Though the Cuban regime continues to sell to the world an image of "renewal" and "change" under Díaz-Canel, and with the constitutional reform under way, ongoing repression continues to belie this facade. Now culture has also come under attack: the threat of a new period of censorship in Cuba threatens creators due to the controversial Decree-Law 349.
With his "Words to Intellectuals" in 1961, Fidel Castro made his position clear: "within the Revolution everything; against the Revolution, nothing," thus setting down the parameters governing cultural policy on the island. And that corset has been used by the authorities down until today to censor and limit artistic creation. However, this law – intended to "update" what was already established in Decree 226 of October 29, 1997– is advanced as a barrier restricting independent creation: "within the Institution, everything; outside the Institution, nothing," says Decree 349, if one reads between the lines.
Published in the Official Gazette on July 10, Law 349 turns a spotlight on alternative creation, noting as a "serious" violation that "artistic services are rendered by those not authorized to perform artistic work in an artistic position or occupation." And the party charged with authorization is, of course, the Ministry of Culture and its institutions.
"Asking permission to sing a song, so that a panel – which often has no artistic credentials, or anything to do with culture – decides if its theme is in accord with the 'interests of the nation,' if it is 'appropriate' or politically correct, if it does not offend our sacred patriotic symbols, if it is not irreverent, if it does not disrespect Cuba's 'supreme historical leaders,' is to uniforms artists and to handcuff free creation," artist Lia Villares told DIARIO DE CUBA.
The decree makes it possible to impose sanctions on those who "disseminate music or carry out artistic presentations in which violence is generated through sexist, vulgar, discriminatory or obscene language," or those who project "audiovisuals" that contain violence, pornography, "the use of patriotic symbols that contravene current legislation," or engage in "discrimination based on skin color, gender, sexual orientation, or disability, or any other attack on human dignity."
Under this law, "independent studios will be targeted, as they have done so many times with independent journalists. The quickest way to put an end to a movement is to take away its work tools, even houses, and, in the worst case, jailing them all. I already had this experience, during the brutal raid of the El Círculo gallery/house in February of this same year," recalls Villares, referring to the incursion leading to the confiscation of work and personal materials belonging to her and her partner, the artist Luis Trápaga, including the documentary series Free Art vs.Totalitarian Censorship, featuring testimonies from more than 15 artists censored in Cuba.
Villares also pointed to "the ideological apartheid" suffered by those Cubans who dare to exercise freedom of expression on the island, and believes that the only defense "is to devise a counterattack strategy and stand our ground, drawing upon the strength of union solidarity," though this is, unfortunately, scarce among Cuban creators.
Repression as a formula for sermonizing
Opposition to 349 has already exposed some to police repression, in the flesh, such as artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who was harassed when trying to carry out a performance in Havana to publicly express his disagreement with this decree.
Otero Alcántara is one of those behind a campaign against 349, but there are many more creators who are standing up to say NO to this law. Such is the case of the poet Amaury Pacheco and his wife Iris Ruiz, both members of the OMNI-Zonafranca project; and also of David D'OMNI, one of the musicians who added his voice to a song in which several artists condemn this law.
Some of these musicians were going to participate in a concert on August 11, another of the actions making up the #Noaldecreto349 campaign. This event was prohibited by the authorities, and the artists who managed to get to the site where it was going to take place were set upon, right before the eyes of the residents of the San Isidro quarter, who expressed their solidaritywith the creators, as can be appreciated in any of the videos circulating that captured this event.
The artist Sandra Ceballos, who since 1994 has headed the independent space Aglutinador, described this repression as a manifestation before the world of the violence and mistreatment perpetrated by the authorities towards artists. "But something very shocking happened: the residents of the community came out in defense of the artists, and expressed their indignation at the actions taken against them," says Ceballos, who regrets, on the other hand, the lack of solidarity and commitment in the artistic union; although most of the "artists and intellectuals do not wholly agree with Decree-Law 349," they express their disagreement "behind the scenes, and nobody steps forward," she says.
Ceballos calls for unity, and pleads for Cuban intellectuals and artists to sign a letter directed to Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez and Alpidio Alonso, Minister of Culture, in which this censorship measure is rejected.
This letter has been signed by Cubans residing both on and off the Island, among them artists Tania Bruguera and Coco Fusco, lawyer Laritza Diversent, art historian Yanelys Nuñez, and writer Enrique del Risco.
Why should creators in exile support their colleagues in Cuba?
In exile, also joining the opposition to this decree have been writers such as Legna Rodríguez Iglesias and Lizabel Mónica, plastic artists like Sandra Ramos and Ana Olema, the director Diddier Santos and the artist Adrián Monzón, among others, who have expressed their disagreement with it on social media.
"What is freedom but the fundamental component of creation? Thus, it would be only logical for every exiled creator to naturally support his colleagues, who are establishing more and more spaces for creative independence in Cuba," writer Armando Añel told the DDC.
"Decree 349 carries on a repressive tradition that is always in force with Castroism. The physical safety of the creators there is even at stake, but we have the advantage that repressing intellectuality and culture is not the same as simple repression. Repression against thought and art always costs those in power more, not only in terms of their image, but at the functional level," says the author residing in Miami.
Neither is literary creation spared censorship by this decree. A section points out that it is considered a "very serious" infringement to "market books with contents that are harmful to ethical and cultural values."
"It is clear that this is a measure of intimidation leveled against the growth of independent culture, including literature. Those who always allow themselves to be intimidated will again be so. Everything depends now on the response of independent culture and, judging by the first 'post-decree' episodes, at least it will not bite its tongue. From our exile, we will support those who defend and exercise their creative independence," says Añel.
The economic factor: the State's interest in tax collection
Another of the creators' concerns has to do with the demonization of financing mechanisms outside the official ones. In this regard, it is a decree that "targets not only the issues and opinions that the artists can voice, but the financing of their projects too," says writer Antonio José Ponte, deputy director of DIARIO DE CUBA.
"And, at a time characterized by plenty of crowdfunding, an attempt is made to attack these project financing strategies," says Ponte.
The open letter against Decree 349 states that "the Cuban State must stop confusing these platforms with the direct financing of a hostile organization or government. The fact that a Cuban artist manages to finance his creations by his own means does not make him a dissident. Millions of individuals in the world benefit from new technologies to disseminate their works outside the confines of established cultural institutions."
This measure is part of what the Government calls "adaptations" of the private sector, setting its sights on an incipient art market escaping fiscal control: the hiring of musicians by private businesses, the sale of works of art via transactions that do not pass through the official institutions, and take place in independent studios, workshops and galleries; and the exhibition of audio-visual content.
Specifically, it calls for fines and seizures, as well as license revocation from those who hire musicians to perform concerts at private bars and clubs, as well as in state spaces without the authorization of the Ministry of Culture or state labor agencies.
It also penalizes painters or artists who market their works without permission from the Creators Registry. The painter Luis Trápaga was expelled last May this entity for his participation in the # 00Bienal Alternativa.
Although creators all over the world pay taxes on the commercialization of their works – something that in Cuba seems to outrage some – what is truly scandalous is that the Cuban State intends, through the executing arm of the Ministry of Culture, to define what is art or is not, or who can be an artist, in its totalitarian desire to control everything. It also seeks to prevent access to independent funding for the execution of artistic projects.
According to Cubalex, "the decree limits all people's equal access to decent work. It institutes forced labor, obliging artists to label themselves and to establish links with a state institution in order to receive remuneration for their work."
Artistic expression, so closely linked to freedom of expression, must be free, or we are not talking about art, but rather pamphlets and propaganda. Hopefully the artistic community will take the necessary steps to demand that the regime retract a law that, as the artist Sandra Ceballos says, would mean a regression in Cuban culture back to the 60s.