Cuban Artists and a Half Century of Repression

Happy are the naive, the indifferent or the cautious and wisely indoctrinated!  -Juan Carlos Cremata, censored playwright

By Vicente Morin Aguado

HAVANA TIMES —Art doesn’t have a homeland, but artists do. Censorship became a state practice when Fidel Castro pronounced in front of a large group of intellectuals one of his Solomonic declarations (typical of authoritarianism) in 1961: Within the Revolution: everything; against the Revolution: nothing. The crux lies in those who determine what is “revolutionary” and what is the complete opposite.

For example, on December 14th, State Security agents decided that artist Luis Manuel Otero couldn’t make a pilgrimage to the Rincon de San Lazaro sanctuary in Havana’s outskirts to give the Orisha Babalu Aye from the African Yoruba religion, as well as San Lazaro, a petition from which I will copy the final verse:

Saint Lazarus you have my supplications./ I ask you to remove the blockade,/  Prosperity  Freedom of expression  Freedom for political prisoners  /Free access to the Internet  / The end of race, gender and creed discrimination; / no more repression!

Immediately after those so-called “Words to the Intellectuals” in 1961, the Military Units to Aid Production (UMAP) (Mao-like reeducation centers) were born, which Silvio Rodriguez and Pablo Milanes were forced to join. The following years were baptised the “Grey Period”, those reluctant to join – Reynaldo Arenas or Guillermo Cabrera Infante among many others – were only left with bitter exile.

Those were tough times marked by the firm belief that the Socialist Bloc (headed by the Soviet Union) would be humanity’s upcoming future. Its collapse in the ’90s planted the inevitable seed of doubt within the country’s new generations of artists. In Cuba, what the government labeled “culture” was managed by the orthodox Marxist Armando Hart Davalos, who inaugurated the Head Office of Culture which would later become the Ministry of Culture in 1976.

Abel Prieto, long-haired in true Lennon style, picked up the pieces of what the exhausted Hart couldn’t do and he imposed the country’s arts policy, accompanied by the carrot and a stick.

Playwright Juan Carlos Cremata ended up strangled when he tried to create a version of “Exit the King”, by Ionesco, which was immediately censored because in the words of the President of the National Council of Performing Arts:

“Worst of all, it is a frank jibe at our Revolution’s historic leader. A true lack of respect for a person who has done a lot for all of us in this country. And who is now sick, the poor man. That’s why, in the name of all the freedoms we have acquired during all of these years for our theater movement, we are obliged to censor your performance.”

With regard to the carrot and stick, let’s remember filmmaker Miguel Coyula’s comment:

“There are many other Cuban artists who do the same but insist on saying that their art isn’t political. This is directly linked to financial matters. It isn’t about ideologies; it’s about the growing consumer society in laissez-faire capitalism that we are experiencing here on the island.”

Recent cases reveal the authorities’ new ways of taking action, such as when the lead actress, Iris Ruiz, of the monologue Psicosis, directed by Adonis Milan, which was to premiere at the independent El Circulo art gallery at 316 10th street in Vedado, Havana.

Those taking part in this piece were locked up, five of those at the police station on Zapata and C streets, another two at the one in San Miguel del Padron. They were all released in the end, with no charges filed against them. Clearly this new strategy is a lower level of repression, but it doesn’t allow the public exhibition of ideas which, once again, rests with certain authority figures to decide whether they meet the Fidelista maxim of Within the Revolution: everything; against the Revolution: nothing.

Farmer and Havana Times writer, Osmel Ramirez, summarizes the prevailing philosophy, the same as that back in 1961, when he stands in solidarity with artist Luis Manuel:

“His controversial art is interpreted by the system as a challenge, that’s why they arrest him. Let’s raise our voices for him to be released. The same thing happened to me, without any reason, without defining the crime that they are locking you up for so as to crush your will.”

Vicente Morin Aguado: [email protected]