You could say that Lady Liberty — less statuesque, literally and metaphorically — nevertheless has made an appearance in Havana.
Its re-interpreted image in the form of a cuddly, green chubby bear, arms extended in solidarity with other bears, her torch not as high or as grand as the original but oh-so-cute, is standing at St. Assisi Square in Old Havana.
Painted cows in Miami Lakes, painted roosters in Little Havana — and now an international “United Buddy Bears” in La Habana, dutifully making their debut during the first round of historic U.S.-Cuba talks, and on view through March.
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Call it buddy-bear diplomacy —– the brain child of the Germans, who are taking the traveling art exhibit of colorful bear sculptures around the world where they’re needed to encourage tolerance, understanding, and peace.
The show arrived in Havana just in time.
“Los osos buddy, anunciadores de un tiempo mejor,” the official online Habana Cultural magazine lavished praise on the installation. Buddy bears herald better times.
A week later, unfortunately, it doesn’t much look that way. Not in a week’s worth of agenda-setting discussions covered by the world’s media, and certainly not in the realm of the arts.
“It is not art, but publicity,” New York-based Cuban art curator Elvis Fuentes says of the government-sponsored bear show. “Look at Tania Bruguera or any other case of political art. When an artist interferes or uses the political sphere, they get jail time. When politicians interfere and use the artistic sphere, nothing happens, they exploit it....”
While the bears were having their day to much pomp and circumstance from the Cuban establishment, the high art of internationally acclaimed Cuban artist Bruguera wasn’t allowed to be.
The mere idea of giving a minute — one minute! — at the microphone for any Cuban who wanted to speak at the historic Revolution Square on the eve of the talks was rejected. Even though the experimental #YoTambienExijo (IAlsoDemand) performance couldn’t go on, the idea was enough cause for Bruguera to be arrested three times. Three times released, the New York resident now faces charges and can’t leave the country until a judge rules on her case. That won’t happen for at least 60 days, her family says she was told Tuesday.
And the worldly buddy bears — particularly Siboney, the cigar-smoking Cuban bear named after one of the indigenous tribes — are going to make everything okay?
Not in Cuba.
A wishful kumbaya moment in an otherwise dismal reality: After the initial excitement over news that the U.S. president was extending an olive branch to Cuba, the island’s government has made it clear that there’s no intention to democratize, nor respect basic international human rights principles of freedom of speech and assembly.
Passing through Miami Saturday, the lead U.S. negotiator in the Cuba talks, Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson, warned against raising expectations of change too high. The “true normalization of relations and change,” she said, “will take a long time.”
Her Cuban counterpart, Josefina Vidal, was more blunt. She point-blank told the Associated Press: “Change in Cuba is not negotiable.”
Is Cuba back-pedaling on re-establishing relations?
By Monday, Cuba trotted out the allegedly moribund comandante himself, not in person but by way of an also alleged rambling message to university students recalling his triumphant entrance into 1959 Havana, and by the way opining on the renewal of Cuba-U.S. relations after five decades.
Turns out that Castro says he doesn’t have any confidence in U.S. policy, but is not against seeking “cooperation and friendship with all the peoples of the world, among them our political adversaries.”
Kumbaya, my Lord, kumbaya.
Meanwhile Cubans, known to vote with their feet, have been arriving in rickety rafts by sea and crossing the Mexican border in dramatic new numbers since the December 17 announcement by President Obama that he would seek to resume diplomatic relations with Cuba, and, as part of the thaw, expand travel and trade with the island.
So much for Lady Liberty’s cuddly bear debut in Havana.