Fabiola Santiago

Hey, De Niro, don’t let the Cuban leader’s charm fool you. He muzzles artists at home.

Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel with actor Robert De Niro during a reception in New York.
Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel with actor Robert De Niro during a reception in New York. Dominio Cuba

Dear Robert De Niro,

I, too, applauded your “F--k Trump” speech at the Tony Awards in June.

When all of Radio City Music Hall stood up to give you a standing ovation for walking on stage and getting right down to the bottom line of the nation’s business, I bolted from my sofa pumping my fist, “Yes!”

I thought that you, me — and everyone else feeling the same way about our democratically elected but truth-and-integrity-challenged president — were standing up for basic human rights, freedom, and human dignity.

But maybe I got that wrong.

Because there’s no way you can be against an autocrat rising and tearing apart the United States, then turn around and warmly welcome to New York City the figurehead of the oldest dictatorship in the Western world — Cuba’s.

“We need to build bridges,” you said by way of an introduction to newly installed President Miguel Díaz-Canel at a celebrity- and millionaire-studded cocktail party during his visit to the United Nations’ General Assembly.

That’s nice.

I’m a bridge-builder, too — and I believe in engagement and diplomacy that lead to a better world. An inclusive, free world for all, that is, not just one for the chosen few who are keeping a 60-year dictatorship in place and choking a population clamoring for free speech, political reform, and a more open economy in which entrepreneurship thrives.

Maybe the right-left political optics are confusing for you, but surely you can’t denounce the tyrant in the making at home and in the same breath turn around and embrace the tyrant in place abroad.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about that’s right up your alley: the arts.

In fact, the artists of Cuba need your help.

Come December, those who create independently on the island will be treated as criminals, arrested, charged and jailed, according to Decree 349 — a new law about to be enacted by the one-party government of your new friend, Díaz-Canel.

This means artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers who don’t toe the government line and submit to state censorship will be treated as they were during the harshest days under Fidel Castro rule. After Castro decreed “inside the Revolution, everything; outside of it, nothing,” artists were persecuted, imprisoned and exiled. Homes were raided, manuscripts destroyed.

Díaz-Canel has been videotaped saying he wants to go back to those practices. “If they criticize me for censoring, I don’t care,” he said.

And so, when Decree 349 goes into effect, Cuban artists will lose whatever little independence they’ve been able to obtain during the decades since a boom in Cuban art on the international market brought attention and tourist dollars to Cuba and the government had no choice but to give people some room.

Why the crackdown?

Although he played the bongos and danced with his wife for you, Díaz-Canel is proving to be more of the same as the Castros. He believes in ruling the country through intimidation and repression.

But don’t take the word of this Trump-loathing Cuban-American for it.

Hear it from the Cubans inside the island who’ve made a video to give prescient testimony of what Decree 349 means for the reggaeton and rap musician who has been able to support his family with the music he’s recorded, or for the self-taught artist who sells her work to visitors, or for one of the few independent gallery owners on the island.

Open Letter on behalf of Cuban and international artists in relation to decree 349/2018 - "We want a dialogue between art professionals and the government and a reconsideration of this measure"

Their studios and galleries will be shut down and their work confiscated. If they protest, they will be arrested. If they persist, they will be handed long prison sentences.

Making art that isn’t approved by the government will be illegal.

It’s the end of Cuban art as Americans have known it lately.

Please, don’t cozy up to dictators as Trump does.

Raise your voice on the behalf of the Cuban people. Encourage other celebrities and the international art community that has made so much money off Cuban artists to speak up for them, too.

The Cuban government has no one to blame but itself for its renewed isolation. They squandered President Barack Obama’s olive branch and blew up the bridge he built.

Sure, President Trump’s politically motivated restrictions on travel and trade have put a damper on the enthusiasm Americans felt for engagement with Cuba. But Americans can still travel to Cuba under the ample categories of allowed travel through all of the U.S. tourist agencies and cruise ships offering tours.

If they don’t go, it’s because muzzling artists is the type of backward-shifting repressive crap that turns travelers off. Who wants to spend their money propping up a dictatorship that only uses the mantel of freedom-loving Nelson Mandela to hide its sins?

UN General Assembly Nelson Mandela Peace Summit.JPG
Cuba’s President Miguel Diaz-Canel addresses the Nelson Mandela Peace Summit in the United Nations General Assembly, at U.N. headquarters, Monday, Sept. 24, 2018. Richard Drew AP

“We want a dialogue between art professionals and the government and a reconsideration of this measure,” the artists ask in their video.

They’ve been given no such courtesy.

A word of support from American artists could make a real difference.

And if that fails, Mr. De Niro, I know you’ve got the deft vocabulary to call them out on it.

Follow Fabiola Santiago on Twitter, @fabiolasantiago