Cuban Artists Rebel Against Government Decree to ‘Criminalize Independent Art’
One performance artist smeared excrement on her face in front of Havana’s Capitol building. A group of artists and musicians tried to organize a protest concert, but were arrested. And other artists and academics in Cuba and abroad signed open letters and online petitions.
All were protesting a new Cuban government decree that legalizes censorship.
All but hidden in a special edition of the Official Gazette that has more than 100 pages, Decree 349 issued by the Culture Ministry tries to control art not sponsored by the government. It bars independent artists from presenting their work in both public and private spaces, and from being paid for their work.
The decree also establishes fines and seizures of property for painters and other artists who sell their works without government permission, as well as those who distribute music or videos that “use the national symbols in violation of existing law.” It also punishes those who sell books “with content that damages ethic and cultural values” and those who “make abusive use of electronic equipment or media.”
“The decree has been received in a negative light by the artists,” said Sandra Ceballos, founder of Espacio Aglutinador — Umbrella Space — one of the island’s independent art galleries. “This is a return to the Grey Five Years, a step backward,” she added, referring to the first half of the 1970s, when many artists were expelled from government-approved groups for violating the Revolution’s artistic canon.
“The Cuban government is confronting an artistic sector that it can not control, politically or economically, people who have learned to raise funds through GoFundme, who are more known abroad,” said University of Florida professor Coco Fusco. “There’s a lot of concern within the government about Trump administration measures, which are used to justify and stop the independent sector.”
Fusco, artist Tania Bruguera, attorney and Cubalex director Laritza Diversent, art curator Yanelys Núñez and writer Enrique Risco penned an open letter to Miguel Díaz-Canel, Cuba’s appointed president, attacking the decree as an attempt to “criminalize independent art.”
“Cuban artists were not consulted, and they will not be able to appeal to independent referees in case of a dispute,” their letter added.
The Culture Ministry has not explained the criteria for applying the sanctions in the decree, which will take effect in December, and it has not responded to artists’ requests for a dialogue. The decree was announced in July, just days before writer Abel Prieto was replaced as Minister of Culture by Alpidio Alonso, who had been deputy chief of the Ideological Department of the Communist Party’s Central Committee.
Censorship in cultural affairs is not new in Cuba.