Shafaqna interview with Cuban writer Leonardo Padura – On reintegration, and national identity

Leonardo Padura

SHAFAQNA – Born in Cuba in 1955, Leonardo de la Caridad Padura Fuentes is one of Cuba’s most prominent journalists and novelists, as well as a well respected intellectuals. He has written movie scripts, two books of short stories and a series of detective novels translated into 10 languages. In 2012, Padura was awarded the National Prize for Literature, Cuba’s national literary award and the most important award of its kind. In 2015, was awarded with Premio Principe de Asturias de las Letras of Spain, the most important prize in Iberoamerica and usually called as the Iberoamerican Nobel Prize.

Shafaqna had the opportunity to interview Mr Padura this April to get a sense of developments in between the US and Cuba. Very much like Iran last year, Cuba recently saw a major shift in foreign policy as it softens its stance vis a vis Washington, to better reintegrate the world community of nations.

SHAFAQNA – Mr Padura, following decades of political isolation, and shunning on the part of the US, an American President is set to come to Havana in an official visit. What do you make of this, and what does this mean for the island – both politically and socially?

LEONARDO PADURA – President Obama can be a catalyst for a process that at first seemed to be going extremely slow but which has indeed taken a speed that sometimes makes it hard to follow. I think Obama is giving a boost to his policy with this trip to Cuba, proving that he really has the will to change things,  change them profoundly so that at some point these two countries could really come to have normal relations.

But let’s not make one visit more than it is … there are plenty of issues which would need ironing out and discussing before we can truly talk of a rapprochement in between Cuba and the United States. There is an element that is still pending and is essential if we want to have normal relations: and this is the US embargo against Cuba. The issue of the embargo is affecting many sectors of the political, social, economic, even personal life of people in Cuba. It seems to have little future yet it continues to act and limit certain forms of these relations.
Cuba-US relations are marked by a very traumatic historical background, going back before the 1959 Revolution.
In this possible future of normal relations I think it’s very important for the Cuban side to acknowledge that, because of the historical experience of two centuries of traumatic relations with the US, this is a complex but necessary relationship. It would have not been easy for any country to have lived 50 years back to back, or rather, face to face with the US, sometimes even being physically and directly attacked by them. And it has not been easy especially for Cuba. We are talking about a country that often is placed in the navel of the world but it’s really a tiny little country, undeveloped, with no real power, but which has had that relationship with the US. This relation has been one of the causes of this image, sometimes disproportionate, which Cuba always had at international level. Cuba has to know that normal relations with the US can be risky but I think it will entail benefits. The first benefit I think we are already experiencing, even in the midst of the present abnormality, and I am referring to the fact that tensions have lowered.

The people of my generation and the generation after mine, have lived in a state of hostility between two countries: the only thing they exchanged, at times, were offenses. We can return to the example of baseball, where the Cuban-US matches were assumed by the Cuban side as part of a war. It was the spirit of the Cold War, really. Everything became a confrontation, when in fact the two countries should have enjoyed of their mutual love not just for baseball, but for music, or movies, or literature, all these many elements that unite Cuba to the United States.
I think we’re already living a different time, that future that two years ago was very difficult to imagine and that is indeed happening. We’ll have to get all possible benefits from this normal relationship.

SHAFAQNA – Moving forward how do you see reintegration play into Cuba’s favour. What will change, and how closer ties with the US play into the development of Cuba?
LEONARDO PADURA  – There are many elements in the Cuban social and economic structure that need support to develop. The Cuban government has recognized that without foreign investment cannot develop the country, it is impossible. That’s not unique to Cuba, it is a universal phenomenon. Indeed, even the good, prosperous times we have had in the past have happened because a foreign country had given us support, in some cases selfish support, very selfish in others, but it’s clear that alone we can’t.

Indeed a smooth economic relation with the US can be very interesting. There is an issue, for example, that is the problem of infrastructures, badly damaged, very old of the Cuban cities that could benefit from this relation. Likewise there is the area of communications: for a Cuban who lives in Cuba and has no possibility to travel, to see what is access to standard internet can seem like something from another galaxy. The idea that you can switch on your computer and you are on the Internet, that is something that still seems a distant future here and yet it is almost past.

SHAFAQNA – Can you elaborate on Freedom of the Press in Cuba? The US often positions itself as THE model to follow when it comes to journalism and freedom of expression in general.

LEONARDO PADURA – In all fairness I believe there is a dichotomy in between what the press says is happening and what is happening in the world. More often than not the press has failed to act a mirror to political and social realities outside of Cuba. This is the impression anyway. I think that despite the critics to the press coming from the government and the calls to the press to be more active, there is an original problem, which is: who directs the press in Cuba? Because until the State, Government and Party would act as both judge and prosecutor the press is not going to fulfill the role it should have. This thing of the Fourth Power here in Cuba is not possible at present.
Writer Paco Ignacio Taibo II in the ’80s said in a workshop that Cuba was the country with the worst journalism and the best journalists he ever known. There is the sufficient professional quality, but structures are old, and this is more and more detrimental for the development of society. I agree and find it correct, to have an official point of view on certain issues. There is a need for a press reflecting this point of view, but there is also a need for other alternatives media with the same opportunities to reach the citizens. There is a need for a deep revolution in the Cuban press. Journalism should be allowed its true meaning, which is to be at service of the citizens not the state. The State could indeed be the object of journalistic criticism when it does not meet the expectation of the citizens.

Beyond the good will that might be driving Obama, the reestablishment of new relations is no doubt marked by specific interests.
Of course, there must be good will even when you come to do business. No one is coming to Cuba carrying presents. We need to understand very well this, but on the side of the Cuban government there must be willingness for things to improve in the country, so that the opportunities arising from a new relation of some, or total normality, can be effective for the Cuban society as a whole.

SHAFAQNA – What do you see for the future?
LEONARDO PADURA – We have lived long years of many shortcomings, many limitations. We have lived through many internal misunderstandings, with a political pressure which has meant a confrontation with the US, and all this meant a price the Cuban society had to pay. I can only hope that after such hardship easier times are upon us.



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