Fidel placed particular emphasis on the development of Cuban culture from the very first, intense years of the Revolution. He is closely linked to the foundation of the most important and renowned cultural institutions of the island.
They say that poets are visionaries, a statement many times proven. The life and work of the historic leader of the Revolution has illustrated this. Take, for example, the poem that Miguel Barnet dedicated to him:
It is true that poets
capture life’s moments
and fix them in history
Generally the past
vague and nostalgic.
Or the immediate present with its subtle fires
and its reverberations
But how difficult to capture the future
and place it forever
in the lives of all poets,
of all men.
Barnet was speaking of the work done since 1959, but beyond that, of the future that Fidel saw with clarity and precision, even in the most difficult moments.
A first example came in 1959 itself. It was Fidel who offered all his support to Alicia and Fernando Alonso to continue the ballet company that would become the National Ballet of Cuba, one of the best in the world.
Following Fidel’s death on November 25, 2016, prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso recalled the historic leader of the Revolution’s important support for the art of ballet, which, she said, he “always offered with affection and respect. I will always remember his voice, friendly and familiar, asking about my artistic work, requesting details of the activities of the National Ballet of Cuba, its achievements and needs.”
Another poet, Ernesto Che Guevara, described him more accurately as early as 1956, in “Canto a Fidel”, written in Mexico, as an “ardent prophet of the dawn.”
Fidel was a prophet in many fields, but here we focus on culture. Given that in the founding year of the Revolution, Fidel paused to endorse an art form which was considered elitist, yet today has thousands of followers across the island, it is not surprising that he also turned his attention to film.
In March of that year, together with his friend Alfredo Guevara, he proposed and created the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry (ICAIC), bringing new themes and new aesthetics to the big screen. The institution was designed to guarantee the promotion of nuevo cine (new cinema) and, together with filmmakers from other countries, would later found Havana’s International Festival of New Latin American Cinema.
Fidel had seen for himself the force of images. In 1986, he firmly supported the founding of the San Antonio de los Baños International School of Film and Television (EICTV), alongside his friend Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel laureate in Literature.
“A country without an image is a country that does not exist... For us, the first duty of a filmmaker is to make this continent visible,” stated Julio García Espinosa, a forerunner of Cuban cinema and one of the founders of the EICTV.
Fidel was also an untiring reader, and on his express instructions, the National Printing Office of Cuba was created on March 31, 1959. The first book to be published was Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra’s The Ingenious Nobleman Don Quixote de la Mancha.
Armando Hart Dávalos, former minister of Education (1959-1965) and Culture (1976-1997), and currently director of the Martí Program Office and president of the José Martí Cultural Society, explained in 1979 why it was Don Quixote that was first printed: “Added to the symbol of the immortal character that embodies the purest human ideals, was the will to recognize the cultural heritage of humanity as one’s own, and the tribute to all the unifying communal treasure contained within our language in the figure of the most illustrious of its writers.”
The National Printing Office – later the Cuban Book Institute – directed by novelist Alejo Carpentier, not only printed literary texts, but also the millions of copies of the text and notebooks that would be used during the National Literacy Campaign, in 1961.
Each reader understands a verse in his or her own way. Thus, one could consider that Argentine poet Juan Gelman was referring to the campaign when he wrote, in his poem “Fidel” in 1962: “his own heart the only one that he had / was unfurled in the air like a huge flag / like a fire lit against the dark night.” According to such an interpretation, the Literacy Campaign was against the dark night that is illiteracy - with Fidel being the main architect of this, the largest ever cultural event on the island. The leader of the Revolution said in a speech on December 22, 1961, at the conclusion of this epic feat: “There is no moment more solemn and exciting, no instant of legitimate pride and glory, than this, in which four and a half centuries of ignorance have been defeated.”
That same year, the Revolution was attacked on many fronts, with the defeat of the invasion of Playa Girón standing out. Nevertheless, Fidel was always attentive to culture, and over three days in June (16, 23, 30), he met with outstanding artists and writers of the moment in the National Library.
Intense debates ensued that concluded with Fidel’s memorable, historic speech, known as “Words to the Intellectuals.” Just a month and a half later, at the Hotel Habana Libre, the Congress of Writers and Artists was held, with closing remarks by Fidel, which resulted in the creation of the Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC), presided over by poet Nicolás Guillén.
Current UNEAC President Miguel Barnet, speaking during the act to mark the 50th anniversary of that speech, noted: “The author of Cuban cultural policy, the promoter, is Fidel... All the cultural options that we have today are thanks to Fidel.”
Thus the Havana International Book Fair was created, taking place each year across several spaces of the capital, and converting the San Carlos de la Cabaña Complex into a “cultural fortress”. On Fidel’s initiative, after closing in the capital, the Fair also extends across the entire country.
Another of Fidel's decisive contributions to the development of Cuban culture was the creation of an arts education system, initiated in 1962, a year marked by the October Crisis (Cuban Missile Crisis). That year, the National School of Arts was founded, with its maximum expression being the creation of the Higher Institute of Arts. Since then, the island has seen innumerable achievements in the visual and performing arts, in concert and popular music.
Fidel was both a leader and strategist. In 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the socialist camp triggered a long and deep economic crisis in the country. Fidel recalled Cuba’s National Hero, José Martí, noting that “trenches of ideas are worth more than trenches of stone,” (from the essay Nuestra América (Our America, 1891), and warned that the first thing to safeguard was the island’s culture, which he described as “the sword and shield of the nation.”
Speaking in the Auditorium of the Central University of Venezuela, on February 3, 1999, following President Hugo Chávez Frías’ inauguration, Fidel stressed: “A revolution can only be born of culture and ideas.”
Numerous cultural institutions have been created since 1959, all with the imprint of Fidel, and thanks to these, millions of Cubans have been able to access all expressions of art and culture, both as spectators and creators.
One must return to the works of the enlightened, the poets. Carilda Oliver Labra, in March of 1957, wrote “Canto a Fidel”, which concludes:
Thanks for being real,
Thanks for making us men,
Thanks for caring for the names
that freedom has /
Thank you for your heart.
Thanks for everything, Fidel!