A Cuban cartoonist talks of his art and Cuba

Arístides Esteban Hernández Guerrero, known as Ares, is an internationally acclaimed cartoonist living in Havana. His drawings have won hundreds of awards in world cartooning and satire competitions.

He was born in 1963 in Havana and went on to become a professional psychiatrist. He currently works for the popular daily Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth).

Ares has taught courses and spoken at conferences on cartoon humor in Cuba and abroad. The Cartoonists & Writers Syndicate distributes his cartoons around the world.

In 1994, the trade journal Witty World listed him among the world’s best cartoonists. Cuba nominated him for the “Quevedos” Iberoamerican Cartoonist Prize. He was recognized as one of the most relevant Cuban visual artists of the 20th century. This year he received the National Culture Award from Cuba’s Ministry of Culture.

Ares graciously submitted to this cartoonist’s questions about Cuban life, his art and politics. The following are excerpts from his responses.

DB: Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Following the recent visit to Cuba by our former president, Jimmy Carter, Americans are even more interested in life in your homeland.

Did you show artistic abilities as a child and is that something encouraged by Cuban society?

ARES: Yes, I did have talent since I was small, but it didn’t draw me into any specialized artistic training. There are excellent art schools here, but I didn’t study in any of them. After I finished my primary education, I was enrolled at the Lenin Vocational School for my entire junior high and high school years. It’s an excellent place to study, but more oriented toward technical specialties.

DB: It is interesting that you are a psychiatrist as well as an artist. Did you pursue both through your education?

ARES: Cartooning is something I developed on my own, without any specific art-related study. In medicine and psychiatry, as is only logical, my studies were not at the amateur level.

DB: You are a very prolific artist. How do you manage to accomplish this while working as a psychiatrist?

ARES: I began to publish cartoons when I was in my third year at university. Ever since, I’ve been doing both things, “burning the midnight oil” to be able to do it. That’s how I got along for about 15 years, but by that point my work as a cartoonist was taking up too much space and time in my life, and so I decided to go into cartooning full time.

I began working as an editorial cartoonist for Juventud Rebelde. They had already been publishing my work for years as a contributor. So I gave up my “day job” as a hospital psychiatrist.

DB: Was that a difficult decision? Leaving a professional position to work in the precarious field of the arts?

ARES: No, I decided to do this because of a personal interest, and because I was totally convinced of what I had to do. The position of a professional here doesn’t greatly differ in economic status from that of any other productive activity, so it wasn’t something that would have a great effect on me. It is true that I won’t have the same degree of stability, but that’s the risk you take to do what you really want.

I imagine that when you ask this you have the image of a psychoanalyst in the U.S., who charges who-knows-how-many dollars an hour. This isn’t the case here, where there isn’t any private medicine, and doctors get a government salary.

DB: Talking about psychiatry – what type did you practice and were you attached to any hospital?

ARES: Since I was a medical student, I worked as a student aide in the field, and I found it very interesting. When I finished my social service internship (four years in the mountains of Guantanamo Province), I decided to go into the specialty, and got a position at Cuba’s oldest hospital, Calixto García. I worked as a psychiatrist in a psychiatric ward within the general hospital, a situation that is very common here. I treated short-term patients …, as well as walk-in patients and therapy groups treating neurotic, psychotic and alcoholic problems.

At present I have a walk-in practice one day a week, but I don’t actually work for the hospital any more. I’m also doing a series of books on psychiatry, illustrated with cartoons. The first of these, Psicoterapia: Una Relación de Ayuda [Psychotherapy: A Helping Relationship] was published in Guatemala.

The second, Mi Psicologo Soy Yo [I’m My Own Psychologist], is supposed to be printed in Cuba within a couple months. I’m working on a third volume, about alcoholism, which will be the first of a line of self-help books.

DB: Cartooning is not taken very seriously in the U.S. Most view the art form as something only for children. Political art is something that is very disposable in the daily newspapers and usually relies on humor to make its point. The impact has to be very immediate and is not very cerebral. Your work, in my opinion, is very cerebral and sometimes difficult – requiring some thought to gather the meaning. What is your thought process when it comes to conveying an idea?

ARES: I use different methods to create a cartoon. Sometimes, the idea is first, and I start from there to find the visual codes with which I can transmit it. In other cases, I start out with a drawing that I like a lot, then I sit down and look for an idea for the drawing. And, sometimes the idea and the drawing appear in unison, like a natural birth. …

What I can tell you for sure is the essential thing for a cartoonist is information. The more information you have “laid down” in your head, the more options you will have to create cartoons that are not trite or repetitive, and the better your ideas will be. This also presupposes a work ethic that requires you to rediscover yourself every day, and allows you to avoid “easy” solutions. …

DB: Your drawing style is unique. Do you have any influences or heroes?

ARES: The initial influences on my work are in the work that was developed in Cuba in the humor magazine Dedeté [DDT], which avoids “pamphletizing” [crude propagandizing] and looks for new forms of communication … for non-traditional esthetic solutions. That’s where my style starts out.

Participation in international humor events has brought me many other influences. My work style includes a large dose of “esthetic vampirism,” in that I’ve absorbed a lot from a lot of different people. But I have a central axis, my major cartoon characters, who have been changing in their own right along with the changes in the type of humor that I happen to be doing.

DB: How did you begin doing drawings for publication? Are there any obstacles you face every day?

ARES: As I told you, I began when I was a third-year pre-med student. This was in 1984, when I was 20. A friend … who knew about my drawing told me there was a magazine that accepted free-lance contributions. I got home, sat down, and did about 40 cartoons. If I saw them now, I wouldn’t dare show them to anyone! But at least to that editor they didn’t seem so awful, and so that’s where everything began. Then, bit by bit, I managed to break into different publications. The obstacles facing a cartoonist are linked to the editors’ judgment, and here is where you have to put your talent to good use, to say what you mean and get into print.

DB: What I mean by obstacles is that many people in the U.S. believe that Cuba is a harsh dictatorship where free speech is difficult. Have you ever faced problems over differences in political opinions?

ARES: It’s impossible that in any society everyone will be in favor of the government. This happens here also. These folks are in the minority, as far as I can see, and, anyway, it has to be that way – if it were not so, this Revolution would not have lasted more than 40 years, 90 miles from the U.S.

The communications media are at the service of the majority, and, as such, those who are in opposition have little or no space to express their opinions. There is space for criticism, but not for a change in the essential framework that holds the country together.

I, in particular, don’t have any idea that goes against the society that we’re building, and I have no problems when it comes to expressing myself or putting forward my points of view.

DB: You have had several collections of your drawings published in Cuba and Latin America. Do you see any proceeds from these publications?

ARES: My cartoons are published in various media outlets, not only in Latin America but also in Europe, Asia and the U.S. In some cases, I’ve gotten paid for them, in others not. In most cases, what they pay me is truly miserable, but I persist, with the happiness of seeing my work reproduced and accepted by many people.

DB: How important is political art in Cuba and is there an officially accepted form of revolutionary art sanctioned by the Communist Party?

ARES: The role of political art in Cuba is a big one. The newspaper where I have worked for years makes major use of editorial cartoons, and on not a few occasions the front page is a full-page cartoon.

If you ask me if there is some particular type of art that is sanctioned here by the Party, I can tell you the answer is “no.” Cuban cultural policy has nothing to do with those kinds of things that happened in Eastern Europe, with Socialist Realism. All artistic manifestations have their own space here, as do all esthetic currents of art. This is without denying that in the early years of the Revolution they didn’t look very kindly on things like rock, but that’s ancient history.

DB: Do you mean rock music? Are outside influences more accepted now?

ARES: Yes, I am referring to rock music, as an example of the lack of understanding shown toward art during the first years of the Revolution. Something similar occurred in cartooning, where books … were censored for the type of humor used. It was a humor that was, shall we say, existentialist, an assimilation of avant-garde currents of world cartooning. …

There’s not any of that now, and you will find Cuban heavy metal musicians, or rappers, along with those who play salsa – all outside influences are accepted without problems.

We are at a certain advantage, since we don’t have the American media monopoly, and so lots of extremely high quality cultural products arrive here from around the world.

DB: In the former USSR, cartoon clubs were very popular and encouraged by the Communist Party. Are there such clubs in Cuba?

ARES: There are two groups of cartoonists … who organize national and international humor events in our country. … There are three humor magazines that also bring together cartoon artists. … and there are also various “national humor salons” [competitive exhibitions].

DB: It seems from your answers that there is a great deal of artistic activity in Cuba. What would you like the citizens of the U.S. to know about the reality of freedom and life in Cuba? This is especially timely since President Bush would like us to believe that his definition of democracy and freedom is the correct one.

ARES: There’s a song that says, “I don’t live in a perfect society/ I ask you not to call it that/ if anything makes me think that, it is because it is created by women and men ...” This isn’t a perfect country; we have lots of difficulties and many things that need to be improved, and many things that need to change. But we also have many things that are worthy of admiration, things that just about no other country of the so-called third world has achieved, or will achieve for a long time.

What does bother me as a Cuban and an intellectual worker is that from the United States they’re trying to tell us Cubans what to do. President Bush recently called for democracy in Cuba; but I can’t explain to myself what moral standing he has, to give democracy lessons to my country, he being a president who got to the White House after fraudulent elections.

To top it off, he wants to bomb any country that he pleases, using a slogan that a country is “antidemocratic” – which simply means that anyone who is not for him is against him, and thus a potential target of attack.

According to Bush, here you can see the “socialist hell.” Well, in that case, rather than prohibiting U. S. citizens from traveling to Cuba, they should do as the writer Eduardo Galeano suggested: organize tourist excursions so people could see these “horrors.”

DB: Thanks for allowing me to ask so many questions. Let us hope that one day we will all be able to meet across those 90 miles of sea in safety and comradeship.

ARES: I’m sure!

Ares’ responses in Spanish translated by Owen Williamson. The author can be reached at marxist_ink@hotmail.com