In the spring of 2009, during the 11th Havana Biennial, a recent art school graduate named Hamlet Lavastida stenciled a quote from a famous speech by Fidel Castro on the steps of Galería Habana and called his piece Intellectuals Without Words. The quote reads:
The existence of an authority in the cultural sector does not mean that one should worry about abuses by that authority. Who would want, or who would desire for this authority not to exist? If we continue with that line of thought we might begin to wish that there were no militia or police, that there were no state power.
The quote is from “Words to the Intellectuals,” a speech Castro gave at Cuba’s National Library in June 1961 to an audience of illustrious literary figures. It included the well-worn phrase “within the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing,” that instantly became the benchmark of Cuba’s cultural policy regarding expressive freedoms. Though the phrase reads as an absolute commandment, it is vague, and perhaps purposely so. Who sets the border between inside and out is not made explicit. What exactly constitutes antirevolutionary expression is also not specified. The lack of concrete detail gives the mandate a plasticity that has facilitated arbitrary decisions and sweeping dismissals ever since.
Fidel Castro gave his speech in the aftermath of the first major censorship case of the Cuban Revolution—that of the documentary short P.M., made by Sabá Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jiménez Leal. The film shows a largely black crowd of Cubans socializing in a bar in Havana’s port area, and lacks the moralistic voice-over that came to characterize the revolutionary newsreels of the Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematográficos (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry—ICAIC). Authorities at ICAIC decried that the directors were celebrating counterrevolutionary activities associated with tourism, organized crime, and prostitution. The country was in an uproar over the Bay of Pigs invasion and the severing of diplomatic ties with the United States. Fidel’s speech was supposed to put an end to the fracas that ensued when the film was confiscated. Although the speech at the library was followed by a long discussion, the publications of the proceedings left out the retorts and entreaties made by several Cuban intellectuals. For the purposes of politics and posterity, Fidel got the last word. The filmmakers in question chose exile, as did several of the writers whose publishing outlets would soon be shut down.
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