By Dmitri Prieto
Echoes of the 10th Catholic Social Week in Cuba: An Interview with Victor Fowler
HAVANA TIMES, July 6 — Victor Fowler Calzada (Havana, 1960) is one of the most remarkable intellectuals of his generation. A poet, essayist, researcher, literary critic and author of studies on controversial and diverse issues —ranging from homoerotism in literature to the relation between intellectual elites and popular culture— he received the Nicolas Guillen Poetry Award (2008) and is a two-time Critic Award winner.
He has given lectures at several universities around the world and is a frequent participant in literary and scientific events as well as almost all Havana settings of debate.
Fowler lives with his family in the capital’s Cerro district. He was a guest at the recent Catholic Social Week (held in Havana from June 16 to 20), where he spoke several times provoking both controversy and applause.
HT: Victor, you’re not only one of the most remarkable Cuban poets today, but also an active participant in current debates related to issues concerning the future of the nation. Why did you decide to participate in the 10th Catholic Social Week?
Victor Fowler: They invited me and I accepted. Catholic Social Week, as the word ‘social’ indicates, is a moment qualitatively different in what concerns the practices of Catholic institutions within society. It was worthwhile for me to learn, listen and perhaps rethink this issue. In any event, it opened a new aperture for me.
I hadn’t participated in similar events, nor had I attended Catholic forums frequently. However, that doesn’t imply that I hadn’t read Catholic authors; I can say that I do indeed read them frequently. Much of Catholicism (as far as I can tell) is in my cultural and spiritual substratum, be that what it may. In any case, I easily identify it in the things I write, say and do.
HT: In your opinion, what was the most significant thing that happened at the 10th Catholic Social Week?
HT: Why was there such an interest by so many intellectuals in a church event?
VF: There’s something strange about that question because the fact that an intellectual is interested in a church event shouldn’t deserve special attention, although I assume that you’re referring to the Cuban circumstances. I don’t know how to respond for anyone else; in my case this is access to Cuban religious (Catholic) life that I wanted to know more about: how it loves.
HT: At the Social Week activities, many participants had the opportunity to get a copy of your last book of poems, published by a Catholic publishing house. For one of the most prolific writers in Cuba, what does that publication mean to you? What does the Catholic media in Cuba today possess that is special?
VF: The small booklet you’re alluding to —titled Camino a Damasco (an implicit quote that refers to the episode of the conversion by Paul of Tarsus, or Saint Paul)— I understand as a minute compendium of pain, questions and searching. They are poems that, for the most part, were dispersed in what I’d already published. Now gathered, they find their more authentic tone. Given that all writing should reach to the bottom of its labyrinth, daring to exhibit the turbulence that it carries inside, I accepted the invitation to publish them, which made me friends with the magazine Espacio Laical (Lay Space).
That is, by the way, the only participation that I’ve had, at least recently, in Catholic media, and it was characterized by dialogue, love for Cuba and sincerity.
Up to now I’ve collaborated with the magazine (Espacio Laical) on an interview, a long article on the issue of “poverty and word” (that speaks of our present), and with this small book of poems. In the next publication, another long article will appear on the question of hope. Since the natural language of faith is that of the non-desperation, writing here is a challenge. The efforts of many others are involved in Espacio Laical through their collaborations or in works that are more than just part of a job. In a short time they have transformed that magazine into one of the best that currently exist in the country. It’s a shame that it doesn’t circulate more widely.
HT: Victor, in your article that you mention (La libertad paradójica: una exploración de pobreza y palabra / Paradoxical Freedom: An exploration of poverty and word) you reach an uncomfortable conclusion concerning your memories of the Cuba of the past, your current Cuban experiences and a violent event that you witnessed during your trip to Colombia.
You said that when we yearn for that “idyllic” past (the 1950s and 60s), when bottles of milk were delivered in the morning to the doors of our homes, and property (including that of poor families) was respected, then we are also unconsciously demanding the complementary repressive order where the “machine-state” and other hidden factors put each person violently in their “place,” where they “fit” in society.
Contrarily, in current Cuba there exists what you call a “paradoxical freedom,” expressed in terms of vandalism, violence, disrespect among this same people, as well as apparent social chaos. I recognize that this reflection of yours can be like a bucket of cold water for those who want a calm, governable and prosperous Cuba. So then, what is to be done? Are we faced with a fatal alternative?
VF: It’s not that what I term “paradoxical freedom” is expressed in vandalism, violence, disrespect or apparent social chaos, but rather that such signs of supposed decomposition are exhibits of a new freedom for the great masses who were previously “contained” by the previous repressive order. Such attitudes mix impotence and freedom.
In terms of what to do, there’s promoting freedom; increasing the spaces for study, debate and non-policed criticism of social behavior; increasing educational activities around obligations and duties that relate to citizens before the law, as well as generating and “making” more social justice. To close one’s eyes to paradoxes is indeed fatal.
HT: In relation to the previous question, how do you assess the opinions given by those at the Catholic Social Week who proposed that the Cuban people should play an indispensable part in a dialogue on the future of Cuba? And what is your opinion concerning the proposition that such a dialogue is in fact now occurring? And finally, how then would the violence that lives within the population be overcome?
VF: It’s necessary to be measured with that idea of violence, especially when attributing it to that common recipient of the discourse of intellectuals: the people. That same people work, produce, desire, dream; they are your neighbor, a relative, oneself. Now then, dialogue between intellectuals is one thing (always with the hope of being recognized and summoned, of being heard, of being taken into account by the power’s that be) and it’s another very different thing (the one I prefer) when one inhabits a space where the structures subsist thanks to the vocation and propensity of dialogue of officials. Not for intellectuals, but for everyone.
It is the complete assumption of what the condition of one’s fellow human being means and not the destiny of living as an eternally infantilized actor. It is possible that the state of dialogue is no more than a horizon that is in fact unreachable, and I accept that. But the terrible thing is when the opposite is imposed: the perception that, since not everything can be discussed or discussed forever, then what is correct is the pre-eminence of authoritarianism, violence, the cult of personality, orders that guarantee the general population’s silence on some issue, the fabric of relationships between the cream of the untouchables, the emptying of the word and, finally, damage to the spirit.
HT: I would like to ask you to expand your commentary in the Social Week in which you said a pardon is a bare minimal moment of something longer and more difficult: of love – especially in connection with the future of our country.
VF: The idea is simple. A pardon is a necessity when there’s been a long conflict within a human group. What’s more, it has to be supplemented with the stability of love and this latter is what leads toward justice: love. It’s the most difficult —love— but it prevents a pardon from being only a rhetorical assertion.
In the case of Cuba, the proposing of an alternative to the social system under which we now live will only be authentic when thought is given to upgrading all the areas of social justice that were inaugurated by the new power in its time. Said in another way, we must look not only at what these obtained, but also who spoke for them (and who continue speaking). Moreover, the upgrading of justice doesn’t allow realms – more or less small-, but rather it has to be universal and absolute (in terms of geographical location, social class, gender, race, etc.). I’m referring to something like a sort of “insane” policy, but true love is crazy and it spreads.
HT: How do you relate your poetic creation with the Christian faith?
VF: I don’t know. I don’t ask. I just let it be, because one day I’ll have to come to my end, and there I’ll find myself and the answers.
HT: What is the contribution of Catholic Social Week to the future of Cuba? And what role should the Church play in that future?
VF: It’s a significant contribution given that Cuba will only have a future from the factual point of view, having offered the opportunity to converse with a group of people who have diverse points of view concerning that future. That’s to say, people will have to be offered the opportunity to present various futures so that the one that will finally be realized is carried out. In terms of the role of the Church in that future, I only dare to hope that it is what it is now: accompaniment, support, dialogue, listening, protection, assistance, growth and praying for us all.