HAVANA TIMES — The long journeys in search of the rissole snack and carbonated drink that mitigated the hunger of my university years would usually take me to the intersection of Havana’s Infanta and San Lazaro streets, before a sign that pointed the way towards the then non-existent Alma Mater bookstore.
The 1-centimeter-thick coating of dust that had veneered the windows made it impossible to tell whether the bookstore, before closing its doors definitively, had been turned into a hair dresser’s or a souvenir shop.
For more than five years, the locale remained unchanged. Because of its proximity to the downtown area, I prophesied it would end up as a junk food establishment or pizzeria – a return to a commercial logic not unlike the one once evinced by the expropriated Lamparas Quesada light fixtures store that had once occupied that spot.
My predictions did not come true: the Alma Mater Internacional bookstore of old re-opened its doors on September 30th of last year, in commemoration of the “student revolt” of 1930 – a move that, rather than suggest how well things are going at the University of Havana, reveals the degree of apathy that characterizes the student body these days.
For the past four months, the wine-colored, air-conditioned bookstore of polished marble floors has operated without having to resort, as it once did, to the sale of office accessories or T-shirts bearing photos of the University of Havana (now ranked 56th among Latin American universities).
This past November, it opened two new locales: one with computer consoles (without Internet access) and a conference room / art-gallery space.
Though one can come across an occasional book from Cuba’s excellent Criterios collection, what abounds in the bookstore are books of poetry and Latin American novels, Cuban children’s books and miscellaneous science journals. It is next to impossible to find works by the main European thinkers of the past century.
The majority of the volumes available are those produced for the annual Cuba Book Fair (Feb. 13-23 in Havana), an event which, of late, has been chiefly dedicated to countries in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa.
One of the novelties of the recently re-opened bookstore is the Pensar con (“Thinking With”) space, fruit of collaboration between the Cuban Book Institute and the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Havana.
To date, the space has held debates surrounding the thought of such philosophers as Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault. It will focus on Jean Paul Sartre throughout February.
In recent decades, philosophical inquiry in Cuba has been limited to the teaching of Marxism-Leninism (and not as a result of a debate among Cuban intellectuals). Many are of the opinion that the philosophy syllabus at the University of Havana has been designed, not by philosophers, but by ideologues.
The recent and superficial “updating” of this syllabus hasn’t stemmed from theoretical developments or the fact philosophy teachers have become familiarized with other schools of thought, but from political events such as the collapse of the socialist bloc.
The new space for debate offered by the Alma Mater bookstore could well represent a reaction to many years of dogmatic, restricted and sterile education, an act of resistance to the imperative of having to think exclusively on the basis of old Marxism-Leninism manuals.