Cuban artists rebel against government decree to ‘criminalize independent art’

One performance artist smeared excrement on her face in front of Havana’s Capitol building. A group of artists and musicians tried to organize a protest concert, but were arrested. And other artists and academics in Cuba and abroad signed open letters and online petitions.

All were protesting a new Cuban government decree that legalizes censorship.

All but hidden in a special edition of the Official Gazette that has more than 100 pages, Decree 349 issued by the Culture Ministry tries to control art not sponsored by the government. It bars independent artists from presenting their work in both public and private spaces, and from being paid for their work.

The decree also establishes fines and seizures of property for painters and other artists who sell their works without government permission, as well as those who distribute music or videos that “use the national symbols in violation of existing law.” It also punishes those who sell books “with content that damages ethic and cultural values” and those who “make abusive use of electronic equipment or media.”

“The decree has been received in a negative light by the artists,” said Sandra Ceballos, founder of Espacio Aglutinador — Umbrella Space — one of the island’s independent art galleries. “This is a return to the Grey Five Years, a step backward,” she added, referring to the first half of the 1970s, when many artists were expelled from government-approved groups for violating the Revolution’s artistic canon.

“The Cuban government is confronting an artistic sector that it can not control, politically or economically, people who have learned to raise funds through GoFundme, who are more known abroad,” said University of Florida professor Coco Fusco. “There’s a lot of concern within the government about Trump administration measures, which are used to justify and stop the independent sector.”

Fusco, artist Tania Bruguera, attorney and Cubalex director Laritza Diversent, art curator Yanelys Núñez and writer Enrique Risco penned an open letter to Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s appointed president, attacking the decree as an attempt to “criminalize independent art.”

“Cuban artists were not consulted, and they will not be able to appeal to independent referees in case of a dispute,” their letter added.

The Culture Ministry has not explained the criteria for applying the sanctions in the decree, which will take effect in December, and it has not responded to artists’ requests for a dialogue. The decree was announced in July, just days before writer Abel Prieto was replaced as Minister of Culture by Alpidio Alonso, who had been deputy chief of the Ideological Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.

Censorship in cultural affairs is not new in Cuba.

In recent years, the government banned independent music festivals such as the Hip Hop Festival in Alamar and the Rotilla electronic music fest. It also blocked movies such as Santa y Andrés and Quiero hacer una película. Early in the revolution, the late Fidel Castro set the foundations for censorship in the arts with a speech in which he declared, “outside the Revolution, nothing.”

“Those are words, but Decree 349 is law,” said independent artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara.

He was arrested July 21 on his way to the performance with excrement incident. His partner, Yanelys Nuñez, did the act in his place. Otero was detained again Aug. 12, just before a music concert was set to take place at his house to protest Decree 349. A video of the arrest shows his neighbors “were not on the side of the police,” he said.

The artist added that he was concerned about the decree’s economic impact on black and poor Cubans. Many of them, he argued, are part of the hip hop and reggaeton music scenes and “escaped crime and managed to make a living.”

Hip hop and reggaeton took root on the island thanks to private recording studios set up at homes by self-taught producers, and many rappers and reggaeton musicians do not belong to any official agency. Decree 349 appears tailor-made to crack down on those genres after years of complaints about their lyrics, but does not apply to them exclusively, artists and academics said.

Many artists, musicians and film makers can finance their own work and exhibit abroad. Others “prefer to record their work in private recording studios and art galleries, where they are in direct contact with curators and collectors and there’s less paperwork and corruption” than in the Culture Ministry agencies, said Otero Alcántara.

“That is an economy that flows, and that the government wants to control,” he added.

Although the protests against Decree 349 have been on the rise, the majority of Cuban artists and intellectual have said nothing, Ceballos wrote in an open letter to colleagues on the island.

Sandra Ceballos y Coco Fusco.jpg
Sandra Ceballos (left) and Coco Fusco. Courtesy

“Cuban artists and intellectuals cannot remain passive in the face of so much shame and repression,” she wrote. “If we don’t come together, we will wind up having to ask for permission to hang paintings on the walls of our homes and studios. We will have to allow them to break into our homes to seize our personal equipment and properties. We will have to submit to authorities a formal plan to have a party in our homes.”

Fusco said Cuban American and other foreign academics and artists who study Cuban affairs should also protest but are afraid of criticizing the government because they could lose their access.

“It’s important for people who are not Cuban but who go to Cuba, who benefit in some way from their studies and trips, to speak up,” said Fusco, who has been traveling to the island since the 1980s. “I was denied entry in May, but I am a human being and those [Cuban artists] are my life-long friends and colleagues.”

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres

Related stories from Miami Herald