The Birth of Vigía: Cuba in the 1980s and 1990s

Written by Kim Nochi

"Vigía provided a haven, a place of shelter, for writers and artists who chose not to leave their homeland."

In the aftermath of the Revolution of 1959, the political and economic situations on the island fluctuated between utopian and extremely oppressive. In response to the repressive social and economic situations of the 1970s, the year 1980 began with mass exodus of 125,000 Cubans to Miami through the Port of Mariel.1 To this, Fidel Castro, then Prime Minister of Cuba, responded: “We need not worry if we lose some flab. We are left with the muscle and bone of the people. We are left with the strong parts.”2

In the late 1980s, Mikhail Gorbachev, general secretary and later President of the Soviet Union, issued reforms that liberated the Soviet Union from the hold of communism. The Soviet Union had previously maintained strong trade ties to Cuba that, as a result of Gorbachev’s reforms, were severed, severely damaging Cuba’s economy. Other European countries that had also been experimenting with socialism turned to capitalism around the same time. This left Cuba isolated ideologically and economically, as well as geographically. In response, Castro issued a program of rectification that called for a return to the socialist ideals of the 1960s. These socialist reforms were essentially identical to the reforms the Soviet Union had imposed on Cuba previously, only now the reforms were coming from within.3

Out of this situation emerged what Castro declared the “Special Period in Times of Peace.”4 In his book Cuba Between Reform and Revolution, Juan Peréz describes this short period of time, which began in 1990s and lasted until the middle of the decade, as “apocalyptic.”5 A decrease in trade, weakened agricultural production, oil shortages, power outages, hurricanes, drought, and a burgeoning black market all contributed to the deplorable years referred to as the Special Period. Cubans were operating under wartime conditions. Additionally, a flourishing tourism industry which was promoted heavily by the Cuban government, as well as the legalization of the U.S. dollar, essentially stripped Cubans of their country and placed it in the hands of foreigners. During this period, around 13,000 Cubans a year left their homeland for the Florida coast.6

It was amid these conditions that Vigía emerged and not only began operating, but operating successfully. Vigía provided a haven, a place of shelter, for writers and artists who chose not to leave their homeland. The Vigía symbol, the oil lamp,  became especially relevant during this time. As Estévez explains, “the lamp became popular during the Special Period, when there were a lot of blackouts, and Cubans were using kerosene lamps everywhere, all over the island.”7 Vigía survived the resource shortages of the Special Period for two reasons. First, the press uses found and donated materials to make their books. This stems from aesthetic choices but also ideological choices that reflect Vigía’s desire to remain relatively independent. All centers of cultural production in Cuba, including Vigía, operate under the Ministry of Culture (MINCULT), which was founded in 1976. The MINCULT is an umbrella institution which, according to its current official website, “is responsible for directing, guiding, controlling, and executing the implementation of the cultural politics of state and government.”8 In the late 1990s and continuing today, the MINCULT manages and distributes artistic materials. In order to maintain their independence as a publishing house, Vigía has never relied on the MINCULT for materials. Instead, the workers at Vigía collect materials from around Matanzas and ask for donations from local butchers, newspapers, and factories.

Secondly, Vigía survived the Special Period because the artisans who work at the press and help produce the books are volunteers, not paid employees. Similarly, writers who are published by the press do not receive any payment. As Agustína Ponce, current editor of Vigía, explains in a recent interview, “This is the only Cuban press that does not pay writers with money, no author’s copyrights; we just give them copies of the book in exchange.”9 Both of these factors were ultimately Vigía’s saving grace in a time of scarcity.

  • 1 Jequin. “Timeline,” 228-31.
  • 2 Weiss, To and From Utopia,9.
  • 3 Ibid., 291-2.
  • 4 Jequin, “Timeline,” 308. Weiss, 110.
  • 5 Pérez, Cuba Between Reform and Revolution, 295.
  • 6 Weiss, To and From Utopia, 110, 151-6. Pérez, Cuba Between Reform and Revolution, 293-8, 318.
  • 7 Howe, Cuban Artists’ Books and Prints, 38.
  • 8 Ministerio de Cultura de la República de Cuba, El Ministerio, accessed March 28, 2012,
  • 9 “Video,” in Cuban Artists’ Books and Prints / Libros y Grabados de Artistas Cubanos: 1985-2008.