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Freedom Collection

Interviews with Manuel Vázquez Portal

Interviewed December 10, 2023

Look, art is an effect of spiritual cleansing, of conceptual and emotional freedom. If I was to give you a metaphor, a parable, I would say that caged birds do not sing. A nightingale inside a cage will die. And socialism and communism demand defending [the system] or keeping silent. The history of intellectual and artistic dissidents inside totalitarian societies is quite lengthy. From Mikhail Bulgakov, who never saw his novel, The Master and Margarita, or his published theatrical works, to Anna Akhmatova [Anna Andreyevna Gorenko], an exquisite poet who also never saw her poetry published under [Joseph] Stalin and various Soviet governments, paid for their “heresy” of telling the truth by being silenced. And Herta Müller, the Nobel Prize[winning] Romanian author said that, “People who have lived under a totalitarian dictatorship deserve a second chance at life because in reality they have never lived one.” And I believe that to be the truth.

Throughout history, the world has always said that the artist is a transgressor. If one doesn’t transgress, doesn’t go against what is “politically correct” and find new ways of expressions, I believe they are no longer an artist. [Mikhail Bulgakov (1891 – 1940) was a Russian writer and playwright. Anna Andreyevna Gorenko (1889 – 1966), better known by her penname Anna Akhmatova was a Russian poet. Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) assumed the leadership of the Soviet Union in 1922 which he ruled until his death in 1953. Herta Müller (1953 – ) is a Romanian writer and poet who received the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature.]

In essence, since totalitarianism kills all those freedoms, art turns into something flat, sad, and untruthful. Try to find in literature or art from that which used to be called socialist realism which was really something very bad, of very low quality. However, inside those circumstances there has been born a type of art, of grand literature, that was discovered much later…I don’t know. Boris [Leonidovich] Pasternak was sent to jail…Some other ones come to mind…Soviet writers, Russians… It would be tedious to name a list of the great poets and writers, painters, musicians, scientists. [Andrei] Sakharov was a scientist and his freedom of expression cost him what we all know.

Dissenting from communism is very dangerous. To think within communism is dangerous because the hierarchy are the only ones who [are allowed to] think under communism. The people must obey and comply. And the artist neither obeys nor complies. An artist is disobedient, a transgressor, always finding freedom.

[Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890 – 1960) was a Russian writer and poet who is well known for his novel, Doctor Zhivago. He received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1958. Andrei Sakharov (1921-1989) was a Russian physicist who was instrumental in the development of the Soviet Union’s nuclear arsenal. However, he became one of the regime´s foremost critics and an iconic defender of human rights and democracy around the world. He received the Nobel Peace prize in 1975.]

In Cuba, in the beginning of the 1960’s, Fidel Castro placed his gun on a table during a meeting with intellectuals and said, “With the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.” There died the freedom of aesthetic. Of course, Fidel Castro is such a faker that those words, “With the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing,” are taken from John Calvin’s, “With the Church, everything. Against the Church, nothing.”

So, Fidel Castro is such a sloppy guy that he plagiarizes philosophers, writers, and thinkers. In essence, Fidel Castro did not even come up with that phrase. He took it and bent it. It was an idea from John Calvin. From there on, it was as the writer Virgilio Piñera used to say, “I am very afraid.” The writer begins to feel fear. And the great [artists] began to emigrate. That’s how they all left the country such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante and Pio Serrano up to the last intellectual. And that of course created stale literature, of low quality.

When one reviews Cuban literature during Castro’s time, one notices that the literature that was saved was from the great writers who were already famous in the republic: Alejo Carpentier [y Valmont], [José] Lezama Lima, Eliseo Diego, Fina Garcia Marruz, and some other writers that appeared.

[John Calvin (1509 – 1564) was an influential French theologian and pastor during the Protestant Reformation. Virgilio Piñera (1912 – 1979) was a Cuban writer and playwright. Guillermo Cabrera Infante (1929 – 2005) was a Cuban writer and film critic who lived in exile as a prominent critic of the Castro regime. Pio Serrano (1941 – ) is a Cuban writer and poet who lives in exile in Spain. Alejo Carpentier y Valmont (1904 – 1980) is a Cuban novelist recognized as one of the most influential figures in Latin American literature. José Lezama Lima (1910 – 1976) was a Cuban poet and novelist. Eliseo Diego (1920 – 1994) was a Cuban poet. Fina Garcia Marruz (1923 – ) is a Cuban poet.]

But from there on, we were dealing with literature that was entrenched, complacent, apologetic, where the work’s purpose was to cover reality with ideology. Therefore we found ourselves with really bad literature, really bad art.

It doesn’t really happen with sculpture or music which does grow during this period. And we find out that being a poet, an artist inside communism is a very hard profession, very arduous. So people migrate. But when people migrate, they lose a bit of their roots and they lose a bit of their origins, even though in the history of Cuban literature, much of the great Cuban literature was written in exile. From [José María] Heredia, our first great romantic poet, to [José] Marti our great modern poet. But that doesn’t mean that literature doesn’t require the indigenous experience of one’s country.

[José María Heredia (1803 – 1839) was a Cuban poet under Spanish rule. Jose Marti (1853 – 1895) is recognized as Cuba’s national hero. Marti was a writer and essayist who advocated for Cuban independence from Spain.]