Yes, Cuba is more open now. But for these artists and activists, little
Oppression, jail and censorship are still the norm for the country’s
young and politically active.
By Kevin Lees June 22 at 8:47 AM
HAVANA — Tania Bruguera’s work sits in the permanent collection of
Cuba’s premier art gallery, the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. So it
was a surprise when, despite invitations from organizers of the Havana
Biennial, Bruguera was turned away by the guards there during an event
taking place on the Biennial’s first weekend.
Far less surprising was the arrest of Gorki Águila, a punk rocker who
unfurled a banner at the Museo Nacional demanding the release of
political satirist Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as “El Sexto.”
Machado has been incarcerated since last December after producing a
series of provocative political cartoons and antigovernment street art.
Though it no longer throws dissidents in the infamous UMAP labor camps
of the 1970s, Cuba has historically arrested and detained activists,
including artists. But when Obama took the first steps of normalizing
relations with Cuba last year, he promised that diplomats would demand
an end to all that. Last December, the president straightforwardly said
his policy is “fundamentally about freedom and openness,” and it intends
to “create more opportunities for the American and Cuban people.” The
New York Times, 13 days later, extolled the country’s burgeoning art scene.
The Biennial, an art exhibition that began in 1984 that highlights Latin
American and Caribbean art and nontraditional artists globally, was a
chance to showcase a new, freer Cuba. In a recent Associated Press
article, art critic Rafael Acosta de Arriva raved about the event as a
“moment of major effervescence,” capturing the sense that now is the
time to “discover” Cuba, artists and all — and at valuable prices.
For some of the country’s artists, not much has changed. In the last
several weeks, Bruguera, Águila and dozens of other artists, activists
and dissidents have been detained, and there’s no sign that the
political rapprochement has brought any corresponding détente. It’s one
reason why young Cubans may be so skeptical about closer relations
between the United States and Cuba, at least according to an informal
poll on a recent hopping Saturday night along Havana’s sociable Malecón.
They are excited about improved U.S. relations, young Cubans told me,
but they doubt that will necessarily deliver any real change. A more
formal Univision/Fusion poll in early April showed that although 97
percent of all Cubans support greater ties with the United States, fully
55 percent of Cubans want to live in another country, 70 percent want to
start their own business, 75 percent thought they had to be careful
about expressing opinions in public and 79 percent are still
dissatisfied with Cuba’s economic system, and the numbers were even
higher among young Cubans. The gap between American froth and Cuban
reality at this year’s Biennial warns that the pace of change will be
* * *
News coverage since December paints a rosy tapestry of a country on the
brink of a Western-style revolution. Netflix announced it would target
Cuba, though Internet access is heavily censored, available for $10 an
hour at designated government-run Internet cafes, universities and
tourist hotels. JetBlue announced grandiose plans to launch a commercial
nonstop flight from New York by year’s end; hopes to reestablish a ferry
service from Key West followed.
State Department officials say that the U.S. government’s new policy
represents a bet that liberalization and modernity will drag Cuba into
the 21st century and empower Cuban entrepreneurs. The Cuban government,
instead, is betting it can open its economy without its politics, press
Bruguera fears Cuba could soon become the worst of Castro-style
socialism and American-style capitalism at the expense of the Cuban people.
“Money is not going to solve Cuba,” she said. “People can actually live
their fantasy in Cuba. But because of that, because the government knows
that, and because the government is providing that, it’s giving the key
to access that kingdom to anyone who is going to behave well. And that
counts for foreigners, for businessmen, for foreign press, for artists,
She would know. In May, Bruguera was arrested following a 100-hour
reading of Hannah Arendt’s “The Origins of Totalitarianism” in her
modest home in Havana Vieja, a few footsteps from the national Cuban art
collection. When I visited Bruguera for the first time, on the final day
of the reading, plainclothes policemen from MININT, Cuba’s feared
interior ministry, swarmed just outside the doorway, and state workers
were jackhammering away, digging forlorn trenches into the dusty road.
Bruguera, who once taught art at the University of Chicago, where she
also knocked on doors for Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign, has been
under a kind of “city arrest” since late December, her passport
confiscated and every step under state surveillance, following another
public demonstration. We made plans to meet, perhaps later that day.
Instead, MININT officials detained and questioned her.
Fidel Castro set the rules of the game for artists early on in a 1961
speech at the national library to a gathering of intellectuals: “Within
the Revolution everything; against the Revolution, nothing.”
Artists like Bruguera may express their views through art — up to a
point. Once you fall out of good standing with the government, for any
reason, Bruguera said, you’re deemed a problem-maker on every front. If
Che Guevara were 27 years old and alive in today’s Cuba, Bruguera said
he’d be in prison, not in power.
It’s a touchstone for Cuban society, generally, including the limited
economic reforms that Raúl Castro has implemented since 2008.
Liberalization, but only up to a point. It’s not clear that
transformational levels of American capital would even be welcome in a
command economy that still features massive state control. In a city of
over 2 million, there’s still just one major ice cream parlor —
Coppelia, a sprawling complex of concrete slathered in teal paint. It
serves only three flavors and is closed on Mondays, but the lines
stretch around the block to get in on steamy weekend afternoons.
It’s one example of dozens that suggests there’s ample room for much
deeper reform to unleash entrepreneurship. Still, the number of
self-employed workers (now more than 500,000, according to the
government), and the categories for self-employment, have gradually
increased since 2010, offsetting the unprecedented layoffs of nearly
one-tenth of the sprawling public workforce that earns a monthly salary
of around $20.
Upcoming transitions could complicate both reform and diplomatic
efforts. A fiercely anti-Castro Republican administration in 2017 could
use a full embassy as a platform to undermine the Cuban regime in far
more severe ways than the current interests section. Meanwhile, Raúl
Castro has pledged to step down as president in 2018, though few have
credible insights into the true beliefs of his likely successor,
54-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel. Raúl’s son, 49-year-old Alejandro, a
top-ranking MININT official, traveled with Raúl to the Summit of the
Americas, lingering in the background during the Raúl-Obama handshake.
Some Cubans believe he will eventually emerge as the next Castro to rule
For the most doubtful, the United States still beckons. Following
Obama’s December announcement, the U.S. Coast Guard announced a sharp
uptick of seaborne Cubans anxious that reconciliation would end
favorable U.S. immigration policy. In the 2012 film “Una Noche,” three
young Cubans attempt to leave the country on a makeshift raft. A year
later, two of the co-stars, Anailín de la Rúa de la Torre and Javier
Núñez Florián, decided to stay in Miami en route to a film festival in
New York. They fell in love during filming and now live in Las Vegas
with their American-born son.
Unlike previous generations of Cuban immigrants, Núñez Florián isn’t
overly concerned about politics. He said his decision was about building
a better future for himself and his family. Though he initially demurred
when I asked him about the dynamics of U.S.-Cuban relations, he said he
sees it in a positive light.
“Yes, it’s good,” he said. “The U.S. is meeting in the middle, little by
little getting closer to Cuba, and Cuba the same. Little by little
everything is changing for the better.”
Source: Yes, Cuba is more open now. But for these artists and activists,
little has changed. – The Washington Post –