Fifty Years of Casa de las Américas

As far as anniversaries are concerned, it’s likely that the most notable one of 2009 was celebrated on the very first day of the year, when the Cuban Revolution reached its 50th birthday. As soon as the mock-government of Fulgencio Batista collapsed, new institutions were installed to disseminate the revolutionary ideology, which strived to portray itself as an alternative dissociated from the calamity caused by the previous administration.

 

Long gone are the days when beards, cigars and guerrilla warfare in Sierra Maestra were synonyms for liberty or hope. Very few institutions have managed to live through the 50 years of Castroism in Cuba, and none of them has done so with more integrity than the cultural center Casa de las Américas.

 

Haydee Santamaría (L) and Celia Sánchez. Photo: cubaninsider.blogspot.com.

Established in 1959, a few months after the victory of the revolution, by Haydee Santamaría, herself a revolutionary heroine, Casa de las Américas has remained a fundamental part of the project put forward by the new regime while, at the same time, it has tried not to give way to the political and ideological discourse that has permeated every aspect of daily life in Cuba. Indeed, if the very purpose of the Cuban Revolution surpasses political boundaries to become a complex phenomenon with social, educational, cultural, and other repercussions, Casa de las Américas may well be considered, not just another instrument at the service of the revolution, but the revolution itself – its cultural dimension, parallel to, though independent of, its political aspect, its military clothing, its populist discourse.

 

It is for this very reason that, upon the fiftieth anniversary of its creation, it has not been its ideological stance or the consequences of the shuffling of power among the Castro brothers what has caught the attention of sympathizers and observers alike, but, rather, the consistency with which Casa de las Américas has been able to promote the development of music and fine arts, photography, theatre and culture in general throughout the Americas, encouraging an interdisciplinary and multicultural dialogue that is unique in its kind.

 

Julio Cortázar. Photo: agendadereflexion.com.ar

Nevertheless, the most important contribution made by Casa de las Américas through the years belongs, undoubtedly, to the world of letters: Its literary competition, inaugurated in 1959, counts among the most prestigious of the continent; likewise, its publishing house, established one year later to print the first winners of the prize, has expanded hugely, comprising almost a dozen series of poetry, essays and fiction both from contemporary authors and established figures such as César Vallejo and Julio Cortázar. Other renowned authors published by Casa de las Américas include Julio Garmendia, and Horacio Quiroga, Carlos Fuentes and Mario Vargas Llosa, the latter two included in the series “La Honda”, conceived in 1967 to air the work of novel and up-and-coming writers.

 

But the most ambitious project ever put forward by Casa de las Américas is only 20 years old. It dates back to the creation, in 1979, of the audacious magazine Anales del Caribe, which seeks to give a shared space to the diverging cultural perspectives of the French, Spanish and English-speaking Caribbean; and it was later reinforced by the creation of the series “Pasamanos”, which looks at the work of some of the most important Francophone Caribbean theorist such as Patrick Chamoiseau and Edouard Glissant. Similarly, Casa de las Américas has published the work of influential authors from the Anglophone Caribbean, such as George Lamming.

 

Thus, faced with the realities of a world in which the future of books as actual physical objects seems ever more compromised and equipped with the tools prevalent in a nation whose infrastructure and technology are more closely aligned to the 19th than to the 21st century, the challenges that lie ahead for Casa de las Américas are neither small nor few. Which highlights the irony in the fact that the only vehicle actively engaged at present in searching, discovering or, at least, developing a sense of cultural integration among the various post-colonial traditions found in Latin America and the Caribbean is precisely the product of such old-fashioned institution.

 

On occasion of the St Martin book fair, a few weeks ago, I posed this question to a number of panelists, including Dr Sandra Paquet, Fabian Badejo, Nicholas Laughlin from the Caribbean Review of Books and Caridad Fernández Tamayo, herself from Casa de las Américas: “what would you identify as a singular cultural element that is shared only by the people living in the islands that span from Cuba to Venezuela?” While everyone agreed that there is “something” that is common to the whole region, the closest thing to a satisfactory answer came from Mr. Badejo, who alluded to the fascinating, if ethereal, notion of “a certain rhythm” underlying in the Caribbean attitude, a cadence in the speech, a beat in the temperament.

 

Transporting such thing to printed-paper might be nigh impossible. However, Anales del Caribe, with its polyglot format and its liberal philosophy, has taken it upon itself to produce something more palpable, although, perhaps, also less unitary, by disseminating the views of important Caribbean personalities in French, English and Spanish, providing a unique opportunity to find the different effects of a shared historical legacy in a single, common space. Put in these terms integration is not a simple goal. Much like with any true challenge, success is certainly not guaranteed. But, just the same, Casa de las Américas efforts to promote it remain highly commendable.

 

 

PUBLISHED BY THE WEEKENDER SUPPLEMENT OF THE DAILY HERALD, SINT MAARTEN ON JULY 11, 2009.

SPANISH VERSION PUBLISHED BY LETRALIA (VOL XIV, No. 215) ON AUGUST 6, 2009.

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