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As Criminalization of the Arts Intensifies in Cuba, Activists Organize

A Cuban decree seeks to censor artists to an unprecedented level, essentially regulating any and all artistic and cultural activity in the country.

Cuban artists and activists organizing in opposition to the decree (image courtesy Yanelyz Nuñez Leyva)

Cuban artists are approaching a moment of reckoning as the country’s government takes a firm legal stance on “vulgar” audio and visual displays in the Republic. On April 20, newly instated president Miguel Díaz-Canel signed a proposal for a new regulation, Decree 349, surrounding artistic freedom and institutional censorship in the Republic. The vague parameters of the decree essentially regulate any and all artistic and cultural activity in Cuba.

A group of Cuban visual artists and curators have taken a vehement stand against the government’s criminalization of the arts through a series of protests, performances, and even a rogue biennial. Their actions have amounted in a number of artists’ arrests.

Among those organizing are Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Yanelyz Nuñez Leyva, Amaury Pacheco, Iris Ruiz, Soandry Del Rio, and José Ernesto Alonso, utilizing the rallying cries #NOALDECRETOLEY349 (#NOTODECREELAW349) and #artelibre (#freeart) across social media to spread awareness. Núñez Leyva, a curator and art critic, told Hyperallergic in an email interview that she and the aforementioned artists have started formulating a legal demand against the decree, processed with the help of Laritza Diverset, a lawyer and founder of human rights organization Cubalex. They have been working in hopes of securing a meeting with the Council of State and Ministers.

What Does Decree 349 Mean for Artists in Cuba?

The Decree 349 ruling is backed by legislation that is hard to work around, allowing governments to shut down concerts, performances, galleries, and art and book sales if they do not comply with the strict list of prohibited subject matter. It also restricts artists from commercializing their work without government approval. The decree was published in Gaceta de Cuba on July 10 and is slated to go into effect on December 1 of this year.

The 1976 Constitution of the Republic of Cuba includes the phrase, “artistic creativity is free as long as its content is not contrary to the Revolution.” The institution of Decree 349 puts a severe limitation on this definition of contrarian.

The decree essentially grants the Cuban Republic complete control over independent artistic production in the private sector. Banned content includes:

a) use of national symbols that contravene current legislation; b) pornography; c) violence; d) sexist, vulgar and obscene language; e) discrimination due to skin color, gender, sexual orientation, disability and any other harm to human dignity; f) that attempts against the development of childhood and adolescence; g) any other that violates the legal provisions that regulate the normal development of our society in cultural matters.

All performances, public or private, need to be contracted by the government, and any artistic expression without adequate contracting (or found violating their contract, including getting too loud) are subject to penalizations including getting fined and “confiscation of instruments, equipment, accessories and other assets.” This legislation is to be carried out by inspectors appointed by the Cuban Ministry of Culture.

Yanelys Núñez Leyva told Hyperallergic in an email (translated from Spanish):

I think that the Cuban government knows that it is in a moment of total vulnerability … So they turn their repressive actions toward the cultural circuit that has been empowered independently, that does not need the institutions to survive and that does not believe [its] hegemonic ideology.

She says artists have historically been leaders of change, but “with access to the internet, the change in president, the deep economic crisis, the support of independent journalism, the collaboration between artists, [and more] have converted it into an even greater threat.”

Artists Respond 

Artists have been on their toes since the cancellation of the 13th Havana Biennial. Following Hurricane Irma in 2016, the government postponed the biennial, and earlier this year it announced the biennial would be delayed for a second time — this time indefinitely. In protest, artists including the well-known Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara took to social media for a call to protest the decision and organized an alternative #00 Havana Biennial. The Havana Times reported that the Ministry of Culture targeted Cuban participants, threatening to revoke their accreditation to operate as independent artists in the country. Organizers were accused of “distorting Cuba’s cultural policies.”

According to a July statement made to Cuban officials by artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, Iris Ruiz, Amaury Pacheco, and Tania Bruguera, the #00 Biennial’s promotional materials and artwork were confiscated, organizer’s cell phones were tapped, international artists’ were made ineligible to enter the country with their artworks being withheld in airport customs, and arrests were being made against artists and activists involved.

Since the statement was released, Cuban artists have worked tirelessly in opposition to the decree and the constraints it has set on Cuban artistry. Artists organized a protest performance on July 21, where they intended to cover themselves in human excrement in front of the Cuban Capitol as a symbol of artists’ treatment by the Cuban government.

Before the performance was set to begin, 14ymedio reports Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Amaury Pacheco, Iris Ruiz, Soandry Del Rio, and José Ernesto Alonso were arrested by Cuban police officials near the performance site. They were charged with public disorder and detained in Vivac, a detention center in Calabazar, south of Havana. Nuñez Leyva went to assist, and when she arrived and saw the participating artists had been arrested, she chose to carry out the performance herself. During the protest she called out, “We are artists, we want respect, we ask to meet with the Minister of Culture.”

Ruiz was the first to be released, followed soon after by the other detainees, though Otero Alcántara was held for an additional two days. “I was beaten from the Capitol to the unit and they told me I have to respect the police. They beat me as if they wanted to break my spine,” said Otero Alcántara in a conversation with 14ymedio hours after his release.

They are not the only artists who have come under direct legal fire since the decree was passed. Iris Ruiz told Hyperallergic in an email that artist Gorky Águila, leader of the punk rock band Porno para Ricardo, was confronted by state security and the police, who confiscated his home recording studio equipment used to perform his alternative radio show Cambio de Bola.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara told Hyperallergic:

Art has always been persecuted or used in all systems, both dictatorial and democratic, because for the most part it is the echo of the sufferings and ills of societies, it serves as the denouncement or visibility of them.

… For government systems, it is impossible to control art, because it is capable of being born of the most unexpected places and situations. In these moments of such fragility and therefore repression, art is a very powerful weapon and the system knows it.

Otero Alcántara recently advertised an artist-led open mic in opposition to the decree, set to be held on August 11. He told 14ymedio that on the morning of the event, State Security and police surrounded his home, arresting him and Yanelys Núñez Leyva.

Otero Alcántara says rapper and visual artist Yasser Castellanos, journalist Yania Suarez, and Michel Matos were detained in the same unit as them. He told 14ymedio, “At the time of the arrest they did not say anything to us, but being in the unit, State Security came for an interview and they warned us that Cuba cannot become another Nicaragua, they are very worried.” The pair were released at midnight on Sunday.

Ruiz told the newspaper that the artists interested in the open mic were prevented from entering by police officials and were told they did not have the permission of the Ministry of Culture to host the event.

“This is action number five but we will not stop until we overthrow that decree,” Ruiz told the publication.

According to 14ymedio, music artist Soandry del Río; Ras Sandino of the group Estudiante sin Semilla (Student without Seed); urban artist Karnal; and members of the group Conflicto Social (Social Conflict) received police citations for their involvement.

Nuñez Leyva told Hyperallergic the artists have plans to organize hip-hop concerts and other events, which she says will be revealed in due time due to security reasons. The Facebook page “Artistas Cubanxs en Contra del Decreto 349” regularly posts updates about the ongoing controversy.

A Crackdown on Cuban Reggaeton 

For years, Cuban reggaeton music has thrived through underground concerts and subversive content delivery services, under the radar of government censure and objection. Though the new decree is not the Cuban Republic’s first attempt at silencing the national phenomenon of reggaeton, this effort actualizes the government’s rejection of the genre through legal means. Activists organizing in opposition to the decree say that it is particularly aimed at reggaeton artists and rappers in the country. The genre, marked by its heavy bass and infectious rhythm, was synthesized from a history rooted in Jamaican dancehall, hip-hop, rap, and electronic beats.

Reggaeton has a history of legal penalization for its often sexually explicit lyrics and prevalence throughout Latinx youth culture. In the 1990s, Puerto Rican police confiscated reggaeton records from store owners on the charge of “peddling obscenities.” In 2012, controversy erupted when a Cuban official declared reggaeton would no longer play in public spaces and on the radio.

Photograph of “El Paquete Semanal” by Ernesto Oroza, a Cuban artist in opposition of the decree (image courtesy Ernesto Oroza)

Although the government, under the former President Raúl Castro, made efforts to stomp out the musical genre, reggaeton still spread rampantly through shows in private venues and small businesses. For years, reggaeton artists worked under the radar, unable to play in state-funded settings or on public radio. Instead, the music was passed around through makeshift subscription services like El Paquete, which delivered hard drives full of cultural content across the island and contained government-disapproved music, TV, and news for up to about $6.50 per week.

Popular reggaeton artists like Rubén Cuesta Palomo, aka Candyman, and Mucho Manolo have also voiced their discontent with the Cuban government and its censorship of the arts. In 2016, Candyman told the Miami Herald, “Because reggaeton is liberal, it says what it wants, what it thinks. Reggaeton does not keep its mouth shut. They know that culture, the arts, is the most dangerous weapon they can have in their own yard, because they can’t take an artist and beat him up for singing.”

Organizing the Next Steps

Iris Ruiz told Hyperallergic, “My goal as an activist is to help Cuban citizens recover civic will to promote social and political changes.” She adds, “We will progressively actualize public actions in the streets, in homes, and in social networks as well, every time adding more people until we reach the necessary 10,000 people to repeal the decree, according to Cuban law.” Activists have organized a petition that they invite supporters to sign.

The petition, published on Avaaz.org, is accompanied by a letter (written in Spanish and English) signed by Tania Bruguera, Laritza Diversent, Coco Fusco, Yanelys Nuñez, and Enrique Risco. They say:

Decree 349 empowers the Ministry of Culture to designate supervisors and inspectors who can censor and suspend artistic presentations, impose fines and confiscate instruments, equipment, the permit that allows artists to be self-employed, and even an artist’s home. To us, this is a excessive measure that, in addition to generating an antagonistic relationship between artists and the institutions that should serve their needs. It also lays the groundwork for administrative corruption.

This decree violates the covenants that were lobbied for and signed by Cuba in the United Nations, such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Declaration on Right to Freedom of Expression and Artistic Creation.

A culture can exist without a Ministry, but a Ministry of Culture or a nation cannot exist without the creativity of its citizens. Decree 349 leads to the impoverishment of Cuban culture.

Yanelys Nuñez Leyva elaborated over email with Hyperallergic, “It is also our intention as activists to call the attention of as many people as possible, both national and international, especially intellectuals who can help put pressure on the non-imposition of this law.”

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