“Living Freely Is a Wise Decision” says Cuban Artist Lia Villares

Veronica Vega

Lia Villares. Photo: cubaverdad.net

HAVANA TIMES — Lia Villares is a Cuban artist who many people only bespeak for her political impact on the island’s artistic world. She is a writer, filmmaker, and was the bass player in the punk band Porno para Ricardo.

The apartment she shares with her husband Luis Trapaga (a visual artist) in Vedado has been the home for the El Circulo Gallery, a space which serves as a platform to give visibility to the works by artists who have been excluded or quite simply ignored by Cuba’s official cultural system. She has also been victim to pig-headed censorship, to the extent of witnessing the harassment of those involved in every event suffer, the forced dispersion of the audience, and lastly, she was victim to a house search which meant all of her devices were seized and, for Lia, this meant she lost years and years of work.

Her blog, Hechizamiento Habanemico, more popularly known as Habanemia, is a combination between a fan page for Porno Para Ricardo and a tribute to French philosophers: a great collage of everything she finds interesting, the anemic city (both emotionally and nutritionally-speaking) of sleepwalking youth, without any dreams, and about Havana’s alternative art scene, which has been growing since the ‘80s.

HT: What was your education like?

Lia Villares: I was a serious member of the Jose Marti Pioneer Organization, but we also made fun of the solemn vow in the morning and we repeated gusano (worm) jokes since primary school, which I was always being punished for with the famous punishment of copying [Jose Marti’s] Menique over and over again to death (I’ve still got the blister on my middle finger still).

I studied at a music school, specialized learning. I wanted to study piano, but I enrolled too late and so I chose the flute, however, my lungs betrayed me during the aptitude test. So I was put in the guitar classroom, at the end of that witch’s house that is the Manuel Saumell Conservatory. They accepted me there, but there were always “buts”: I used to bite my nails, nobody was hopeful that they would grow back and it took me two years to make a decent sound with its strings.

I followed this musical path until I got to the Amadeo Roldan Conservatory to study it at intermediate level. I was still carrying the guitar on the M-6 camello monster bus which used to go up Belascoain street, until it reached my teacher’s house in Mantilla. We used to walk down that same street until we reached the Malecon and we would run away whenever there was a rally for Elian [Gonzalez] at the Protestodromo in front of the US Interests Section.

HT: Did you ever feel limited as to what you could express artistically?

Lia Villares: I was a rocker since high school. We used to hang out at the park on 23rd and C streets, among skaters and peanuts, with Led Zeppelin, Jim Morrison, Pink Floyd and Metallica cassettes being passed from hand to hand which we had to fix with tape and nail varnish when they used to get caught in tape recorders.

I took an entrance exam at the ISA to study composition. I got onto the workers’ course. However, I became disenchanted with the professional academic apathy, which revealed frustration, which was transmitted to students who then only produced what their professors told them to and composition is supposed to be a totally free process and open to wild and creative ideas. We were composing on demand, to satisfy and please mediocre people. Even though composing music for film is still a dream of mine, I don’t regret leaving the ISA at that time.

Was there a specific event or experience that marked a switch in your social-political consciousness?  

When I was 18 years old, I received a Varela Project flyer which I signed, not knowing how risky this was. In 2002, Jorge Alberto Aguiar Diaz began dabbling as an independent journalist for Cubanet and he kept the Luyano bookshelves full of Encuentro de la Cultura Cubana magazines and I always had a pocket copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (printed at the US Interests Section) on my bedside table. Intellectual debates about literature, art and politics during mealtimes was commonplace in my home. We (Azucena Plasencia, my mother, and Lizabel Monica, my sister) were always hosts to distressed writers like Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo and premature teenagers like Elena V. Molina.

Lia as a punk rock base player. Photo: miaminewtimes.com

Later, I had my first simple digital camera and I kept myself entertained by making stop-motion animations, which I presented at the New Filmmakers Festival in 2009, when we faced exclusion for the first time, as they proved to us that “counterrevolutionaries” don’t have a right to enter movie theaters or theaters.

In 2009, we happily went to the blogosphere of this virtual island, to apartment 14 on Factor street, between Conill and Santa Ana streets: some excellent classes/workshops about nearly everything: civil rights, human rights, photojournalism, laws, how to start a blog… I met a lot of amazing people there who I am lucky to still call my friends. I had discovered MySpace in 2004 and uploaded exhibitionist photos and texts in a chaotic manner which ended up becoming my blog, in April 2008.

HT: When did you have your first encounter with a State Security official? What happened?

Lia Viallares: My first run-ins with State Security were because of my ties with Claudia and Ciro and because of some gatherings at Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar’s apartment. The first act of repudiation I witnessed was what they did to Reinaldo Escobar, on G and 23rd streets, where a conga invented for him and just him, swept him all the way down Avenida de los Presidentes, taking the friends who were with him too. I stayed behind, in shock and luckily Claudia came out of nowhere, grabbed my hand and got me into a car. When they released Reyaldo, he appeared with a ripped shirt, completely relaxed, making jokes like he normally does. Back then, I couldn’t understand his emotional control. Now, I also have this same control and exercise it. All of these conflicts train us up in the sad representation of roles and that indifference is a behavior that you have to learn in order to keep your peace of mind.

Elenita and my sister had collaborated with Estado de SATS (an informative project). When they emigrated, I went to replace her. From that moment on, everything was dizzying. A few months ago, they surrounded Estado de Sats founder Antonio Rodiles’ house, next to the National Aquarium, and we were garrisoned with a permanent act of repudiation for three days: loudspeakers playing reggaeton and primary, junior and senior high school students in front of the door, and all of this because we were trying to put on a human rights event. Boris Larramendi gave us a concert, the four of us who held out throughout that madness and our lives all changed a little after that. His song Aguacero de Libertad is a chronicle of this experience as well as the documentary Gusano, by Ailer Gonzalez and Claudio Fuentes.

HT: However, doesn’t this freedom arbitrarily imply new restrictions? Events which are cut short, projects, not being able to travel abroad…

Lia (r) and her mother Azucena Plascencia (l)

Lia Villares: In 2013, Cuban authorities decided to lift the humiliating permission needed to travel and I finally left the Matriz and traveled to Warsaw, when I was 29 years old. But, two or three years ago, these same authorities proved that their actions continue to be discretionary and they choose who enters and leaves this island/prison, in spite of the alleged amendments made to immigration laws.

So they decide who can come and go and we can only travel about our own country, whenever we are allowed to. Having all your documents in order and not being involved in any legal case doesn’t help at all. We can’t leave the country, even our homes, whenever there is a political event nearby or it’s a national holiday. We represent a threat, a “threat to national security”. Being a dissident in Cuba is like being a “public interest issue”, and this in turn means: potential threat, home arrest, being gagged and social annihilation.

A while ago, I found myself asking why this wasn’t an international scandal. How long will this community, who we always turn to but does nothing, remain indifferent? How many hundreds of thousands of human rights violations do they need for us (Cubans here or abroad) to be able to call things for what they are?

HT: Do you think that the lack of solidarity Cuba’s dissident community has comes from fear?

Lia Villares: Living freely is a wise decision, it has nothing to do with convenience. Freedom is innate to our human condition. Externalizing it as a punk bass player or an irreverent, libertarian young person or as an actress of political theater or a dissident filmmaker isn’t important. The key thing about freedom is that we choose, soundly, how we live our lives: telling the truth or lies. And, of course, it’s a very simple matter: people who get wound up in their mental thoughts to try and justify their own cowardice, before taking a more dignified stance, are lying to themselves.

HT: How has your life changed as an artivist?

Lia Villares: Artivism, like every form of activism, attempts to make unbelievers and pessimists aware. It tries to show them that there can be association, that we can stand in solidarity together and that self-censorship is the easiest path for opportunists. We are nothing but opportunists because the autocrats, repressive officials, culture police always say that it isn’t the right time or place and that these topics are too “sensitive”, delicate, and that it’s better to leave them alone.

You don’t have to have the vocation of a saint, martyr, redeemer or a romantic idealist who doesn’t get tired of obstacles to become an activist for a just cause. You just have to be honest. Reality has always surpassed fiction. In art, it’s a necessary tool to wake up people’s zombie consciences. I understand that not everyone is willing to pay such a high price like going to prison, even if they disown their principles and don’t demand freedoms.

However, human rights advocates see political prison as just one more step towards understanding human nature when it is faced with the government’s control mechanisms. Prisoners of conscience acquire knowledge and experience when they move about that hellish prison. They don’t care much about admiration from people who didn’t stand up when the time came, who remained quiet, who don’t sleep with a clean conscience, who are complicit and traitors. They are more worried about perfecting their sacrifice, even though the cause doesn’t represent them anymore. Nobody will ever show real gratitude to the dead, nobody will be able to convince them that their dedication was in vain.

HT: Do you think you have to fight to the end or do you think you might end up emigrating?

Cuban State Security blocks a play at the El Circulo gallery. Photo: facecuba.org

Lia Villares: Personally-speaking, I really appreciate those who chose to emigrate to save their behinds and are fighting for freedom here, from exile, with the same enthusiasm as those of us who are fighting here. I don’t criticize or judge anyone for wanting to leave to live their lives without constant and oppressive intervention from a tyrant who hates his slaves, to give their children a decent future, because this country has nothing to offer and a lot to lose. Those who decide to pave the way, knowing that it will be impossible the first time, are dreamers who believe in change, idealists, romantics, addicted to sacrifice and ingratitude. Many people in exile have said and done a lot more than those who resist behind bars. This term “resistance”, which is over-used, is more of a mental state than anything else, just like freedom.

HT: Cuban society is so fragmented, there is so much incited confusion, do you think that it’s possible to integrate it? Is that not what is happening right now with the alternative movement (independent art and journalism, opposition…)?

Lia Villares: I don’t believe in “confusion”, “lack of information” or in “ignorance” or “naivety”. I believe in the solidarity the few of us have who take a stand, both inside and outside the island. In reality, I don’t really see us as Cubans here and outside the island. Cuba is fragmented within us Cubans who want to see it free, it doesn’t matter where we are, if we are a millimeter more inside this prison or a millimeter more outside.

Even though I want to opt for this utopian and romantic vision that writer Ernesto Santana has recently described, where Cuba and Miami are one city and its residents are united in their reconciliation, when the repressors and accomplices have been tried before a court.

Cubans have created a generational cult to submission, obedience, and this is already ingrained in our DNA, as well as madness, jealousy, despair, mediocrity and hopelessness. I don’t believe in assumed “ignorance”, much less in our technological age. Nobody is innocent: we have all been witnesses of our time here and we either choose to take action or to be complicit.

LIa Villares during a campaign to free Cuban artist El Sexto. Photo: facecuba.org

HT: When your house was searched, and your devices were seized, did you receive acts of solidarity? How did you recover from that experience?

Lia Villares: You don’t emotionally recover from an experience like that, it’s a violation. And I wouldn’t recommend that anyone is a protagonist of such an experience.

It’s only now that I’m beginning to rescue fragments of the material that could be saved from what was confiscated after the house was searched by Kenia Maria Morales Larrea, the lieutenant colonel from military counter-intelligence forces who is assigned to deal with artists.

With regard to legal action, we tried to take her to court, although we know she will come out unhurt and we won’t receive any compensation. However, we want to exhaust the internal channels we have in the system, that’s to say, take our complaint to the Attorney Generals at every level, municipal, provincial and national, to the Ministry of Interior’s Citizen Attention service which forms part of the State Council and the National Revolutionary Police… and to receive all of their acknowledgements of receipt. Only after doing all of this can we endorse our battle with these documents and take our complaint to the international stage, so that the impact or repercussions are high-profile than just, and so we can create a precedent if we are lucky, at least a symbolic one.

Luckily, I have supportive friends who loan me cameras and microphones so can I continue on with my work, to start over: that’s what I was referring to when I spoke about association. It was a miracle that State Security decided to leave me a tripod behind and it was also a miracle that I managed to recover the first cut of the first chapter of my documentary series Arte Libre vs. censura totalitaria, on a USB that I sent via post (with my sister’s help) to the New York Film Academy in Los Angeles and it was sent back.

HT: What does the future of Cuba look like to you in the short and long-term? 

Lia Villares: I don’t think our condition of tropical prisoners will change, at least not mentally and not right now. We’ve had to try and build our lives staring down the barrel of a gun, without any hopes or dreams, but full of trauma. And in this dystopic recycling cycle, every generation was stripped of its most basic rights and its most intimate dreams. Freeing ourselves of this trauma in the future, at least mentally, is a long process which might take another 60 years even, supposing that these tyrants die off and their descendants are not willing to uphold this socialist illusion much longer, which is precisely what those who are holding the strings are trying to ratify right now: the irrevocable nature of death and misery for a sterile and lively island, whose citizens remain full of fear, indifference and indolence.

HT: Any immediate plans?

Lia Villares: The idea is to start all over, to do interviews with censored artists all over again and now the only difference being that I have a lot more creative energy and will power, besides the commitment that all of the resources I have are on loan.

The first chapter I’m finishing up now is Minimo Gorki, so keep an eye out, it’ll be out soon.

Plus, we (El Circulo Home/Gallery) are working in collaboration with INSTAR and CubaDecide to launch a new call for the photography competition called Pais de Pixeles, by the CubaRaw agency, both of these projects were created by Claudio Fuentes and Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo in 2009.