Impulso at the Museum of Dissidence (all images courtesy of Jesus Benitez)

On May 10, two Mexican artists were deported from Cuba after they were accused of intentions to subvert the 13th Havana Biennial. On the day of the opening of their exhibition Impulso in old Havana, the artists Jesus Benitez and his colleague, who has asked not to disclose her name in press in fear of further repercussions, were detained and interrogated by Cuban police for six hours. The artists were then deported back to Mexico from the Havana airport.

The Havana Biennial, which ran April 12 through May 12, presented 83 artists from 45 countries, including artists from Mexico such as Jorge Méndez Blake, Javier Hinojosa, and Tania Candiani. Called The Construction of the Possible (La construcción de lo possible), the biennial happened in the midst of international conflict around a proposed law, Decree 349, which significantly limits artistic production inside the country. The biennial was opposed by prominent Cuban artists and intellectuals, including Tania Bruguera, who commented in a letter published during the start of the biennial on Hyperallergic:

I am not going to the 13th Biennial of Havana because of its contradictory politics. First, the biennial was suspended in 2017 on ethical grounds in order to cede its resources to the reconstruction effort after Hurricane Irma. Now, in 2019, just a few months after a tornado devastated several of the poorest and most working-class areas of Havana, the Ministry of Culture (MINCULT) has decided that it is more important to spend a good part of its budget on the Havana Biennial to whitewash its international image in the midst of the campaign against decree-law 349.

After being canceled last year, the Havana Biennial was replaced with an unauthorized alternative, the 00 Havana Biennial, curated by the artists Yanelys Nuñez Leyva and Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara. The 00 Biennial aimed to present the “unofficial” side of culture in Cuba and was not well received by the Cuban authorities, who did not let some of the participants to the country, including US-based Cuban artist and researcher Coco Fusco. She was denied entry to Cuba again this year two days ahead of the 13th Havana Biennial.

Concurrent to this year’s biennial, on May 10, an exhibition of Jesus Benitez and his colleague took place at the Museum of the Dissidence (Museo de la Disidencia), an unofficial organization that also organized the 00 Biennial and is led by Nuñez Leyva and Otero Alcantara. The exhibition of the Mexican artists, according to the exhibition statement, “intended to question the academic forms of understanding art” and consisted of a series of photographs and small-scale drawings where the artists explored the position of an emerging artist in the Latin American art scene. 

Impulso at the Museum of Dissidence

Impulso at the Museum of Dissidence

The Cuban government did not provide a formal explanation for the exhibition closure by the police and the subsequent arrest and deportation of the artists, but an article published in Cuban media shortly after their deportation accused the artists of being on a mission to undermine the biennial. The report says (translated from Spanish): “After the unprecedented result of the Biennial, the Americans desperately intended to stain the celebration.” The article adds that the Mexican artists were sent to Cuba toward the end of the biennial “to execute a clear and open provocation in the home of the counter-revolutionary elements, the so-called ‘Museum of the Dissidence,’ where people of little talent and cultural work, sought to attract the attention of the foreign press, staying with the desire to muddy a fully cultural environment, which did share samples of high international relevance.”

Accusations that counter-revolutionary activities are supported from the outside of the country is common in Cuba. One day after the deportation of the artists, on May 11, Cuban designer Roberto Ramos Mori was arrested for similar allegations. He was also one of the activists who took part in the “unsanctioned” LGBT march that was violently suppressed by the police on May 16.

The tension between art and politics in Cuba has become more troubling in recent years. Decree 349 has prohibited cultural activities outside the formal governmental approval and would allow the Cuban government to shut down art exhibitions and restricts artists from commercializing their work. The decree censors the inappropriate use of national symbols; pornography, violence, and any other content that violates the legal provisions that regulate the “normal” development of the society in cultural matters. In December 2018, Cuban government commented to the Associated Press that the law’s impact would be softened as it would be applied only in exceptional cases to artistic products containing public obscenity, racist, or sexist content. However, arrests and deportations continue on.

The decree gives much liberty to the authorities in the definition of the permitted and the forbidden forms of expression, as it presents a wide interpretation of a “norm.” The law provoked a wave of protests from the side of the Cuban artists who see it as anti-constitutional. The exhibition of Mexican artists coincided in time with the heated debates on the topic of whether the law violates the freedom of speech. It is possible that this inner confrontation could be one of the reasons for the stricter policies towards exhibitions of international artists in Cuba.

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Svitlana Biedarieva is an artist, curator, and a PhD researcher in art history at the Courtauld Institute of Art.