Silvio Torres-Saillant recently visited Cuba, where he served as a judge and keynote speaker for a major literary competition. While he was on his way out of the country, customs staff paged through every book he was carrying. “I had about 15 books. That was all the customs officer touched,” he says. “They were looking for rare items that may be of value to the national patrimony. Imagine finding one of the last extant copies of the first edition of Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ in Boston and buying it to take it to Norway. They think of books that way.”
That reverence for books and literature highlights the complexity of Cuba’s history as a mix of tyranny, revolution and exile, says Torres-Saillant, Dean’s Professor in the Humanities and professor of English. “One of the problems that gave rise to the revolution was the disempowerment of the people as reflected in massive illiteracy,” he explains, referring to the armed revolt Fidel Castro led against the authoritarian Batista regime. Castro and his supporters ousted Batista on Jan. 1, 1959, and declared Cuba a revolutionary socialist state.
Concern about illiteracy “may have consolidated support for the revolution by many regular Cubans,” Torres-Saillant says. “I spoke to many people who, as high schoolers back then, went to the rural areas to become impromptu teachers. That is very moving to hear. As they eliminated illiteracy, they created armies of readers who would then go on to appreciate great writers and thinkers.”
Torres-Saillant spent two weeks in January in Cuba as a judge and opening lecturer for the Casa de las Américas Literary Prize, easily the most prestigious literary award in the hemisphere outside the United States. The award honors works in Spanish, Portuguese, English, Dutch and French by writers from Latin America and the Caribbean. Categories include fiction, poetry, essays, narrative and children’s literature.
Torres-Saillant was one of three judges reviewing manuscripts on the experience of people of African origin in the Americas and the Caribbean. He visited Havana, Cuba’s capital, and Cienfuegos, on the southern coast. Hailing from 12 countries—including Brazil, Mexico and Spain—the 22 judges were “lodged in fine hotels, well fed, treated well.” In addition, “I was surprised to see the intense coverage our presence received in the national media,” Torres-Saillant adds.
“Such a huge investment seems hard to fathom in a country that remains strangled by the U.S. embargo,” says Torres-Saillant, who was born in the Dominican Republic. Reading the competing manuscripts during their weeklong stay in Cienfuegos, he worked with Cuban filmmaker Gloria Rolando and Brazilian historian Joăo José Reis on selecting the winner in the African heritage in the Americas category.
Torres-Saillant viewed his Cuban visit through the lens of his scholarly interest in the legacy of colonialism. “Our hemisphere consists of a series of countries created by the colonial project,” he explains. “Inequality was the raw material of which these societies were made.”
As former colonies declared sovereignty from European powers, “the indigenous populations and the workforce brought in captivity from Africa and in indentured servitude from Asia did not fare too well, as the architects of the new nations failed to regard them as their equals,” he says. “As far as I know, the Cuban revolutionary government is the first to have taken steps to create a new ethos of social relations meant to replace the logic of maltreatment operative in the colonial order,” he says. “The new Cuba did not keep that idea of racial superiority.”
Cuba’s experience “gave hope to a lot of populations in the region that they could forge their own destiny.” This, he adds, “is best expressed in their dissemination of knowledge.” Book fairs and film festivals in Cuba “are followed by people in such massive numbers you would think they are rock concerts.”
The country’s story is complex, he notes. “There are people who will think of Cuba as a good thing and some who think of it as a bad thing,” he says. “Caribbean and Latin American writers and intellectuals of my generation and a bit older have typically had leftist leanings. It’s easy to have leftist leanings if you come from countries too often marred by the ravages of right-wing dictatorship and corrupt nominal democracies.”
Many anti-revolutionary exiles remain disenchanted with the Cuban government and bitter about their loss of power and divided families resulting from their rejection of the socialist state and their corresponding departure from the land. Among other Cubans, Torres-Saillant says, “There is still the aspiration for a classless society and a sustainable economy organized under a state that has defined education, health care, employment, and access to cultural production and the arts not as privileges but as rights.”
He enjoyed hearing the perspective of other Latin American artists and scholars. “Part of our conversations in social moments spoke of the areas of insufficient advancement in Cuba,” he says. “Everyone agrees that racism has not quite vanished yet. But they all agree that whatever survives does so in spite of the state, not because of it.”