US government steps up its culture war against Cuba

Campaign News | Sunday, 28 October 2018

At a time when Cuban artists have a growing presence on the world stage, the United States has stepped up its culture war against Cuba, claiming that the government stifles the creativity of the island’s artists and their freedom of expression. Cuba’s artistic successes and the emergence of world class artists belie that claim. However, it is not difficult to see why the United States is marshalling its resources to undermine Cuban culture.

Today the island’s artistic achievements are regularly being celebrated right in the heart of America. Alongside many exhibitions, concerts and artistic exchanges, this year saw one of the largest events ever staged outside the island when over 400 artists performed in the Artes de Cuba festival at Washington DC’s prestigious Kennedy Centre. Fresh audiences around the world are enjoying the diversity and vitality evident in all artistic fields from film to dance to the visual arts and beyond. And where links like these are established, it becomes obvious how powerful culture can be in breaking down barriers between people and challenging stereotypes that falsely depict Cuba as a closed society with little artistic freedom.

Cuba’s cultural achievements are astonishing in light of the illegal blockade imposed by the US government for six decades. Its impact in the cultural sector is recorded in Cuba’s recent submission to the United Nations alongside its motion calling for an end to the blockade. The report notes that in the cultural sector alone, over $35.3 million losses were incurred as a direct result of these harsh measures during 2016-2017. Today the blockade is being tightened even further by the Trump administration with severe consequences for Cuba’s cultural output.

The UN report cites how art exports to US buyers are falling off as individuals and organisatoins are wary about sanctions they may face; art materials and musical instruments are subject to high transport costs; film-makers don’t have access to software permits they require or to the US market; musicians can perform promotional concerts only in the US as they are prevented from receiving pay; and cultural exchanges affecting hundreds of artists are regularly cancelled due to new travel and other regulations.

These draconian measures have been combined with a myriad of public and covert programmes of gross interference in the cultural sector with the aim of destabilising the artistic sphere, and undermining Cuban sovereignty more broadly. In its 2018 budget, the Trump administration allocated $20m towards this goal, including so-called “democracy promotion projects” which target, amongst others, musicians, visual artists, film makers, and actors.

Previous cases of subversion such as the attempt to set up a secret social media network called ZunZuneo to create ‘political unrest’ were exposed by the Associated Press in 2014. In the case of the visual arts, it was reported how an agent of the Cuban security services was able to expose a destablisation project when he was recruited under the cover of a non-governmental organisation to discredit the financial and promotional support artists receive from their government. His mission at the Seventh Arts Biennial of Havana was to intensify the cultural warfare by using art to magnify difficulties and undermine any favourable element of Cuban society.

However, although many of these covert efforts have been unsuccessful, they have not been abandoned, and public projects have been stepped up with hefty grants offered by the National Endowment for Democracy. Amongst a gamut of grants designed to undermine Cuba’s artistic sphere including its institutions, $105,000 has been allocated for ‘Supporting Independent Actors’ and another $55,000 is available for ‘Supporting Independent Film-making’.

This campaign by opponents of Cuba’s revolution occurs as a growing concern is developing in the cultural sector about a ‘junk culture’ that is emerging on the island today. Abel Prieto, a former Minister of Culture, defined this as ‘artistic manifestations that are guided fundamentally by the demands of the market’. The symbols of the ‘great transnationals of the cultural industry’ are swamping countries throughout the world. Cuba’s world class artists, with the extensive training that Cuba’s revolution has made possible, are today meeting the challenge to defend their cultural identity and traditions, to which they are committed. But those who make art exclusively for the market feed this ‘pseudo culture’, in Prieto’s words, and it damages Cuba and the US alike.

The opening of the Cuban economy to the market which the country was forced to do during the 1990s has increased these pressures and added new areas of concern. The government has recently introduced measures to regulate the provision of artistic services, to bring the sector into line with other fields of the economy. Decree 349 which will come into effect in December 2018 aims to regulate the commercialisation of art and public standards in public spaces within the existing legal framework. Despite media coverage to the contrary, it does not establish any political limits or determine who can be an artist. It has been described in the Cuban press as a response to ‘insistent claims of Cubans, and intellectuals and artists, to try to bring order to the extremely complex field of art commercialisation’ as the private sector expands.

Amnesty International has voiced opposition to the Decree, as has the British government in a recent report to the United Nations. The Cuban artist, Tania Bruguera, whose exhibition in the prestigious Turbine Hall at Tate Modern has recently opened, has also protested against the Decree in media interviews.

However, while plentiful resources are available internationally to promote a false image of Cuban artists struggling to work under conditions totally controlled by the government, Cuba has its own battalions to face the powerful interests at play internationally. Today there are 25,000 artists the revolution has educated and they have institutions and organisations that promote and protect them, such as the National Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC) and the Hermanos Saiz Association of young artists and writers.

In recent years the Cuba Solidarity Campaign has sponsored several important exhibitions of Cuban art in the UK, including Beyond the Frame and Presente! The creativity, skills, and diversity displayed in the works were not the product of a society lacking freedom of expression. The artists participating in these shows spoke of the years of training they have benefited from, thanks to the comprehensive system of art education that exists in Cuba free of charge, including at the university level. They are products of a revolution that understood the centrality of culture from its earliest days.

There are important considerations at stake in this culture war. As an article in the Cuban journal La Jiribilla puts it, genuine freedom of expression ‘dies with dollars and media shots … Behind the curtain of defending freedom of expression hides an "other" officialdom, whose essence is the market itself’. In whatever way the efforts to destablise and subvert the rich culture of this small Caribbean island are met, it is the right of the Cuban people themselves to decide how all aspects of their society are organised. And a major element in their considerations will necessarily be the context of one of the most severe blockades ever mounted against a nation.

By Dodie Weppler, curator of two major exhibitions - Beyond the Frame: Contemporary Cuban Art and Presente! Contemporary Art from Cuba

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