What’s Happening to Cuba’s Controversial Law to Control Independent Art

Decree-Law 349 seeks to regulate the distribution and commercialization of art in public spaces. Photo: Jorge Luis Banos/IPS


According to the government, the new law won’t change artists’ relationships with state institutions, regardless of whether they have graduated from these or are self-taught.


By IPS Cuba

HAVANA TIMES – Counteracting what the government considers to be an anti-decree 349 media campaign and explicitly stating its essence and reach, Cuba’s cultural authorities have been holding meetings with artist and writers’ unions all over the country, since late December.

Meanwhile, the [government approved] culture magazine La Jiribilla published a third information packet about the subject, which collects texts including the noteworthy Twenty clarifications about the Decree-Law to protect culture in public spaces.

Ever since Decree-Law 349 was published in July 2018, it has stirred up great controversy on social media, alternative media platforms and even pro-government press, because of concerns about it possibly being used to restrict artistic and literary creation and to implement greater censorship.

The announcement that there is a debate about writing up a complementary law to apply Decree-Law 349 gradually has been interpreted by artists’ unions as a correction on the authorities’ part because the document wasn’t consulted with artists before being approved. However, a group of artists are still skeptical.

Alina Estevez, HR director at the Ministry of Culture recognized artists’ fear “that put into the hands of untrained officials, or an extremist, the decree-law might become a censorship tool.”

Similarly, the vice-minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas, claimed in a TV interview that “artistic creation and freedom are consecrated in the Republic’s Constitution” and the new constitutional project that will be put to a popular referendum vote on February 24th.

The following is a summary that IPS Cuba has made about the relevant points of Decree-Law 349 and some of the reactions it gave rise to.

When was it published?

It was signed off on April 20th 2018 by President Miguel Diaz-Canel and was published on July 10th, among many other provisions in a 100-something-page text in Extraordinary Official Gazette No.35.

When did it take effect?

On December 7th, although it will be gradually applied in steps. For now, it won’t regulate cultural services and spaces that promote art without legal protection (such as private galleries, recording studios etc.), but policies are being drawn up to regulate how they operate in keeping with the Government’s cultural policy.

-What is the essence of Decree-Law 349?

It establishes violations of cultural policy and providing artistic services, established by the Ministry of Culture in different artistic fields, committed by natural or legal persons in public, state-run places or installations or not. It allows the Culture minister to enact necessary complementary provisions. Its premise lies in Decree-Law 226/1997 signed by then president Fidel Castro (1926-2016).

What were people’s main concerns and doubts?

They related to the impact it would have on independent art and artistic freedom, ties between artists and cultural institutions, the amount of power being given to inspectors, protocols that need to be followed to apply violations, the risk of creating a surveillance system about art content and the hazy limits of some parts of the decree that could give way to greater censorship.

What is being proposed in the complementary law?

It will focus on very specific violations. The clearly harmful nature of these violations on public interests doesn’t require an inspector’s interpretation. They will be applied, for example, when national or foreign productions are used, shown or disseminated with pronographic content, promoting or sensationalizing violence for no reason, sexist, vulgar, obscene language, discrimination because of skin color, gender, sexual orientation, disability or anything else that injures human dignity.

According to officials, the law will place emphasis on collective efforts, which should come before an inspector takes action, headed by cultural institutions at every level and with artists and writers participating in the process. The inspector will always work as a representative of art institutions.

Who are discussing it?

La Jiribilla magazine wrote that over 1000 people had taken part in debates in over 10 Cuban provinces, up until January this year. It emerged that analyses were being made by organizations such as the National Association of Writers and Artists, the Hermanos Saiz Association, the Culture Workers’ Union, the Cuban Association of Artisans and Artists, other civic organizations linked to culture, cultural promoters and the Arts University.

What have been the main actions in protest?

The Artists Cubanos en Contra del Decreto 349 page was created on Facebook, as was the hashtag #Noldecreto349.

On August 8th, an open letter was written to Miguel Diaz Canel and Alpido Alonso, Minister of Culture, “in the name of Cuban and international artists”, in which it asked for “a dialogue between art professionals and the government and for the measure to be reconsidered.”

On July 21st, artist Luis Manuel Otero had planned a performance in front of Capitolio, in the Cuban capital, but he was arrested by the police when, covered in excrement, he tried to hang up a sign reading: “Free Art. No to Decree-Law 349.” The performance was carried out by his partner, curator Yanelys Nunez, and was uploaded on YouTube.

During the first week of December, independent artists such as Tania Bruguera, Luis Manuel Otero, Yanelys Nunez, Michel Matos and Amaury Pacheco, to name a few, tried to organize several sit-ins in front of the Ministry of Culture with the objective of demanding that the decree-law be revoked, but authorities stopped these actions, according to independent media sources.

La Jiribilla wrote about “another letter sent to the Minister (of culture) by approximately 20 renowned artists and some promoters.” Celebrities such as singer-songwriter Silvio Rodriguez, actor Luis Alberto Garcia and musician X Alfonso have also voiced their criticism.