Cuban Aesthetics Under Socialism: Part 1

By Alex Marino, Staff Writer

In 1959, Fidel Castro’s communist party took control of the Cuban government and initiated a revolutionary movement that would define Cuba’s socio-political and socio-economic status for an indeterminable period. The Revolutionary Era contains many components worth analyzing, but for the purposes of this study I will focus on the fluctuations in cultural policy through the lens of a socialist ideology imposed on the Cuban music industry. Additionally, I will explain how the “El Ideario Marxista y Martiano” socio-political ideology created a unique “institutionalized objective reality” (Peter Berger) to stimulate authentic cultural growth, separate Cuba from Stalin’s Soviet-style Marxism, and cleanse Cuban aesthetics from exogenous influences. I will then use three Cuban musical movements/genres, Canción Protesta, Nueva Trova, and Novísima Trova, to identify the internal implications of institutionalization on culture and economics, while also drawing conclusions from a comparative analysis of Western capitalist commodification and Cuban socialist cultural policy.

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I’d like to begin the study with an analysis of Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s theories on institutional structures from “Society as a Human Product.” According to Berger’s analysis of what we perceive to be reality in modern life, “an institutional world, then, is experienced as an objective reality.” The creation of institutional structures were intended to collectivize not only resources in a nation-state, but also cultural ideologies. The common mode of thinking that results interlinks people’s emotions to produce results that are valued by the whole of society, or the common institutional ideology being communicated through the prevalent cultural and political discourse. It’s important, however, to consider how much of that buying into institutional ideologies, on the political, social and economic levels, results in an abandoning of innate human tendencies and perceptions. If the super-imposed reality we are raised to believe becomes our “objective reality,” at what point are we allowed to challenge said ideology and discover our individual identities?

In America, the concept of freedom has been masked as a discourse around consumerist freedom. You have the freedom to invest and buy goods all over the world, but not the freedom to openly discover your own identity. The freedom of self-discovery is not a principle that comes with the indoctrination to the institutional system, because allowing people to explore ideologies that might cause them to leave the institution is counter-productive to the institution’s goals. The result is a mindless society parading through a herd of mediocrity because they, somewhere along the line, traded internal passion for a controlled state. From this perspective, the neoliberal capitalist system we are indoctrinated into seems corrupt and manipulative to the natural aspirations of the individual. However, the history of mankind acting without moral boundaries and institutional objectives is a history of violence and depression. Life’s challenge, then, becomes finding a balance within the system in which one identifies and stimulates his/her own innovation and identity while also contributing to the advancement of social structures put into place to control the irrational and violent tendency of the mob’s subconscious. The changing tides of the social institution that defines your individual environment make this balance a fluctuating battle, and the global interconnectedness and spatial readjustments of the current world system only add to the speed and complexity of the problem. Interestingly, the secluded Caribbean island of Cuba provides us with an alternative reality developed from years of internalization and counter-globalization cultural policies. However, even Cuba is not free from the effects of government-induced institutionalization.

Cuban progressive nationalism is reflective of Marxist-Martiano socialist ideology that developed in response to Soviet oppressions during “El quinquenio gris” (the grey years). “El Ideario Marxista y Martiano” conceptualized the Cuban civil society in terms of a “creative overlap” between ‘artistic public spheres’ (Sujatha Fernandez), state institutions, and market forces (Miller 682). This uniquely Cuban ideology developed as a response to Western “imperialism” and Soviet “authoritarian centralism,” both of which were considered foreign oppression and colonialization. The Revolutionary movement adopted the policy of “rectification” to re-establish an authentic Cuban cultural policy that preserved historical Cubanism and created a civil society conducive to aesthetic productions which reflected both the principles of the Revolution and the individuals. As a result of the U.S. enforced embargo and cultural internalization, Cuba developed a specialized alternative form of modernization in the midst of capitalist globalization. The Castro regime created the Ministry of Culture in the 1980s to enforce Rectification, but at the same time institutionalized the music industry to incentivize artists to preserve and promote authentic Cuban style. I will now analyze how these shifts in cultural policy preserved the Castro regime’s legitimacy and the Cuban culture’s unique authenticity.

Considering the tumultuous political shifts that define historical trends in the Cuban government, it is an anomaly that the Castro regime has maintained legitimacy and control for so long. It is argued that the revolutionary government connected “the radical elements of Cuba’s existing cultural traditions to the revolutionary project of cultural decolonization” (Miller 685). This policy of “authentic universalism” appealed to Cuban subconscious sentiments in the way that consumerism appealed to the American citizenry. Castro and his supporters intended to build a revolutionary culture appealing to pre-existing sentiments that linked people to their ancestral roots, customs, and cultural identities. It was a connection between reserving legitimacy and enforcing “cultural decolonization” to re-establish what it means to be Cuban, and what better avenue to create this discourse than through musical aesthetics (687). This theory argues that the revolutionary government gained a reserve of power and influence because they removed the elitist states from cultural policy and made it about the people operating in a universalistic realm. People could relate to and support a movement that moved their emotional side through culture. The revolutionary government understood this about their people, so they began financing the creation of aesthetic institutions in music, art, theatre, writing, and dance such as the Instituto Superior del Arte and Teatro de Arte Popular. Humanism became “the central value of Cuban culture,” and despite controversial oppressions and economic stagnations, the government continued to effectively preserve and promote the ideology of cultural capital (692). The “master narrative worked only to the extent that it resonated with people’s existing ‘spaces of experience’ and ‘horizons of expectation’” (693).

Stay tuned for Part II next week to learn more about three different Cuban music movements and what they say about Cuba’s culture.