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Cuba Fails to Pacify Artists as Backlash Against Censorship Law Builds

HAVANA, CUBA—As the campaign intensifies against Decree 349, the new federal law that criminalizes independent cultural activity in Cuba, the government attempted to reassure artists by announcing that it plans to scale back some of the most heavily criticized parts of the legislation.

While the culture ministry has remained largely silent since president Miguel Díaz-Canel passed the law in April—one of the first bills signed since he took office—after several protests, arrests, and a growing outcry on social media, Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas spoke out about the controversy last week. In an interview with the Associated Press, Rojas chalked up the backlash to the government’s failure to properly explain the decree to the public. He also said that “artistic creation is not the target” of the law, which was supposed to go into effect on December 7. The government is now informing artists that the decree will not be enforced until new, detailed regulations are finalized.

Rojas clarified that even though the law stipulates that government inspectors can shut down cultural events, ranging from exhibitions to concerts, this will only occur in extreme cases of obscenity, racism, or sexism. The revised decree will also prohibit officials from entering studios, homes, and other venues that aren’t open to the public. He added that the decree would only be applied in “very clear situations.”

For some, the apparent softening of the law might seem like a small victory. Others see it as a ploy to mollify activists who are attempting to mobilize Cuba’s cultural sector. For Cuban-American artist and educator Coco Fusco, who is based in New York and Florida, the Cuban government’s relentless campaign of harassing, threatening, and detaining artists who have been speaking out against the decree does not indicate that it intends to roll back the legislation.

Only last week, the authorities arrested several activists including artists Tania BrugueraAmaury Pacheco, and Michel Matos and Bienal de La Habana organizers Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, who were planning a sit-in at the Ministry of Culture in Havana. The police thwarted the protest by detaining most of the activists before they were able to attend.

While the organizers and participants in the sit-in were all released on Thursday, December 6, two musicians who were taken into custody for publicly opposing the decree at a concert they held in September are still behind bars. 14medio reports that rapper Maykel Castillo Pérez, also known as El Osorbo, was taken to the hospital at Valle Grande prison on Monday because of his deteriorating health. In a statement written last month, the artist claimed that the authorities targeted him over his activism. Since then he has been on hunger strike in protest of his detainment.

In response, to the government crackdown on the most recent wave of protests against the decree, a petition penned by twenty-three international arts professionals—including Fusco; José Luis Blondet, associate curator of special initiatives at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Cuahtemoc Medina, chief curator at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo-UNAM; and Jorge Rivas, curator of Spanish colonial art at the Denver Art Museum—and signed by 139 people was launched Sunday. In addition to denouncing the continued detainment of activists opposing the decree, the petition urges the government to reconsider the law and to end its harassment of Cuban citizens.

Addressed to the Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso Grau, Rojas, and the president of the National Council of Fine Arts Norma Rodriguez, the document reads: “Nothing positive can come from arresting and detaining artists who seek to engage government officials in a discussion about new laws pertaining to culture, which happens to be a space for discussion. While state officials have claimed publicly that Decree 349 is designed to protect artists, it is already evident through the recent actions of Cuban law enforcement that Decree 349 is being used to punish artists deemed undesirable on political grounds and to instill fear among the rest.”

Fusco told Lauren Cavalli of artforum.com that Rojas also appeared on the televised program the Round Table on Friday alongside Grau; Rafael González Muñoz, president of the Hermanos Saíz Association; and Lesbia Vent Dumois, president of Plastic Arts of the UNEAC, among others. For Fusco, the segment attempted to pit artists against one another. “It communicated that ‘real’ Cuban artists supported the law because they understand the need to be rid of vulgarity, obscenity, and nonprofessionalism,” Fusco said. “It categorized those who stand against the law as enemies of the state.”

While cultural producers in Cuba are now forced to wait as the government spends the next few weeks making changes to the law, many are prepared to continue fighting the legislation. Despite being arrested twice last week, Bruguera made it clear she will not be intimidated by the government. In an open letter posted on Facebook, the artist announced that she decided to cancel her upcoming trip to India, where she was expected to participate in the Kochi Muziris Biennale, in order to stand with Cuban artists.

She wrote: “At this moment I do not feel comfortable traveling to participate in an international art event when the future of the arts and artists in Cuba is at risk . . . As an artist I feel my duty today is not to exhibit my work at an international exhibition and further my personal artistic career but to expose the vulnerability of Cuban artists today.”

Various international art institutions and organizations have since voiced their support for artists advocating for artistic freedom in Cuba. Among those who have released statements in solidarity with the activists are the Kochi Muziris Biennale, the Van Abbemuseum in the Netherlands, the Asociacion de Arte Útil, and the Whitworth Gallery in Manchester, among others.

December 13, 2018