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Freedom of artistic expression in Cuba: balancing between Patria y Vida (homeland and life)

By Antonija Diković-


Over two years ago, the San Isidro Movement (MSI) was ignited in Cuba. The movement is made up of artists, journalists and academics who protest against state censorship of the arts and was sparked by the signing of decree 349 which made seeking prior state authorization for artistic activities compulsory. In order to explain the emergence of the San Isidro Movement, it is necessary to review Cuba’s recent history. Paradoxically, A country that more than half a century ago was the hope of all Latin America is today, a country synonymous with a lack of freedom of artistic expression.

One of the great promises of the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which freed the country from the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista, was to offer the Cuban people a better life and a society based on equality. With the triumph of the Revolution, came the country’s transition to a socialist economy, in which “individuals do not live or work in isolation but live in cooperation with one another […] everything that people produce is in some sense a social product, and everyone who contributes to the production of a good is entitled to a share in it. Society as a whole, therefore, should own or at least control property for the benefit of all its members” (Encyclopedia Britannica). In other words, as long as it did not serve the Castroism state and government, individualism as a concept should not exist.

Despite this, in 1959 a honeymoon began for Latin America’s artists, writers and journalists as Latin American culture experienced a boom worldwide. In the same year, Casa de las Américas was founded in Cuba, a cultural institution that, in its own words, appears “as a space for meeting and dialogue with different perspectives in a climate of renovating ideas, fostering exchange with institutions and people from all over the world”. These words can be read and understood today with great irony, in light of the current Cuban situation.

It could be said that, from a cultural point of view, the decline in freedom of expression began with the so-called "Padilla Case," an event that took place in Havana, April 27, 1971. Frustrated with the increased interference of the government in cultural affairs, the poet Heberto Padilla openly criticized the government and in response was imprisoned for allegedly undermining the foundations of the newly established regime. From this point on, there was no going back, and the Castro regime made it clear that any opinion that diverged from its own was an attempt at subversion. Despite this, an increasing number of artists, writers and public personalities began to speak out about the censorship imposed by the Castro regime. Some were Cubans who went into exile (including Reinaldo Arenas, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Celia Cruz and Gloria Estefan) and others Cubans who stayed in the country. Critical voices also came from the greatest exponents of the world of culture outside Cuba, including those of Octavio Paz, Mario Vargas Llosa, Carlos Fuentes and Julio Cortázar.

There are also more recent examples of artists facing cultural repression, such as Tania Bruguera, a Cuban conceptual artist. Over the last few decades, Bruguera has captured international attention with her activism and performance art which include messages like “art must question power”. This has resulted in her detainment by state authorities countless times. However, Tania Bruguera is no longer alone. More and more artists and non-artists alike are raising their voices with each passing day, and Cuban authorities are being forced to acknowledge that changes need to be made.

But no group has better shown that a new generation is beginning to be born than the San Isidro Movement (MSI). After the arrest and incarceration of rapper and San Isidro member, Daniel Solís (November 9th 2020), artists mobilized in protest; some of them even went on hunger strikes in the San Isidro neighbourhood of Havana, while other artists supported them by protesting in the street. This incident galvanized support for the San Isidro movement both within Cuba and on an international level, with politicians from the U.S and European countries condemning the human rights violations of the Cuban state. Despite this pressure, in December 2020, after several unsuccessful attempts at negotiations, Cuba’s Ministry of Culture published a statement saying that it was not going to reach an agreement with the movement because it was financed and organized by the United States of America.

From the first dissidents of the last century to the San Isidro Movement, the Cuban government often uses the same weapons to discredit the artist-activists or "artivists", (as Tania Bruguera calls herself). ‘Counter Revolutionary activity’, ‘attempted foreign interference’, ‘fanning hatred’ and ‘provoking confrontations between Cubans’ are phrases that have been repeated so frequently that they have begun to lose their semantic meaning. Unfortunately, the official state media has perpetuated these ideas: instead of informing Cubans, newspapers like Antena Cubana and Granma, have repeatedly espoused the same rhetoric with which the 1959 revolution triumphed. For example, in a recent publication (April 2021), Granma outlined the necessity for single- partyism on the island: “The condition of a single political party system does not limit the exercise of authentic democracy; on the contrary, it makes it participatory, strong, fruitful; it grants ethics and transparency, and stimulates, in the political organization, a plurality that transcends” (Granma, April 2021). Here, the message is clear: in an ideal society, political opposition should not exist. Every day, state media tries to discredit artists and critics of the regime, broadcasting triumphalist TV shows or publishing eloquent articles explaining the reasons why the current Cuban system is perfect.

However, many Cubans believe otherwise. If we put all the triumphalist rhetoric and political idealism to one side, today’s Cuba is a country where it is difficult to get chicken to eat, where free internet was only approved a few years ago, and where artists suffer from, on the one hand, government censorship and on the other, defamation and discredit in the official media. Far from being a nation “free from foreign intervention”, the fragile Cuban economy depends on the dollars that tourists spend and on the export of cigarettes, rum and cane sugar. It sounds contradictory, but according to the Cubans themselves, "you can eat better and more Cuban food in Miami than in Cuba."

The disillusionment felt by ordinary people as well as the artists, journalists and academics of the San Isidro Movement in response to the current situation in Cuba can be perfectly deduced from the song Patria y Vida (Homeland and life), a hymn commonly sang by the San Isidro Movement in the streets of Havana and directly contradicts the Castro motto Patria y Muerte.

No more lies, my people ask for freedom, no more doctrines,

Let us no longer shout patria o muerte [Homeland and Death]

but Patria y Vida [Homeland and Life]

And begin to build what we dreamed of, what they destroyed with their hands ...

This need for reforms has not gone unnoticed by the Cuban government, as highlighted by the few changes they have implemented in an attempt to modernize the country and to draw closer to other countries that do not belong to the socialist bloc. For example, Raúl Castro, who had remained as the heir of his brother Fidel after his death in 2016 (but away from public life since a decade earlier, due to his illness), “ceded” the country's baton to Miguel Díaz -Canel three years ago, but only now, in April 2021, Díaz-Canel has become the leader of the Communist Party.

There was also talk of modernizing Cuba’s economy and the government is making an attempt to approve the creation of some private industry, albeit under strict regulations. Clearly, there is a desire, or more importantly, a need to implement these kinds of economic and political reforms. However, the unwillingness of the government to implement crucial structural change means that Cubans, especially young people, continue to feel disillusioned with their government. As indicated by the song Patria y Vida, (Homeland and Life): “Everything has changed, it is not the same / Between you and me there is an abyss”.

Considering that the Cubans who were born when the revolution “triumphed” are now in their sixties, several generations of Cuban artists have witnessed the fates of those who oppose the government and its ideology. It is therefore unsurprising that much of the younger generation no longer identify with the 1959 Revolution, but express their rejection of the regime’s ideologies through songs like Patria y Vida. In spite of the risks, it is clear that these artists are united in their desire to bring long-lasting change and democracy to Cuba, and particularly, to pave the way for future generations to make art and express themselves without fear of persecution, especially in the district of San Isidro.



Arenas Reinaldo : Elogio a Fidel Castro

Patria o vida : Composers: Yotuel Romero, Beatriz Luengo, Randy Malcolm, Alexander Delgado, Descemer Bueno, Eliexer Marquez Duany, Maykel Castillo Perez, Yadam González :

Periodismo de Barro:Capítulo 1. Tania Bruguera: "El arte debe cuestionar al poder"

Martí, José : Nuestra América (Publicado en La Revista Ilustrada de Nueva York, Estados Unidos, el 10 de enero de 1891, y en El Partido Liberal, México, el 30 de enero de 1891)


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