cubans demanded the right to determine the parameters of life and freedom and not merely conform to the ways that a single party, in power for more than six decades, defines them. They were not protesting U.S. policy toward Cuba or its effects; they were protesting the absence of democracy within Cuba and the near total control the Communist Party seeks to re-establish over their lives. Over the next several weeks, Communist leaders unleashed hundreds of heavily armed police, ununiformed agents and specially equipped “black berets” against the unarmed protestors and artists whom they accused of organizing, sympathizing or simply inspiring the protests over social media.

The structures of a military dictatorship operating under the guise of a populist-socialist state in Cuba are not new, however. They have been in place since the early 1960s. Then, a massive state security apparatus and legions of citizen-informants first emerged to back laws that ban any government opposition and enforce a local political culture of neighbor-on-neighbor, worker-on-worker, classmate-on-classmate surveillance. That culture, now inscribed in more than one Constitution, equates protest of any kind and criticism of socialism as the Communist Party defines (and regularly redefines) it with the highest form of treason. When Castro imposed Communism on Cuba’s nationalist and anti-imperialist Revolution between 1960 and 1961, he originated the formula for coupling authoritarian repression of debate and the individual’s right to criticize with promises to meet all citizens’ basic needs. Radical equality and social justice were to be achieved if only citizens surrendered to a top-down system of rule, one in which the majority of Cubans were ultimately reduced to the role of bystander rather than protagonist in their own liberation.

Cuba's censorship of José Lezama Lima's novel "Paradiso" was a symptom of the government's mistrust of the island’s vast wealth of intellectuals, writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers in the 1960s. Today, Cuba’s community of intellectuals continues to rebuke the government’s censorship and control over information.
Cuba Censors José Lezama Lima

Yet, if citizens in Cuba could not be trusted with ensuring national sovereignty in the face of an imperial U.S. and their views had to be carefully managed, directed and controlled, the island’s vast wealth of intellectuals, writers, artists, musicians and filmmakers could often be trusted even less, according to Castro himself. Their story, told by director Adriana Bosch through “Letters to Eloísa,” can be found in the parable of the life of José Lezama Lima. One of Cuba’s greatest 20th-century writers, “Letters to Eloísareveals that the greatest power to liberate rests fundamentally in the free expression, exchange and debate of ideas. That particular vision of revolution clashed spectacularly and visibly with the consolidation of Cuba’s Communist state in the first two decades after the rise of Castro and the triumph of the Revolution of 1959 over U.S.-backed dictator Fulgencio Batista. Perhaps the greatest lesson of “Letters to Eloísa is that today it still does.

At a time when citizenship required “unanimity” as well as unconditional loyalty to one-party rule and not simply unity behind Cuba’s revolutionary process, Lezama Lima, along with a small minority of of his intellectual generation, refused to sacrifice the individual right to revolutionize the self and society. In 1965, Lezama Lima declared his refusal dramatically with the publication of “Paradiso,” his own literary coming out as a homosexual. It overtly challenged the homophobic, homogenizing and militarized criteria by which the Cuban government determined to build a “New Man” out of every present and future Cuban. Through his creative writing and activism on behalf of fellow writers, Lezama Lima revealed that Communism not only tied the soul of every Cuban to the task of echoing and internalizing the voice of the state, but it turned citizens into compliant, complacent spectators of moral and political change.

Book cover of "Paradiso" by José Lezama Lima, 1966
Book cover of "Paradiso" by José Lezama Lima, 1966.

Then, as now, Cuba’s community of writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians and intellectuals has regularly and fearlessly followed the path set by Lezama Lima over the course of the last decade of his life. They rebuke the government’s censorship and control over information. They also regularly defy the incontestability of leaders’ ideological vision and the mandate that silencing individual critiques of Cuba’s everyday realities remains akin to patriotism. For Lezama Lima, following that mandate was akin to spiritual death.

Ironically, the Cuban Communist Party has consistently rested on re-claiming and co-opting many of the artistic works that it once repressed, in a bid to erase its own history of purges, forced labor, jailing, and persecution of critics and independent thinkers. These dissenters are those whose greatest threat lay in the realm of ideas, the weapons of an oppositional faith or aspiration to change through open, democratic means. Equally ironic perhaps is the fact that many foreign artists, members of the international Left and liberal democratic circles abroad far too often accepted uncritically the Cuban state’s own narratives of self-congratulation and triumph through amnesia. Then as now, many refuse to seek the hard and sometimes painful truths that lie beyond the gauzy veil of our own self-projected desires and aspirations for Cuba. To know Lezama Lima’s story is to get to know a deep, rich, complex and transgressive Cuba from within. That is the Cuba that Castro and today’s Communist leaders never want to be known.

An ode to the beauty and tragic silencing of Lezama Lima, “Letters to Eloísa reminds us that freedom’s greatest bounty is the right to speak, to disagree, to protest and to love without bound.

In his novel "Paradiso," José Lezama Lima revealed secrets that mirrored his own life.
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