Fabiola Santiago

An old affliction haunts The Cuban: Exile politics and divisions

American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami
American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora in Miami

The new American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora is striking in its architectural resemblance to the grand colonial houses of Havana, yet has a modern Miami flair. From the imposing stairwell to the natural light that bathes the halls and bounces off sparkling white marble floors, The Cuban is a jewel.

But why isn’t Miami — and the two million strong Cuban diaspora in the United States and abroad — flocking to see what’s billed as its “cultural home”? Why isn’t there — now that this decades-old dream has come to fruition thanks to a $10 million county subsidy — an endowment coming from this wealthy community to properly run the museum and build a permanent collection?

Perhaps because an old affliction haunts The Cuban: exile politics and divisions.

In the age of engagement, many Cuban-Americans have turned their eyes toward the island, including once-hard-line Republicans. Seeing for yourself, showing the island of your birth to your children and grandchildren before you die, has become the trendy thing to do, especially after the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States and the death of Fidel Castro.

Not without controversy but without the old political stigma, the diaspora and its descendants are traveling to Havana for quinces and wedding photo shoots amid colonial architecture and white-sand beaches. They buy art, dine at paladares, ride tour buses around the city — and yes, also help families who never left the island. A stunning 13,000 Cubans abroad have sought repatriation, according to the Cuban embassy. Some artists, in particular, are listing their place of residence as both Havana and Miami.

But The Cuban drew a clear line in the sand in its founding documents: This is “a museum of memory dedicated to showcasing, interpreting and documenting the history, culture and contributions of the Cuban diaspora” as seen “through the eyes of its artists, thinkers and creators, many of whom enjoy hard-earned international standing.”

Cuba is the backdrop, a historical point on a timeline on the museum wall, and a central part of the content of exhibits — but the artists, thinkers and creators who live on the island won’t be protagonists here.

“It’s not discrimination,” founding director Ileana Fuentes tells me. “It’s simply not in our mission. The museums of the Jewish experience you see in many cities, for example, don’t discriminate against gentiles. It’s just not the story they’re telling. It’s the same for us.”

It was only a matter of time before that limited role would be tested — and an old ghost resurrected: The ugly fight among exiles on whether to show or not to show art made in Cuba. The issue ended up killing the old Cuban Museum in the 1990s. And now, only months after The Cuban opened in November, here’s the issue again, brought back to life by an unexpected Cintas Foundation decision to expand its prestigious fellowship awards program — limited to the Cuban diaspora since 1963 — to include Cuban artists, architects, writers and musicians on the island.

The announcement popped up in an undated press release on the Cintas website as its six-month president, Victor Deupi, a lecturer in architecture at the University of Miami, and Fuentes were in conversations about The Cuban hosting the next annual Cintas winners exhibition — the perfect match.

But Fuentes immediately pulled out and the museum’s resident curator, Jesus Rosado, wrote an impassioned piece saying that the Cintas move was part of a Havana-made strategy to “ideologically invade” exile institutions while Castroism remains entrenched in Cuba. An exiled artist who received a Cintas award, Juan Abreu, said he was renouncing his 1993 prize (but didn’t return the money) because opening the award to island artists amounted to white-washing the dictatorship.

The controversy leaves one with a sense of déjà vu. We’ve seen this movie before.

“To promote Cuban art in its entirety one has to recognize the various groups, not just the exile community,“ argues U.S.-born Deupi, who has been traveling to Cuba for 15 years “never for purposes of going to the beach and having fun,” but to see family, do research, and as he put it, “cry,” even if “of course you have fun when you’re there.” His parents fled the island in 1961.

“We became a defacto exile organization through giving prizes to Cubans that live in the U.S.,” Deupi says. “After diplomatic relations were established, legally we could do this, and since we’re not a political organization, if we can do something legally to support Cuban art, we felt very strongly that we should. Leaving [Cuban artists] out the prizes — that would be a clear political decision.”

Others don’t see it that way — and no, they’re not necessarily hardliners.

“The times are a little confusing. Certain lines appear to have been broken as well they should,” Manuel E. Gonzalez, an arts patron and former Cintas board member who also travels to Cuba, writes in an opposition letter. “However, there are a few points that must never be forgotten. ... It is only possible to exhibit, publish or execute your work in Cuba as long as governmental artistic guidelines are followed.”

Cuban artists on the island, he adds, have access to opportunities and international scholarships — from Fort Lauderdale, New York, Germany, Switzerland and Japan — that aren’t accessible to those in exile.

“More importantly there are numerous invitations to international exhibitions where the Cuban government chooses who will represent the country,” Gonzalez writes. “It should come as no surprise that those who permanently reside outside the island are never considered. Further, the Cuban government has recently realized the monetary possibilities of a national art market. A proliferation of tourist art shops exist in every province throughout the island. To a Cuban artist, life outside their country is a completely different, new and in certain aspects more tougher reality. The competition is broader and brutal. The Cintas Foundation is all they have.”

Gonzalez makes excellent points. As long as a dictatorship is in place, everything in Cuba — including art is political. But I also understand the sentiment behind inclusion of Cuban artists on the island. They’ve already been exhibiting, playing music here for decades.

To include or exclude isn’t an argument anyone is ever going to win.

Truth is, everyone loses a little in the battle. After all, there’s museum overload in Miami and an ailment of the soul diagnosed as Cuba battle fatigue. And add to the local stew that yet another group is vying to open another Cuban exile museum with the same mission and scope of The Cuban.

The parting is regrettable. The Cuban and Cintas need each other. And the museum’s inaugural exhibition — the retrospective “Dictators, Terrorism, War and Exiles: The Art of Luis Cruz Azaceta” — is a testament to their organic connection.

Azaceta, who has lived in several U.S. cities and is based in New Orleans, was twice a Cintas award winner in 1972 and 1975. He left Cuba at 18 in 1960, from Havana to New York, where he worked factory jobs and studied at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. He exhibited in Miami when our fledgling art scene ran on a shoestring, but made his career outside of the capital of exiles.

His art is a revelation in that he addresses contemporary American issues even as it has at its heart the state of being Cuban. The Oklahoma bombing, the Iraq War, and Twin Towers terrorism co-exist among Cuban rafters, political prisoners, and el dictador.

So American, so Miami, yet the exhibition comes from elsewhere — Newark’s Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art — and fits The Cuban’s mission, proving that it’s not geography that matters to the Cuban exile condition.

When it’s a homecoming, you feel it.