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The artist and activist Tania Bruguera (photo via Tania Bruguera's Facebook, used with permission)

In January of 2015, artist Tania Bruguera was detained by the Cuban government. Bruguera had planned to restage a performance artwork about freedom of speech in the iconic Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, addressing the need for free expression in Cuba in response to renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Despite her lack of official permission to perform the work, Bruguera proceeded to advertise the event, in a campaign called “#YoTambienExijo” (“#IAlsoDemand”); this resulted in her arrest and, subsequently, a series of detentions and interrogations which persist to this day. 

In 2015, I wrote this essay in response to those events, but was prevented from publishing it due to the leadership at the museum where I was employed, who argued that my expressing my opinion on the matter would be construed as representing the view of that organization. I, mistakenly, listened to those objections at the time. I publish it today in its full form, in the context of the recent news of Tania Bruguera’s continued harassment by the Cuban government and the general pressure that the regime is placing on the Cuban arts community and the San Isidro/27N Movement — a collective action formed by a group of Cuban artists demanding freedom of expression in Cuba. I feel this piece contextualizes the larger issues around freedom of expression that Cuban artists are contending with, which became a center of debate during Bruguera’s first detention five years ago. While Bruguera is not the only artist being attacked by the Cuban authorities during this moment, I think the issues described here might be helpful to shed light on the larger debates around art and freedom of expression in Cuba today.

—Pablo Helguera, December 2020

* * *

One evening in March 2009, during the opening days of the Havana Biennial, the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam was booming with activity. Those of us who entered saw a set comprising an orange backdrop, a podium, and, at the center, an open microphone. Everyone in attendance was invited to come on stage and speak their mind, as openly as they wished. There was a palpable tension in the air. The act of offering an open mic in Cuba is unheard of; simple, yet profound in its implications: the voice of an average individual could be powerfully amplified.

Like many artworks made in Cuba, the piece had an official explanation as well a more delicate subtext. Entitled “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” and conceived by Tania Bruguera, the performance was ostensibly a tribute to the first speech Fidel Castro gave after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, famously delivered with a dove sitting on his shoulder. The subtext of the performance, to a perceptive public, was the fact that freedom of speech is forbidden in Cuba, and that public criticism of the regime crosses a line that can never be tolerated on the island.

Many Cubans who took the stage did so tentatively, as if in disbelief about the power that their voices could have. Some nervously rambled about the need for freedom of speech, hardly comprehending the fact that they could hear their own voices projected to a crowd. Others, like the budding blogger Yoani Sanchez, were professional dissidents who used the occasion to articulate stinging critiques of the Cuban government. Later Sanchez would recall, “those of us who participated will never forget that minute of freedom in front of the microphone that would cost us years of official insults.”

Bruguera, its organizer, has received substantial international recognition for her work. She has also developed an uneasy relationship with her country’s government. This tension finally came to a head in the past few days when Cuban authorities detained the artist as she was planning to present this performance again, this time in a public square, the Plaza de la Revolución.

The attempted restaging of “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” was meant to test the Cuban government after the announcement that it was reopening relations with the United States. The project seemingly came as a spontaneous response to President Obama’s December 17, 2014, announcement of the upcoming normalization of US-Cuba relations. A day after that speech, Tania Bruguera published a manifesto-like letter titled “Querido Raúl, dear Obama, and querido Papa Francisco,” which at first appeared to celebrate the historic announcement of the opening of relations between the United States and Cuba. The artist ended her letter with a proposal:

“Today as an artist I propose to you, Raúl, to place the work ‘Tatlin’s Whisper #6’ in the Plaza de la Revolución. Let’s open all microphones and let all voices be heard; let’s not allow only the sound of coins as what may be offered to us to fill our lives. Let no microphone be turned off. Let’s learn to do something with our dreams. […] Let’s make sure that it will be the Cuban people who benefit from this historic moment. Nation is that which ails us.”

No average Cuban citizen is allowed to organize a public event at the Plaza de la Revolución. Bruguera knew this well, which is why her defiance and determination to proceed made it even more threatening to authorities. Delivering many more statements along the way, Bruguera traveled to Cuba to reenact her performance on December 26, 2014. The campaign leading up to her performance was branded #YoTambienExijo (“I also demand”).

Once Bruguera arrived in Havana, she initiated discussions with a range of culture officials, each of whom advised her against proceeding. On December 29, the day before the scheduled performance, she met with Rubén del Valle, director of the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas (CNAP), who objected to her event on the grounds that it was “counterrevolutionary”; would only provoke in negative ways; and, ultimately, would interfere with the delicate process of reopening relations with the United States. He requested that Bruguera hold the performance in the National Museum of Fine Arts. She reportedly agreed, but only on the condition that the performance be held at the museum entrance. Del Valle rejected the idea, as he wanted to “control admission” to the event. In the end, the meeting produced no agreements.

At around 5am on December 30, the police banged on the Bruguera family door. According to Bruguera, they did not announce themselves as the police. They took her away “to talk.” Other officers seized her computer and every other piece of equipment in their house, telling her family that there was a legal case against her — a detail that no one shared with Bruguera herself while she was at the police station. They let her keep her cellphone, but she didn’t want to use it, knowing that they would try to track whoever she called.

That was the beginning of a nightmarish three-day episode during which Bruguera was detained, released, detained again, released again, and then arrested one more time on New Years Day, to be released once more on the following day. As of this writing, she remains in Cuba; her Cuban passport has been confiscated — she does not hold a US passport — and will be sent back to the United States with the instructions that she never return to her native Cuba, where she grew up and where her mother lives. She is reportedly working with a lawyer to present her case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Those interested in discrediting Bruguera are quick to mention that she is the daughter of a revered fighter of the Cuban Revolution. Usually, this is an insinuation that the artist is so close to the regime that she is somehow exempt from the consequences that other dissidents may suffer or, worse, that as a daughter of the system she should be granted no compassion. The reality, as is often the case, is more complex.

Tania’s father was Miguel Brugueras del Valle, a close confidante of el Ché and Fidel, and part of the July 26 movement that brought down the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Brugueras del Valle later served in the foreign service in Lebanon, Argentina, and Panama, and at some point was named Cuba’s vice minister of foreign relations and tourism. He passed away in 2006. Per her own admission in public talks, Tania had a difficult relationship with her father because of their radically different views about the future of Cuba. Overall, the family tends to be very strict about the separation between the political and the personal.

I met Tania in Chicago in 1997, when she was a rising star in the Cuban art scene. As a Cuban new to the United States, Tania was dazzled by what she saw. She was barely getting used to the world of capitalism (“we just gave her a credit card, so that she understands how credit works,” I remember her then-partner telling me), and she was hit hard by witnessing the inequality it brings. Her work has always had a strong political dimension, often fighting for human rights and for the disenfranchised. She has produced countless projects in the United States and Europe, most recently dealing with immigrant rights. It is, however, in Cuba where Tania is often at her best, as she can understand and negotiate the delicate social and political tensions better than anyone. I still hold this belief today, after her near-intervention at the Plaza de la Revolución has threatened to put a stop to all her activity as an artist and free individual. Even if it is regarded as a non-event, this performance that did not happen may also be remembered as the most defining of her career.

It is impossible today to conceive of an artistic action of relevance that would not be immediately mediatized — that is, subjected to the debates, discussions, and dissemination characteristic of social media. Some art, in fact, constitutes a de facto social media campaign. And this, in essence, was #YoTambienExijo.

In an insightful article reflecting on #YoTambienExijo, the Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco discussed some of the logistical challenges that Bruguera’s project encountered, including the communication with the Cuban art world and its use of social media: “Bruguera’s reliance on the internet to convene the Cuban public has provoked a certain degree of skepticism from critics about her intentions. ‘The Cuban people’ did not show up at the plaza and it is likely that most Cubans on the island have no idea of what #YoTambienExijo is.”

While it is true that Cuba places severe restrictions on internet access, Cubans often find ingenious ways to connect with the outside world. A recent connectivity scheme in Cuba, “el paquete semanal,” involves renting out hard drives with a week’s worth of HDTV programming. The cost can range from $1 to $10, and while the commercial enterprise doesn’t have a political dimension, it effectively allows Cubans to watch international television programming and listen to contemporary music. In the art scene, Cuban artists and curators disseminate information via email, which is, paradoxically, supplied by the Ministry of Culture. The local art scene was very much aware of the impending performance by Bruguera, to the point that it had become a running joke amongst them to say “see you on the 30th at the plaza.”

Of course, the performance at the Plaza de la Revolución never took place. On the afternoon of December 30, 2014, social media channels were in a state of confusion, with photos of international reporters awkwardly standing at 3pm at the plaza, waiting for some action — but Tania was nowhere to be seen. Shortly afterward, it was announced that she had been detained along with other activists and collaborators. Reinaldo Escobar, the husband of the influential blogger Yoani Sánchez, was taken away, and Sánchez found herself in house arrest. As people speculated about Bruguera’s possible whereabouts, it was reported that she was in a local prison, wearing a gray prisoner’s outfit.

The international response was swift. In addition to widespread online protest, the New York Times and the Washington Post soon published articles on the matter, followed by one from the New York Times condemning the Cuban government’s actions. The US State Department also offered a lukewarm communiqué expressing “concern” for the detention of the dissidents. It is unclear whether any of this had an effect on the Cuban authorities’ decision to free Bruguera on the following day.

Before her second and third arrests, the Cuban authorities had already seemingly decided to launch a social media campaign to smear Bruguera. A regime-friendly blog, Cubadebate, published an interview with Rubén del Valle. In the interview, del Valle built what would become the state’s primary arguments to discredit Bruguera. “More than a performance, I think this is a reality show,” he said, characterizing her proposal as counterrevolutionary and manipulative: “I told her that the streets are a permanent debate forum, and I proposed to her to do the project in factories, bus stops, in the market. None of these proposals was accepted.” Official Cuban channels constructed a portrait of the artist as imposing, intransigent, and unreasonable. Furthermore, del Valle tried to connect Bruguera with far-right, anti-Cuban forces in the United States: “[Tania’s] main supporters and her information hub are represented by people whose essential project for the future of Cuba is the restoration of capitalism and the penetration of far-right American ideas in all the aspects of our national culture.” Still, it remains an open question why the authorities did not consider allowing the performance to proceed and instead find ways to contain it. Their brutal resort to censorship and imprisonment has caused a public relations nightmare.

While Bruguera is a cultural force in Cuba, she has detractors amid the local art community. Take Lázaro Saavedra, who critiqued “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” as a work more about itself than about the issues it purportedly addressed, when he put his two cents in on December 30 in a letter disseminated via social media. Saavedra came to prominence in the 1990s, producing conceptual artworks that are remarkable in their inventiveness and critical observations of social dynamics in Cuba; he is also known for his cartoons, as almost a Cuban version of Dan Perjovschi. In a blog post, Saavedra dismissed Bruguera’s performance as an “aRtivist action” and a publicity stunt for which the artist had nothing to lose. Rather than “Tatlin’s Whisper #6,” he proposed, it should be called “La Bulla de Tania” (“Tania’s Hubbub”). He wrote:

“for a Cuban artist who may live most of the time outside of Cuba and may use the fight for civil rights as an ‘artivist’ medium in Cuban territory, any confrontation with the Cuban government will not have a real repercussion in their daily life because it [the government] is outside the sphere of influence for them; on the contrary, to come to Cuba is a means to accumulate ‘work achievements’ for the ‘international circuit’ of the ‘global’ art world by direct confrontation with an authoritarian government.”

Speaking with local Cuban artists and curators about the political reality in Cuba can be a confounding experience. While there is frequently outright, if confidential, recognition of the failures of the revolution, there is equally often a fierce belief in the philosophical principle of the revolution itself. For Latin Americans who lean Left, contemporary Cuba can be a difficult experience to process. The romanticism of the story about a little piece of land that one day stood up to the United States to assert its own political course is powerful, and still fuels the spirit of many. Yet the disappointment is palpable, and the way in which the revolution devolved into an ongoing socioeconomic crisis produced by a totalitarian regime is a bitter pill to swallow.

Bruguera’s performance came as a slap in the face for most Cuban artists — a way of saying out loud what everyone already knows but is unable to say. This act alone generated uneasiness, and in some cases, derision. The critical focus was redirected toward the artist herself, to her presumably self-serving intentions and the suicidal stubbornness of doing something that she already knew no one is allowed to do. It is perhaps unsurprising that the artist’s plight generated more scrutiny than sympathy. This is a common issue with the criticism of activist art, which is often dismissed as both art and activism because it neither delivers on an assumed promise of social transformation nor presents viewers with traditional symbolic or formal elements to absorb and reflect upon as it happens when one is at a gallery. The problem with this kind of criticism is that it unfairly raises the ethical bar in ways that are never done to conventional artworks. In the case of this performance, nothing short of an outright human sacrifice of the artist would appear to have sufficed as a worthwhile action, since critics like Saavedra immediately point to an alleged minimum of risk and substantial career benefits for artists living outside Cuba. 

However, such comments suggest that a socially motivated artwork can only be considered successful to the extent that the artist pays a high personal cost. In any case, the consequences that Bruguera suffered for her action were beyond undesirable. The local art community chose to interpret the censorship of “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” as a selfish ploy by an artist benefitting from controversy, even though it resulted in the artist facing a forced exile from her homeland.

Saavedra concluded his post with an almost surreal admission that the absence of freedom of speech in Cuba is a fact “known by everyone including the government, only that it doesn’t like it to be reminded about it or see it made visible, as it was confirmed by the #YoTambienExijo campaign.”

All this unveils a painful reality about the Cuban art community. Cuban artists who are truly committed to the fight for civil rights don’t have a viable future, in their career or otherwise. In this sense, the resentment of some local artists for those living in countries that respect freedom of speech is understandable. As Fusco points out in her article, the graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado (El Sexto) has been repeatedly detained for works that are critical of the regime. If Maldonado were imprisoned for his work for a longer term, it is highly unlikely that he would be rescued by an international human rights campaign. The only solutions for a Cuban artist, then, may be to either leave the island or play by the rules and refrain from touching the most delicate political issues, while building an international career on the international art market (as Carlos Garaicoa or Los Carpinteros have).

Tania Bruguera is unique as an artist who has managed to exist in two very complex political and social systems, each of which has its own contradictions and inequities. The fact that this time Bruguera’s brush with the Cuban authorities almost resulted in her permanent imprisonment makes one think of how artists who become critics of their governments — even those with prominent international careers like Bruguera — never truly become untouchable (for example, Ai Wei Wei). But whatever may result from this episode, it is clear that Bruguera’s action has raised difficult questions about the effects of the historic reopening of US-Cuba relations. Whoever ends up writing an art history of the Cold War will need to address the place of “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” as a work that, for better or worse, painfully laid bare the profound obstacles in the freeing of artistic expression within the political sphere.

With inevitable deaths of the Castro brothers, as well as most of those who fought in the revolution, on the horizon, there is an undeniable chance for a transformation in Cuba. For the first time in half a century, a young generation of Cubans may decide on a new course for their country. One can only hope that the Cuba to come will be one where setting up an open microphone in a plaza is no longer a state crime, but an uneventful, even uninteresting, gesture.

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Pablo Helguera

Pablo Helguera is an artist living in New York.

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