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Uneac 1961, a difficult birth

Fidel intelectualesPresident Miguel Díaz-Canel tweeted his congratulations to the Union of Cuban Writers and Artists on the occasion of the organization’s anniversary. I treasure unforgettable memories of meetings with its members that left me with valuable learnings, experiences, and perspectives


Lezama Lima readjusts his tie knot for the last time, picks up the folder of documents resting on the living room mantle, and goes out onto Trocadero Street, where a ‘57 Chevrolet awaits. Before getting into the vehicle, he responds to the greetings of two militia members with their M-52 Czech rifles conversing on the sidewalk, and buys a newspaper from a street vendor passing by.

It is August 22, 1961, and I imagine him heading to the Chaplin Theater, in Miramar, where Fidel had promised to close the first Congress of Cuban Writers and Artists. Along the way, he reads the newspaper and a discordant editorial catches his attention. The Congress is big news, with two days of sessions in the Habana Libre’s Ambassadors Hall, led by Nicolás Guillén. But along with a short report of a cultural nature are other articles paradoxically expressing barbarities.

This was not strange, however, in these times. When recalling a cultural event of the era, images come to mind of long elegant halls, with opulent chandeliers hanging from the ceiling and walls covered with oil paintings, but with more persons in attendance wearing militia uniforms than coats and ties.

In the upper left hand corner of the newspaper’s front page is a report on the capture of another terrorist among those who, two months earlier, had set the Riesgo movie theater on fire, in Pinar del Rio, leaving 26 children burned. Below appears a chronicle relating what had occurred the previous Friday in Camagüey, when a band of terrorists shot up a social club, injuring eight civilians. One headline in bold lettering announces: Bomb Factory Discovered. And another: Compensation demanded from U.S. for mercenaries captured in Playa Girón.

At the stoplight on Linea, they see a caravan of trucks carrying armed militia members, heading to operations in the Escambray Mountains, the driver comments, saying that there is talk of thousands of counterrevolutionaries killing campesinos and young teachers. Lezama glances at him and murmurs a prayer to the angel of death. Tell me about it, the driver says, and suddenly animated, adds: Just two weeks ago, I was real close to the fight, coming out of the Fin de Siglo store when the bomb exploded inside. I saw them bringing out a man covered in blood.

But we are no longer surprised by the perseverance of those who continue to work for culture faced with those intent upon destroying it. I remember how they bombed the Riviera Hotel dance hall in Havana, and set the Negrete movie theater on fire, during that era. But institutions and schools continued to inaugurated across the entire country.

Lezama instinctively touches the folder at his side They say Prime Minister Fidel Castro is a hurricane of questions, but he has all the data about the editorial plan in the folder. Since last year, he has held the position of director in the National Culture Council’s department of literature and publishing, and there is nothing the Comandante could ask that he would not be able to answer.

He remembers an anecdote from the times when Fidel decided to establish the national printing facility, in 1959. A doubtful friend commented that what he expected to see published were manuals for the militia and pamphlets of ideological propaganda. Certainly, this would have been natural, given the circumstances. Since the triumph of the Revolution, not a single day had passed without a terrorist attack, including dozens of phosphorous bombings.

Nonetheless, the facility was not created for indoctrination or military instruction. The first book published was a massive run of Don Quixote, followed by works from Rubén Darío, César Vallejo, Pablo Neruda, and Nicolás Guillén. Lezama himself had the responsibility of selecting the contents and editing a three-volume Anthology of Cuban Poetry.

Poetry, not bombs, they said, although the publishing house also printed thousands of guides for the Literacy Campaign underway. No doubt, this effort was the largest cultural event to ever take place in the country, with 250,000 instructors teaching more than 700,000 persons to read and write.

Lezama recalls how difficult it was to publish and distribute books before the triumph of the Revolution. Eliseo Diego once approached him, very depressed, saying he didn’t know what to do with the 300 copies he had of his grand book of poetry En la calzada de Jesús del Monte. Lezama, who already had plenty of experience with literary bankruptcy, advised him, “Divide the copies in three groups: the first will be for friends and poets you admire. The second, for those you would like to interest; and the third, for those who do not interest you, but whose knowledge of the publishing of your new title is convenient.”

But the intense cultural work of the nascent Revolution did not only include the literary world. In these early days, a variety of institutions were strengthened, including the National Ballet of Cuba, the National Library, and the San Alejandro Institute of Visual Arts. Construction resumed on the National Theater and founded were the Symphony Orchestra, the Casa de las Américas, the Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Arts and Industry (Icaic), as well as the Ethnology and Folklore Institute among others.

As a product of the intense debates Fidel held with distinguished artists and writers June 16, 23 and 30, of 1961, at the National Library, the proposal to found UNEAC emerged.

The car takes First Avenue toward the Chaplin Theater. In the lobby, several friends approach to congratulate Lezama. The leadership of Uneac is already a known secret – a secret of Polichinela, he would say – with Nicolás Guillén as president and Alejo Carpentier as first vice president, while he would assume one of the vice presidencies.

Fidel’s speech was exhilarating, and new endeavors were announced. Lezama seemed to be dreaming aloud, with thousands of art instructors creating theater groups, choirs, and dance choreographies in the countryside and small towns across the country. “This is a utopia,” someone behind him whispered, but he did not turn to see who it was. Very slowly, he stood, perhaps recalling something he had written that morning: “When you are standing, it seems you are growing, but inside, toward a dream. No one can be aware of this growth.”

(Source: Granma)

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