Culture rises against the Cuban revolution

The world of culture has risen in Cuba. It has done so after decades abiding by the rules of silence imposed by the Cuban Government – first of Fidel Castro, after his brother Raul, and, at present, of Miguel Diaz-Canel-. But that silence, sometimes broken by some creators who have suffered rejection and discredit, encouraged by the official media, has ended.

To the surprise of the regime – more concerned about political dissidents – these critical and resilient voices from the world of art, literature and music have managed to lead an unprecedented artistic and social mobilization in the last year. They have done it through actions like the hunger strike

of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), in response to the arrest of rapper Denis Solís; or the protest before the Ministry of Culture on November 27, as a result of the raid by State Security agents of the MSI headquarters to stop the strike. That day the group 27-N, made up of about twenty creators from different disciplines –artists, writers, filmmakers, producers, journalists …–, which he presented to the Vice Minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas, a series of demands – freedom of expression, creation, thought, assembly … – that have not been met to this day.

Explosive ingredients

These protests, amplified by social networks – the use of the internet on mobile phones reached the island in 2018 – despite the constant blockages of communications by the government, coincided at a time when the island was suffering – and suffers – a serious economic crisis, exacerbated by the pandemic. All these ingredients mixed and agitated spontaneously caused the historic and peaceful demonstrations of July 11, after which the regime arrested thousands of people, some of whom face prison terms of up to 25 years.

Despite the repression, and the arrest of some of the icons of these protests, such as the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and the rapper Maykel Castillo Osorbo, the Archipelago group, made up of more than 27,000 people, including artists and members of civil society, has made a new call to take to the streets of Cuba on November 15: the Civic March for Change.

The artist Tania Bruguera in one of her 'performances'
The artist Tania Bruguera in one of her ‘performances’

Between one date and another, initiatives have continued to emerge from the world of culture against the government. The last one, calling for an international boycott of the
XIV Biennial of Havana
which begins on November 12, and will last six months. In a letter signed by hundreds of creators, countries are asked “not to attend or participate in their activities, or support the event, the objective of which is to clean the face of the government of all the atrocities it has done,” explains ABC Cultural the artist Tania bruguera, one of the promoters of the letter and also a member of 27-N.

Uncomfortable for the Cuban government for years, Bruguera speaks from Boston, where months ago she was invited to teach at Harvard University. Guarded and under de facto house arrest, she could not accept then. A few weeks ago, he negotiated to leave the island in exchange for the release of 26 political prisoners, including the artist Hamlet Lavastida, who was released on condition that he leave the country.

The artists have also broken with some of their previous premises, such as expressing themselves only through their works.

“The Biennial has always functioned as a propaganda space,” maintains the artist, while wondering how it is possible for the event to be held “in the midst of a humanitarian crisis”: “There is no money for food, but dozens of thousands of dollars in it. I do not think it is moral for people to go to Cuba to have fun while there are hundreds of political prisoners for going out to the streets in a peaceful way.

Artists’ anger with power goes back a long way, but it has worsened in recent months. One of the most serious moments for Bruguera, the one that marked a turning point, happened on January 27, when the Minister of Culture, Alpidio Alonso, he “slapped” a journalist who was recording a protest by artists before the ministry with a telephone. The incident was broadcast in director by social networks. “It was something that we never thought could happen. [Las instancias gubernamentales] they always played the card of innocence, but that gesture allowed the police and officials to beat the artists, and put them on a bus to take them into custody while they shouted. For the artist, that moment demonstrated “the complicity of the Ministry of Culture with the Ministry of the Interior.”

This is censorship

Another aspect that has intensified disaffection has been the ever greater reduction in spaces to express oneself, including this biennial. “There were editions in which we held a parallel biennial, we did exhibitions in our homes. That is not possible anymore. At the XIV Biennial there will be no parallel activities outside of it. This is censorship, “he denounces.

Hamlet Lavastida is another of the artists who have supported the boycott of the Biennial: “How can it be celebrated in a country where there is no debate, and it is immersed in misery?” Like Bruguera, he believes that the mobilization of the world of culture on the island is a consequence of the lack of response to the demands that they have been making for years, such as guaranteeing, both to artists and to the general population, “civil rights more elementary ». Rights that “go beyond the political regime that exists in a country,” underlines in a telephone conversation with ABC Cultural from Berlin, where the poet and his girlfriend have moved Katherine Bisquet, after being forced to leave Cuba. “They were afraid of what I could do with a pencil,” he jokes.

The creator Cuco Fusco encouraging in networks the boycott of the Biennial
The creator Cuco Fusco encouraging in networks the boycott of the Biennial – Twitter

Lavastida maintains that the artists’ demands against the Cuban regime have always existed, but if now they have become more visible it is “because conditions on the island have worsened a lot, and the symbolic capital of what it meant Fidel Castro it has disappeared”.

The frustration of the Cuban people has also been fueled by the failure of the thaw of relations between the United States and Cuba (initiated by Barack Obama and Raul castro in 2014), in which the younger generations saw an opportunity for the future. “All of that was reversed, and it is impossible for Cubans to accept a Soviet-style setback.”

“The Biennial has always functioned as a propaganda space”, maintains Tania Bruguera, while wondering how it is possible that the event is held “in the midst of a humanitarian crisis”

Hence, the people have taken to the streets, “because they have nothing to lose, although artists do have to lose, such as the perks that the Cuban government gave us,” he admits. “At least the most representative, who at first were very attached to the government, which wanted to keep them handcuffed through strategies, such as letting them go to expose other countries while remaining silent and politically correct towards them.”

Some of these artists were rebelling little by little against that “non-value system, which was collapsing,” he points out. And remember how in 2018 a group of artists, known as the Biennial 00, an alternative to the biennial of that year. That, he explains, was the origin of the MSI, which was born after the government approved the decree 349 (to regulate and censor creative activity). “That’s when the radicalization of artists began.” For Lavastida, the current mobilizations on the island represent “a true popular revolution. What they [el castrismo] they could not even do it on January 1, 1959 ».

Yunior García, playwright and member of the 27-N platform and promoter of the Archipelago group, promoter of the Civic March for Change to be held on November 15 in various cities on the island, agrees that disappointment and disenchantment are aspects that have led Cubans to the streets. “In the last years of Raúl Castro’s mandate, it seemed that Cuba was opening up to the world and that promising changes were taking place,” he tells ABC Cultural from Havana. But it has not been that way. «In recent years we have experienced the worst moments of the last 25 years. That phrase of Fidel Castro has resounded that marked cultural policy for many years, and that was the excuse for all the dark episodes that occurred for a long time: “With the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing, against the revolution no rights ”».

Don’t keep pretending

Yunior Garcia claims the name of other artists, such as Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, José Martí O Martinez Villena, which show that artists have had a leading role in the history of Cuba. «What has happened now is the maturity, especially in the new generations, of not continuing to simulate, because the regime has remained standing thanks to simulation, because it has made the population believe that the smartest way to survive it is to keep quiet and let things happen until you can leave the country. For many artists, the solution was “to stay out of any ideological conflict, until the opportunity to get out came.”

Yunior García, one of the promoters of the 15-N march
Yunior García, one of the promoters of the 15-N march – EFE

In recent times that has changed, as Cubans have found another way of facing reality, “a way of being more honest about what it means to live in Cuba and think differently,” says the playwright, who believes that artists They have also broken with some of their previous premises, such as expressing themselves only through their works. “We have understood that we are also citizens and that we have to participate in the reality of our country not only through our art.”

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