New Cuba law that artists say amounts to state censorship will be implemented gradually

Cuban artist Luis Puerta Batista reads through a copy of Decree Law 349 at his studio in Old Havana. Batista says the law amounts to censorship.
Cuban artist Luis Puerta Batista reads through a copy of Decree Law 349 at his studio in Old Havana. Batista says the law amounts to censorship.

A new law — reviled by many Cuban artists as another layer of censorship and control over artistic expression but promoted by the government as a defense against vulgarity, poor taste, mediocrity and low-brow cultural influences — went into effect Friday.

The new measure comes as artists and performers on the island continue to protest, and perhaps in response to those critiques, government officials said Friday that Decree Law 349 will now be rolled out gradually.

Ever since Decree Law 349 was first published in July in the government’s Gaceta Oficial , there has been plenty of pushback on the island and abroad and a flurry of meetings between government cultural officials and artists, who are still hoping for modifications. The law requires prior government approval for artists, musicians, writers and performers who want to present their work in any spaces open to the public, including private homes and businesses.

But beyond that, it also proposes fining painters and other artists who commercialize their art without government permission. Among the more chilling provisions is the prospect that “supervising inspectors” could review cultural events and shut them down if they don’t believe they meet government standards. Individuals or businesses hiring artists who don’t have prior approval also can be sanctioned.

“No one can say you are an artist or you are not an artist,” fumed Luis Puerta Batista, a Havana artist who sells stylized paintings of jazz figures, mostly to foreigners and on the internet, and teaches art. “Artists are going to keep creating. They are not going to be able to bar creating, but they will restrict selling.”

And with a family to support, that has him worried.

Fellow artist Roberto Loeje, who has a studio on the same street as Puerta, calls the decree law “anti-artistic and crazy.”

Cuban artist Roberto Loeje visits the studio of a fellow artist in Old Havana. Loeje says Cuba’s new Decree Law 349 is “anti-artistic.” MATIAS J. OCNER

He especially disagrees with the provision that bars art sales without prior government approval: “If a piece is mine, what is the problem with my selling it? Why is it different from having a piece of furniture in your house and someone comes in and says, ‘I’d like to buy that.’ ”

Dissident artists have staged protests and social media campaigns, and dozens of dialogues and meetings between unhappy creators from both inside and outside the government [dissidents excluded] and state cultural officials have been going on for weeks.

During an hourlong “Mesa Redonda” program Friday night, officials from the Ministry of Culture, the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC) and the Hermanos Saíz Association, an organization that brings together young Cuban artists and intellectuals, emphasized that critics of Decree Law 349 don’t understand it.

Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso Grau defended the breadth of artistic expression in Cuba, which he said is “scarcely found where the market is the censor.”

Alonso said the decree law would be applied gradually to both state and private sectors.

“There wasn’t an advance explanation of the law and that’s one of the reasons for the controversy that it unleashed,” Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas told The Associated Press earlier in the week. When more detailed regulations are announced soon, he said, it will make it clear that “artistic creation is not the target.”

Until those regulations come out, Rojas told AP, inspectors won’t begin enforcement actions.

The law will be applied when artistic work has pornographic or racist content, promotes violence or has content damaging to human dignity, Rojas said on “Mesa Redonda..”

“The danger is who is going to be the inspector,” Puerta said. “The problem is that then art can be politicized. Different people have different concepts of what art is. I can create a piece of art and then someone else can judge it not by my but by their own criteria.”

Cuban artist Luis Puerta Batista reads through a copy of Decree Law 349 at his studio in Old Havana. MATIAS J. OCNER

In recent years, dissident and other independent artists who have not been able to display their work in state galleries or perform in other state venues, for example, have staged shows, concerts and performances in their homes. As self-employment has grown in recent years, there is also art available all over Cuba that is being produced by artists who aren’t affiliated with government cultural institutions.

Performance artist Tania Bruguera, activist artist Luis Maneul Otero Alcantara and several other dissident artists were detained Monday when they tried to stage a protest against the decree law.

It was at least the fifth detention related to anti-349 protest activity for Otero. Before his most recent detention, he said he planned to go on a hunger strike if Decree Law 349 went into effect. The law, he said, is a response to “the state seeing it is losing control of artists.”

Cuban dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara wears a T-shirt opposing Decree Law 349 on artistic expression. Otero has been arrested several times for protesting against the law. MATIAS J. OCNER

Amnesty International has been expressing concern about the arrests of the independent artists protesting 349 since last summer.

“We stand in solidarity with all independent artists in Cuba that are challenging the legitimacy of the decree and standing up for a space in which they can work freely without fear of reprisals,” said Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director for the human rights organization.

Such detentions, Guevara-Rosas said, “are an ominous sign of things to come. The lack of precision in the wording of the decree opens the door for its arbitrary application to further crack down on dissident and critical voices in a country where artists have been harassed and detained for decades.”

Follow Mimi Whitefield on Twitter: @HeraldMimi

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