HAVANA TIMES – This article was inspired by a comment from a reader, who goes by the username “meresbala”, regarding the campaign against Decree 349 (which criminalizes independent art in Cuba).
The reader wrote:
“Are artists better off without the famous decree…??? because the only thing it makes official is what has been going on for a long time now and plus, does it really matter whether something is put down in writing or not here in Cuba…??? the laws…??? if we went by the book, by what has been written, Cubans wouldn’t have any problems, if only they were able to use what has been written in their favor or in their defense, but that isn’t the case.
“In Cuba, everything that is written or in the official of the hour’s imagination is interpreted with a political license, not poetic, and that’s enough… I can’t get my head around the difference this decree will make, has Cuba signing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights been good for anything…????”
I am going to start off by stating the obvious: the reader is right.
Now, here comes the hard part: trying to explain how this same truth works when passed through the filter of many individuals and different generations’ gaze and experience.
I’ve been watching the alternative artistic movement in Cuba for many years now, I have seen how groups and projects have sprung up and have managed to stick around up until an undetermined point dictated by the invisible force that reigns supreme: “cultural policy”.
This supposedly absolute power that the PCC embodies, and determines the existence of anything that tries to declare, establish and defend independent thought.
The Cuban government has had to play at false openness just to flirt with the media, and in every artistic generation of the hour (even the most rebellious and questioning) they really do believe that creative freedom exists, that the secret lies in not making overly explicit or direct remarks.
However, they all run into a wall along the way and the confusion from the blow, the many reactions, the encouraged myths, makes the project come to an end and those involved choose exile or internal exile.
Those who stay but still insist on defending their right to create and organize themselves, find themselves on the other side of this red line that only the Cuban government knows where exactly it lies.
They also discover, astounded, that there are very few people around them who believe that their experience extends to reality on the whole. New and young artists begin their own learning curve, feeling like they are heroes of that moment, with the normal pride of young age, hypnotized by a society that is lethargic in fear that works (or doesn’t work) out of habit, and the widespread tendency to undervalue history. Even more so when it is a history that is deliberately distorted by government officials themselves, who defame and demonize leaders of any spontaneous movement.
Following the natural cycles of generational recycling, the process would be somewhat infinite, but the appearance of new rebellious figures, who are a lot more radical (Tania Bruguera, Lia Villares, Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, Yanelys Nunez, Ana Olema…) and an event such as last May’s #00 Havana Biennial gave rise to a state of unprecedented freedom, of complicity between independent artists and artists with institutional ties, set off the trigger.
We need to emphasize the evolution of this movement, where artists were already aware of the violations that existed. It was impossible to coexist with the sincerity of yesteryear because the event was discredited by cultural institutions and warnings were issued to institutionalized artists, telling them not to get involved unless they wanted to be “punished”.
The #00 Havana Biennial proved that a large alternative event with international impact, completely independent of the State, is possible, and this logically got alarm bells ringing in the Power’s hidden centers, where laws of self-protection disguised as regulations, decree or laws begin.
If you carefully read through Decree 349, you will see the interest in forbidding not only the chance for an independent space (gallery, club, theater, restaurant or any other venue) to cooperate with an event that hasn’t been approved by cultural authorities (in other words, the government), but also that rebellious artists can’t even turn to their sacred right of being able to exhibit their work in their own homes. An alternative initiative that already proved its effectiveness was the Poesia sin Fin festival, which was censored and had members kicked out of the Alamar Cultural Center in a systematic manner, back in 2009.
Decree 349’s merit lies in the fact that it will finally expose the true face of Cuban cultural policy at last, which is a declaration of war not only against artists, but every attempt to express and uphold independent thought.
And of course, we artists won’t be a lot better off without Decree 349 because there is a framework that makes this possible and there are so many infamous decree-laws that take shelter in the equally infamous and contradictory constitution, and the mockery they make of international agreements that have been ratified by the Cuban government. However, this decree is a much-needed target for us to raise awareness and mobilize people with a bit more success because it is neutral ground, politically-speaking.
Decree 349 is a crack in the wall, at last! It has become clear to everyone: artists, the self-employed and any Cuban with common sense.
It might end up forming part of this sick society as another outrage, or remain in the indefinitely latent state, who knows, but like every declaration of war, it has provoked a response and we have to admit that it has had a layered response which also involves institutionalized artists, which is a significant accomplishment given the endemic indolence we suffer here in Cuba.