Being Transparent: An Interview with Fernando Martinez-HerediaSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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In 1954, when Fernando Martínez-Heredia crossed through a segregated park thinking that he was "transparent," he did not imagine that he would become one of Cuba's most leading public intellectuals, authoring a pioneer journal devoted to critical theory and practice in Latin America, called Pensamiento crítico. In addition, he is the author of numerous books (the last one is a coedited volume with U-M Professor Rebecca Scott and Cuban archivist Orlando García Martinez) and articles. He has held teaching posts at the University of Havana, Cuba and has lectured widely in North America and Europe.
J.A.: Pensamiento crítico could be read both as a historical document of Cuba's post-revolutionary thought, as well as an indispensable theoretical reference teeming with critical possibilities. To what historical conditions and ideological framework does the journal owe its existence?
F.M.H.: My generation faced the dilemma of choosing between a form of Marxism that stemmed from the Soviet Union, our principal ally, and another reformulated to fit the expectation of the Cuban Revolution. Pensamiento crítico advanced the second option. My generation found essential that, in the midst of a process of profound changes in the way people relate to each other, to social institutions and to themselves, we raised the issue of how to solve theoretically and practically Cuba's most pressing problems. We were not just pragmatics embellishing our pragmatism with phrases taken out of books, but rather we were trying to identify theoretical models that allowed our society to move beyond the simple reproduction of material life. The works of Descartes, Emmanuel Kant, Karl Marx, Max Weber, Franz Fannon and Emile Durkheim were fundamental to what was useful for us. From our position, we certainly needed to preserve Cuba's basic structures; that is, what others might roughly refer to as "maintaining order, educating the youth and reproducing spiritual and material life." Yet we felt that it was equally significant to conceive and move forward an emancipated cultural creation. All these factors led to the endeavor of Pensamiento crítico.
J.A.: What was the journal's reception outside of Cuba?
F.M.H.: Pensamiento crítico gained widespread and mixed support in Latin America. The journal was studied in universities such as the Central of Caracas, the UNAM of Mexico City, the San Marcos of Lima; in scholarly circles such as the Casa de Tlatenolco in Mexico and the Casa Central de Santiago in Chile; and even by guerilla groups such as the sandinistas of Carlos Fonseca. In all, we had a monthly circulation of 15,000 issues, which, for a journal of 224 pages without photographs, was an enormous undertaking. We did it 54 times, having exchange with more than 100 non-Cuban journals.
J.A.: When and why did Pensamiento critico cease to circulate?
F.M.H.: We had an extensive work trajectory that lasted five years, concluding in 1971. That was a crucial year for Cuba in terms of the prevailing ideological frameworks. My country neither overcame the sight of its own underdevelopment nor witnessed the success of other revolutionary coalitions in Latin America. The impossibility of an economic "take off," the inability to respond to growing consumer expectations in a revolution that completely modified the population's participation in the gross national income, had the most pressing consequences in Cuba. At a time when the apparently simple phrase "a comer parejo" [to eat equally] needed to prevail, the Cuban process became distressed. In the context of the U.S. embargo and its entailing consequences, "comer parejo" meant the even distribution of scarce resources as well as confronting problems that ranged from maintaining workers' motivation to responding to the limited access to technologies and markets. Pensamiento crítico ceased to exist in the last months of 1971.
J.A.: What happened to that generation of "revolutionary intellectuals" that collaborated in the journal?
F.M.H: The majority of the collaborators stayed in Cuba, where, to state it simply, we had a hard time. In Cuba, people who where perceived as "ideologically deviant"-an expression that profoundly disturbed my generation-did not face violence or direct repression, as in other Latin American countries which also followed a socialist revolution. In my case, I worked in the Ministry of Agrarian Reform as was also investigator of European issues dealing with Latin America and Africa. I also lived five happy years (1979-84) in Nicaragua, collaborating with that country's process of social change. Other collaborators had very different trajectories, which ranged from economic consultants to university professors to filmmakers.
J.A.: From your position, how does this generation compare with the new generations of Cuban intellectuals?
F.M.H.: Today, one can find young physicians, engineers, biologists and literary scholars engaging in ardent debates about contemporary theatrical currents. Their social thought, however, is weaker. We have the problem of what I called a few decades ago "mental colonialism;" in other words, those invisible forms of colonialism that have the same disturbing consequences, but that prevail and circulate in situations where colonialism is not apparent.
This is not our only problem, however. Cuba's most basic theoretical foundation suffered significantly with the dogmatization and impoverishment of our social thought after 1971, when Soviet ideology limited not only non-Marxist ideas but also the most fruitful aspects of Marxism itself. What was left? A youth educated with full scholarship in a systematic manner, with thousands of thousands identifying with international solidarity and relating to diverse cultural manifestations; a youth that, as the 1970s progressed, had an absolutely dogmatic formation in Marxism; and a youth that, in the last 15 years, has distanced itself from it. Consequently, for many young Cubans, Marxism is only associated with something that was dogmatically taught in our country two decades ago.
J.A.: How does race become a fundamental and analytical category for understanding Cuban history?
F.M.H.: Race was so ubiquitous in the intellectual, political and everyday life of nineteenth-century Cuba, that it was impossible not to hear its roar, its thunder. This radical form of nationalism thought that the most useful way to counter racism and inequality was to deny its own existence. In this novel conception of the nation, all Cubans were citizens regardless of their race. In 1902, the Cuban bourgeoisie instituted a more systematic and extensive project of domination. In this context of bourgeois consolidation, one can situate a so-called "color-blind republic" of the first decades of the twentieth century.
The notion of a "color-blind republic" had immediate consequences in my life history. I come from a proud family that was proud that their race remained unnamed. To understand the complexity of being proud of one's race while at the same time wanting race to remain unnamed, one has to give it historical depth. I recall how, when as a young boy my father, who was a leader of one of Santa Clara's colored societies, advised me to "remember that Blacks made Cuba independent." He said it in private because otherwise it would have been perceived as unpatriotic. As a teenager growing up in the 1950s, however, the terms of this concession became unsatisfactory. I remember walking hand-in-hand with friends of all colors through my town's segregated park thinking, "we are transparent." As we crossed the park, we were envisioning a new kind of struggle-one which had as its main objective the overthrow not only of Fulgencio Batista, but also everything rotten from a society in which the dictatorship was only its most extreme manifestation. By saying, "we are transparent," we were not raising the race flag, but rather a complete liberation that included ending racial discrimination.
J.A.: What is your opinion regarding the fetishization of Afrocuban culture-i.e. music, religion and tourism-within the dominant structures of global capitalism?
F.M.H.: I am glad that you did not mention the Buena Vista Social Club, and that I am the one that ends up mentioning them. I was both thrilled and concerned when I first saw the group advertised in the New York Times. I believe that racialized images can be easily manipulated; and that those with the power to do it have wonderful training in neutralizing, incorporating, invalidating and suffocating cultural manifestations that were either significant for their emancipatory potential or disdained as "low" cultural forms. I wish, however, that there were a more serious discussion of how our Black cultural legacy-what in the United States is loosely called "Afrocuban"-generated a sense of pride. Black slaves were simply considered commodities. When one sees Europe using Black Cuban women for sexual tourism they are duplicating the exploitation of people. It is here that one appreciates the barbarity of global capitalism.
For these reasons, gaining an understanding of how the descendants of Cuban slaves were able to transform again and again their life, music, religion and culture evokes pride. Examining how they became members of Cuba's liberation army, how they understood a republic that denied them the rightful share and how they fought again to claim their citizenship incite enormous satisfaction. I highlight these struggles to clarify that it is not only that Black Cubans are excellent musicians and dancers.
One last point deserves special consideration. In my country we never make use of "Afrocuban" as a descriptor, because it is not only ideologically unacceptable, but also methodologically inaccurate for most of Cuba's twentieth century.
J.A.: What is your favorite saying?
F.M.H.: I learned this Italian saying a few decades ago and have made it mine ever since. "Mantenelo e no enmendare," which roughly translated means "persist without mending," of course, not changing what is noble and beautiful.
Interviewer José Amador de Jesús is a doctoral student in history at the U-M.