Fidel Castro’s legacy: education, culture, and the arts

29 November 2016

by Jenni Ramone

This is a draft version of an article appearing in The Conversation

Since the announcement of his death, the global media has represented Fidel Castro in two ways: as brutal dictator, or as glamorous guerrilla. Both depictions are reductive and inaccurate, failing to acknowledge the reasons behind the Revolution, also Castro’s legacy: a society with equal access to health, wealth, and opportunity regardless of class, gender, or race.

The Revolution involved a military operation, but its aims were not to create a military dictatorship. Castro cited the lack of rural education and access to adequate schools as a primary impulse for seeking social change in 1953. Immediately after the 1959 Revolution, in a speech in Holguin in February 1960, Castro celebrated the creation of the fourth School City in a little over a year since the Revolution, in this case providing access to education and transport to school for 4,000 children.

Before the Revolution, 40% of the population had been fully illiterate, unable even to write their name. By 1961, Castro’s Literacy Campaign had almost entirely eradicated illiteracy by sending thousands of young teachers into rural areas to teach farmers and their families to read and write. Pupils’ letters and teachers’ journals can be read in the Museo de la Alfabetización in Marianao – tellingly, this museum, set within a large school complex, is situated on a former military airfield. Education, not war, was Castro’s priority.

Cubans also enjoyed literary and creative culture. After literacy, instructores de arte (cultural teachers) taught art and music in rural areas, schools, and factories. By the early 1970s, talleres literarios, literary workshops, were established across Cuba. Artists and writers were – and are – valued: they are state employees, combining creative practice with complementary roles in theatres, libraries, and galleries.

The prominence and prevalence of arts and culture in Cuba is enviable: Havana dedicates one of its four city squares to a second-hand book market operating daily excluding Sundays. Bestselling writer Leonardo Padura sets his detective fiction in this market and in Havana’s libraries and literary spaces.

Literary culture dominates spaces that were, before the Revolution, symbolic of war: the book market stands in Plaza de Armas (‘Weapons Square’), formerly used for military formation practice. Cuba’s annual literary festival is situated in the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, a vast colonial fortress that, before the Revolution, fired a cannon nightly at 9:00pm to alert the (mostly black) workers to evacuate the city and return to the shanty towns that existed before the Revolution’s Housing Decree (1959), Urban Reform Law (1960), and programme of building government homes leased with lifetime occupancy rights at a rate of 10 percent of family income.

Cuban cities teem with small, open art galleries, and Cuba’s artists travel internationally (last month, the Presente! Exhibition showed thirty contemporary Cuban artists at the GX gallery in London). Exhibitions have an international focus: the Taller Grafica print artists’ workshop located at Plaza de la Catedral celebrates collaborations between Cuba and Mexico. Casa de Las Americas, a hub for the arts, hosts conferences, exhibitions, publications, and community engagement: it exists to bring together practitioners from across Latin America.

Cuba’s internationalism in arts and culture reflects principles throughout the administration: Cuba provides support logically incompatible with its size in response to disasters, including the 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Recent media coverage responds to positive images of Castro by alleging human rights abuses against gay people. Equality of sexuality and gender identity was not an initial aim of the Revolution in 1959, but later this was seen as an error by Castro, and since the mid-seventies, there is increasing state support for gay rights and expression. A comparison between Cuba, the UK, and the US, yields interesting results.

Homosexuality was decriminalised in England and Wales in 1967 (excluding the armed forces), in Scotland in 1980 and Northern Ireland in 1982. However, until 1994 this only applied over the age of 21, and the age of consent was only aligned in 2000. In the US, it was only in 2003 that homosexuality was decriminalised. Before 2003, US anti-sodomy laws imposed prison sentences with hard labour, including life sentences in Idaho. Aversion therapy including shock treatment was used in the US before 1973, and in the UK until the late 1970s. Donald Trump’s aide Mike Pence wanted to ‘cure’ gay people by sending them to institutions which operate in the US on an elective basis.

Some might add that the US and UK are guilty of human rights abuses that Cuba is accused of: there are recent stories of Human Rights abuses at Standing Rock; invasion of privacy with the Investigatory Powers Act; and charity Shelter reports that 120,000 children will be homeless this Christmas in Britain.

Homosexuality has been legal for people over 16 since 1979 in Cuba. From 1965 Cuban labour camps housed gay men and implemented 14-hour working days and rudimentary living conditions – at this time Castro did, indeed, make derogatory comments about gay men. However, after visiting a labour camp and meeting men held there in 1968, he closed the camps. In recent years, Castro’s attitude towards sexuality and gender identity was entirely in keeping with his attitudes towards racial, social class, and gender equality.

Arts and culture in Cuba reflect this attitude. State-run TV soap operas represent same-sex relationships positively, and the acclaimed Cuban film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberry and Chocolate, by Senel Paz) foregrounds gay relationships critiquing past homophobia in Cuba. In the UK, it is still rare to see same-sex couples expressing affection in public. In central Havana last year, on a warm July midday, I passed a young gay couple holding hands without even attracting attention.

It doesn’t excuse one state if others are equally discriminatory, but it does help to put Cuba in perspective. Fidel Castro’s Revolution replaced a military dictatorship built on organised crime and racist discrimination with equality of opportunity to health, housing, wealth, education, culture, and the arts.


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