Criminalizing the Truth in Cuba

Veronica Vega

Cubans opposed to decree-law 349 , which criminalizes independent art and its creators.

HAVANA TIMES – Discrediting those who question official policies is a common strategy in Cuba. Voiding these individuals or groups who react against economic paralysis or a lack of freedom, slandering them with total immunity and twisting their legitimate complaints.

This method has proven to be effective yet again with the publication of decree-law 349 and a group of artists’ reactions to it.

Published on July 10th, this law will come into effect 150 days after its publication, that is to say, on December 7th.  However, in a recent article in Granma newspaper, written by German Veloz Plasencia entitled: “Defending cultural options with creative value”, it states that the law will come into effect next month.

This sudden change of dates, if true, would violate legal protocol. “Cuban Artists against Decree-Law 349” (name of Facebook page) began protesting on July 21st with a piece of performance art in front of Capitolio where the young woman Yanelys Nunez smeared her body in human excrement and raised a sign that read “FREE ART”.

Rapper Soandry del Rio was also arrested that day, for just being in front of Capitolio’s steps apparently, or maybe because he was filming how the police carried Luis Manuel Otero (who was the creator of the performance piece but was unable to carry it out) on his mobile phone. On Friday September 21st, Soandry del Rio was arrested again, charged with “disobedience” because he refused to pay the fine he was given that day.

After Luis Manuel Otero’s statement on social media: Tomorrow, everyone outside the Zanja and dragones police station at 10:30 AM to say  #freeSoandry #noaldecreto349 , he was released on Friday night. 

The story that official media doesn’t tell us

Cuban culture has experienced a boom in powerful alternative events which are taking root naturally and so they are demanding a space that is controlled by state institutions, that is to say, by the Government.

This involves real movements which include music, the fine arts, dance, literature, film, that have tried to coexist with official cultural policy, but end up being swept aside by it instead.

Decree-Law 349 is the Government’s response to every artist who has refused to renounce three basic rights that not even a Constitution rife with wily incoherencies can strip them off: living in the country where they were born, creating thanks to their natural talent, expressing what they think about the society they belong to in their art and lives.

The article published in the official Granma newspaper, which announces the sudden implementation of this Decree-Law, aims to distort the entire alternative cultural movement by mixing it up with the reggaeton phenomenon, which can even be seen in the title “Defending cultural options with creative value.” A phenomenon exploited by the government because it fulfills a functional requirement: losing itself in lust and avoiding any social critique.

Decree-Law 349 began this confusion in its Article 4.1., which states:

“Similarly, it is a violation when an individual or legal entity commits any of the following acts:

  1. a) spreads music or carries out artistic performances which incite violence with sexist, vulgar, discriminatory and obscene language (…)”

It’s obvious that the reggaeton take-over and debasement of its content was easily controlled by a State that holds monopoly power over the media and education. Everybody knows that this is the kind of music that livens up activities at junior and senior high schools. When my son was studying at high school, every student had to pay a peso to the person who brought along the sound system. It was an extra-institutional initiative that was approved by the school and allowed by the Ministry of Education.

It’s a fact that reggaeton artists have even been promoted by the Cuban Rap Agency, precisely because of the (political) harmlessness of its lyrics.

On the other hand, members of rapid response brigades, UJC (Community Youth) or FEU (Federation of University Students) representatives and even strict public servants use “sexist, vulgar, discriminatory and obscene” language against rebellious individuals in public, and they are even rewarded for their political loyalty.  

Ever since the “revolutionary” and “counter-revolutionary” dichotomy was established, with examples of behavior to define each of these, Cubans know full well that the most critical people at Accountability Meetings (a space the Government has authorized for the population to ask questions freely) start off by referring to their PCC ties or ties to the Revolution, in order for their intentions not to be twisted.

However, we can slowly dismantle this structure of fragmentation and paranoia. We just have to define: complaints aren’t personalized because the object of attention and analysis is the problem being discussed and those responsible for it (affecting the Government directly) and not citizens that suffer it.

Covering up the real one responsible always leads to confusion. Now, decree-law 349 is trying to camouflage the act of “censoring” with “criminalizing”.

Censorship of art has existed since the beginning of time and it is more or less arbitrary and/or goes without punishing. However, criminalizing artists who create art outside of state institutions is going back lightyears as a culture, a nation and as a species.

President Diaz-Canel and the current Ministry of Culture Alpidio Alonso, need to be aware of the fact that artists aren’t as naive as they were when the Paideia, Arte Calle events, Rock, Rap, Poesia Sin Fin, Rotilla, Punos Arriba festivals were shut down… and they know that it is their civil freedoms that the government wants to keep in check. The right to speak your mind freely, whether that’s in a poem, a song, performance art, or nominating yourself as a representative of your municipal Assembly, no matter what people think.

Another defamatory excuse is a legal provision which forces independent artists to pay tax to the State, when activists from the anti-349 campaign clearly state in the San Isidro Manifesto, that they are willing to pay taxes but not for their work to be politically censored.

In order to be fair, we have to remember that at some alternative events (which were intervened and shut down) such as the Rap Festival, the audience at the jam-packed Amphitheater in Alamar were charged entry and this money was going to go directly to East Havana’s Culture Office, as the organizers (GrupoUno) never saw any profit from that income. And the Municipality took cultural credit for the event.

We won’t let them confuse us. “CRIMINALIZATION” isn’t “CENSORSHIP”. Censorship attacks a piece of art and criminalization directly attacks the artist’s body.

The ungodly announcement that this Decree-Law that is coming into effect penalizes art (!), just because it is independent, seeks to throw off protestor’s actions by labeling them all “civil disobedience”, even though they constitute different crimes. This could be disobedience for not paying a fine, contempt of the authorities, illegal economic activity, pre-crime threat… and a wide range of potentially abstract charges.

Three days ago, it was Soandry del Rio. Tomorrow, any activist from the campaign could be taken to trial.

The government has the same objective they did in the Black Spring of 2002. To incite another scattering. Attacking different points to instill fear, making people flee into exile or resident exile, forced alliances, selling your soul. Threatening with arrests and who knows whether summary proceedings and jail sentences will be given because the Decree-Law has managed to establish FREE ARTISTS as CRIMINALS.

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