Part I Religion, Culture, and Society: Theoretical,
Methodological, and Historical Perspectives
Chapter 1 Theoretical and Methodological Reflections
about the Study of Religion and Politics in Latin America, Daniel H. Levine,
University of Michigan.
Chapter 2 Civil Society in Cuba: A Conceptual Approach\, Ariel Armony, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars & Colby College.
Chapter 3 Cuban Diasporas: Their Impact on Religion,
Culture, and Society Margaret E. Crahan, Hunter College and The Graduate
Center, City University of New York.
Chapter 4 The
Evolution of Laws Regulating Associations and Civil Society in Cuba Alfonso
Quiroz,Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars & Baruch College
& The Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Chapter 5 Foreign Influence through Protestant
Missions in Cuba, 1898-1959:A Quaker Case Study Karen Leimdorfer, University of
Chapter 6 The
Jewish Community in Cuba in the 1990s Arturo López Levy, Columbia University
Part II Religion, Culture, and Society: Transnational
Chapter 7 The
Catholic Church and Cuba’s International Ties Thomas E. Quigley, United States
Conference of Catholic Bishops
Chapter 8 Religion and the Cuban Exodus:A Perspective
from Union City, New Jersey Yolanda Prieto, Ramapo College of New Jersey
Chapter 9 Cuba’s Catholic Church and the Contemporary
Exodus Silvia Pedraza, University of Michigan
Chapter 10 God
Knows No Borders:Transnational Religious Ties Linking Miami and Cuba Katrin
Hansing & Sarah J. Mahler, Florida International University
(Reuters) – A group of Miami-based Cuban musicians including reggaeton duo
Gente de Zona launched an impassioned anti-Communist anthem this week that has
gone viral, sparking a furious state response.
Zona, Yotuel of hip-hop band Orishas fame and singer-songwriter Descemer Bueno
collaborated on the song with two rappers in Cuba, Maykel Osorbo and El Funky,
who are part of a dissident artists’ collective that sparked an unusual protest
against repression outside the culture ministry last November.
and Life” repurposes the old slogan “Patria o Muerte” (“Homeland or Death”)
emblazoned on walls across the Caribbean country ever since Fidel Castro’s 1959
leftist revolution and expresses frustration with being required to make
sacrifices in the name of ideology for 62 years.
lyrics refer to ideological intolerance, the partial dollarization of the
economy, food shortages and the exodus of young Cubans who see no future on the
island. The government blames its economic woes largely on crippling U.S.
featuring the five artists – all Black men – has racked up 1 million views on
YouTube in three days, sparking lively discussions on social media, while many
in Cuba – where internet service is costly – are sharing it on USB sticks.
lies, my people calls for freedom, no more doctrines” sings Alexander Delgado,
one half of GdZ, chanting “It’s over” in the refrain.
Miami-based artists had until recently managed the tightrope of achieving
capitalist success abroad without breaking with the Communist-run island. GdZ
even called for applause for Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel at a Havana
concert in 2018 although that sparked calls for a boycott from some in the
state media and officials including the president have launched a barrage of
attacks, Twitter hashtags and memes on “Homeland and Life,” branding it
unpatriotic and without artistic merit. They say the artists behind it are
opportunistically trying to placate their Miami public.
fun of one of the slogans held aloft by our people in the face of continuous
U.S. aggressions,” said Havana-based TV anchor Froilan Arencibia.
Dopico, the Cuban-born director of the Hemispheric Institute of Performance and
Politics at New York University, said the rejection of that revolutionary cry
was unprecedented in recent Cuban popular music.
us all out of the depressing menace of death that comes with our understanding
of nation,” she said.
reflects a surge in overt anti-Cuban-government sentiment among more
contemporary generations of Cuban migrants, said Michael Bustamante, an
assistant professor of Latin American history at Florida International
has also resonated with people on the island, especially youths who have become
increasingly vocal about their frustrations since the advent of mobile internet
two years ago, with some emblazoning their Facebook Profile photos with the
banner “Homeland and Life.”
Fidel’s ideals but lately things have been happening that I don’t really agree
with,” said Havana resident Loraine Martinez, who enjoyed the song.
not the first time that the songs of Cuban musicians on the island and abroad
have become stand-ins for political causes, said Bustamante. But the Cuban
government’s response was unusually forceful, he said, reflecting its anxiety
and what he called “misplaced priorities.”
“If they are worried about popular frustration, the way to fix that is to focus on bread-and-butter reforms, not this kind of reflexive ideological performativity,” he said.
Cuban artists after the late-night encounter and initial accords for dialogue with the vice minister of culture Fernando Rojas early on November 27th. Photo: 14ymedio
HAVANA TIMES – The Ministry of Culture, announced today it would not honor its agreement for a dialogue with Cuban artists. The Communist Party currently carries out a massive media campaign to paint artists critical of government policy as “mercenaries”. They are also holding “seminars” at workplaces to reinforce the accusations.
The government had already backtracked in less than 24 hours on the other accords reached between the vice minister of Culture and hundreds of artists in the wee hours of November 27th. These included a truce in the harassment and criminalizing of independent artists and journalists, and police restrictions on their mobility.
The reasons for reneging on the agreements
The Ministry of Culture said today it would no longer meet with the artists. It alleged: “they have direct contacts and receive financing and logistical support from the US Government and its officials.”
Furthermore, the Ministry blames the artists for its backtracking on the dialogue for including participation of members of the San Isidro Movement (MSI).
It was that Movement, a week long hunger strike, and the nighttime State Security assault on their headquarters on November 26th, which led to a spontaneous day-night sit-in of hundreds of people from the Cuban cultural world the following day at the gates of the Ministry of Culture.
Late that night vice minister Fernando Rojas finally met with a delegation of 30 artists including some MSI members. To diffuse the tense moment, Rojas promised a dialogue for the coming week to discuss issues and concerns.
The Ministry statement published in the official press today justified their reneging on their promise. “The inclusion of persons who for a long time, have violated patriotic symbols, committed common crimes and made direct attacks on the Cuban Revolution under the guise of art, is what led to breaking off any possibility of dialogue.”
The Castro-Diaz Canel government maintains that any criticism of their policies, laws and leaders originates from the United States. According to them, no Cuban has a right to criticize a government that only acts to benefit the people. Furthermore, for decades they maintain that the US embargo is the cause of all their failed economic policies.
The policy of dealing with artists and writers dates back to 1961
The Ministry said its doors were open, “as always”, to those artists who are not committed to the enemies of the Cuban nation.
Back in 1961, Fidel Castro set what is still government cultural policy. He said that all cultural expression that supports the Revolution would be permitted. In official lingo, the Revolution, Communist Party, leaders and the government are all one and the same.
Amaury Pacheco a founding member of the San Isidro Movement
HAVANA TIMES – After the meeting between Vice-Minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas, and 30 representatives of hundreds of people present at the protest outside the Ministry of Culture – on November 27th – Amaury Pacheco, a founder of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), shares his experiences. He explains the meaning recent developments have had for the Movement, Cuban civil society and the future of these interrelationships.
HT: How did this process unfold? What came out of it?
Three vice-coordinators were at our houses under the siege of police patrol cars. Likewise, the people at the Movement’s central point – San Isidro and Damas Streets, in Old Havana.
We circulated information via different channels: Exchanging what was happening to everyone during this home arrest?
Things got heated when the MSI’s base was attacked [on the night of November 26]. Members of the military dressed up as doctors, wearing white coats. They broke into the space. Those present at the Base say that they were beaten. A set-up that nobody sees.
They were removed from the house under the suspicion of having COVID-19, when Carlos Manuel Alvarez, a journalist arrived on the scene, who said he came from the US.
The police withdrew from outside our homes when they went to attack our Base.
We found out that a group of Theater and Movie artists were planning to organize a peaceful protest outside the Ministry of Culture. Creating a powerful critical mass. Calling on people to come.
I said: “… they are coming together for Freedom of Expression, for what happened at San Isidro. Asking to enter a dialogue with the Ministry of Culture. I’m going!”
It was around 5 PM. Over 200 people were shouting in chorus. There was a joyful atmosphere, but there was also a lot of determination.
I was really happy to see this. We realized that what had happened in San Isidro awakened people in a way that was bigger than us.
Seeking connectedness and new spaces
The San Isidro Movement seeks Connectedness. For different spaces to open up. For people to connect with one another based on their personal experiences, techniques and peaceful means of social struggle.
We arrived and there was a list. It included Michel Matos, Aminta D’Cardenas, Claudia Genlui and Catherine Bisquet, who doesn’t belong to the Movement, but was one of the people holding a hunger strike at MSI’s base. I wasn’t included, but because I form part of the Movement, I was added in the end. This was agreed in a democratic way. I didn’t even take part.
I was surprised to see artists linked to state institutions, who don’t normally take part in these things, as it could have repercussions on them.
Some points were written down, from more general to more specific points. We talked about FreeDenis, one of MSI’s main demands, and everybody there agreed. It wasn’t MSI that brought this to the table. We joined and formed part of this Coalition.
#FreeDenis and then calling off the Hunger Strike, were our proposals for the dialogue: following protocol. Getting Luis Manuel Otero back home, his house [the MSI base] is shut off and taken over.
A wide variety of concerns and demands
There were representatives from the different arts and they all had their own struggle. Theater/Movie/Visual artists, were vindicating important agendas for independent spaces. They insisted on the need for structural change in artistic institutions.
Civil demands in general: freedom of speech, the right to dissent, to create freely, the end of state harassment, defamation and no more police violence, no more political hate, and so on.
MSI promotes cultural rights, freedoms, so the dialogue was in sync with our own objectives.
Yunior Garcia Aguilera, somebody with a lot of talent and charisma, managed to organize that conversation and laid the groundwork for the dialogue with the Ministry.
We were there since around 10 AM and we weren’t seen until 11 PM. The Minister never showed.
What happened inside the Ministry
The Delegation went in: 30 people talked to the Vice-Minister. They didn’t want to accept some people, but we really struggled and MSI got its foot in the door.
The dialogue couldn’t be broadcast live, because our cellphones were taken. It became a secret space, but we have different versions of what happened from everybody who was there.
It was a frank, cutting, straight-to-the-point conversation. We told the Government everything that was on our minds, the need for Civil Society, a Constitution and how the Government needs to abide by it. About Decree-Laws 349 and 370, which have created an earthquake.
Decree-Law 349 criminalizes the dissemination and promotion of art. Decree-Law 370 criminalizes social media communication.
Our Movement knew this wasn’t the time to discuss certain issues, but it was an opportunity that had never existed up until now. That the State took upon themselves to open institutions to a dialogue with groups they call counter-revolutionaries, dissidents, but they are just independent in reality.
Letting them know we are not afraid
The Government played this card. They told International Opinion that “there is an ongoing dialogue with the MSI, but not directly.”
The way we shared and responded to the vice-minister was truly impressive. It reminded me of shoals of fish moving altogether at the same pace. There was an inner beating, regardless of our different demands.
A powerful will to tell them that we weren’t AFRAID. That the over 400 people outside weren’t afraid. The people with whom we had reached an agreement for this dialogue and with whom we would have to speak with afterwards.
This generation has shaken off its fear, just like we have to do what we do. It’s a great thing on a national level and proof that there is social discontent in Cuba.
The State isn’t controlling everything that happens, it’s just not true. There is social debilitation, though. We need political change, yes, a strategic change on how to build the nation.
Everything outside was said out loud. Everyone agreed with these demands.
We broke our fear. We looked at each other, acknowledged each other and spoke. That was the power there. We opened the door, so the Government had to sit down and talk under pressure. The people were determined, “We won’t leave until…”.
San Isidro had ignited the flame that connected many people.
Practing what we want for the country
There were many artists, but we were talking about citizenship, individual rights, social rights, human rights, not just cultural rights. Comprehensive issues, but key issues.
We practiced what we want for the country. It was a dangerous action, like the human body: muscles, mind, neurones, everything moving for a specific action. It’s what we practice in San Isidro, and it managed to awake citizens.
Being a person – an important part – practicising citizenship, reflects the other parts. They don’t work on their own. People are the most human thing that exists. Individuals with their own things, own way of doing things, getting places, moving forward with their lives. Citizens facing laws, how it orders them, their place in the current hierarchy, in society.
This point about citizenship and exercising democracy, of reaching a consensus, is very important. It is something that this generation truly has. If you are under the yoke of totalitarianism, a wisp of democracy can appear. We all came to an agreement. Coming up with agendas that we can all push together, and not via a hierarchy or dictatorial space.
There wasn’t a dialogue with MSI. We took part in something a lot larger, civil society speaking, saying: “…we want to take your points to the table because they are important, somebody is dying.”
Filmmaker Fernando Perez was an important witness
Fernando Perez, a well-respected filmmaker, was also at the table. He said that he wouldn’t speak, but watching everyone say their piece, he also decided to say a few words. This was important because it made the involvement of different generations clear. Every generation has its own social history in Cuba, with very specific characteristics.
The Vice-Minister said that they could find a solution for demands within the artistic and cultural sector, but there were other demands that needed to be talked over with other institutions, and he made a note of this. He said that everything depended on processes.
Connections were made for meetings, a platform for dialogue with some of the arts. General issues would be discussed at a later date, when they could be looked over with the Minister.
Press conferences would be held about what happened there because “… we owe it to the people outside.”
Many followers of the tense developments at San Isidro’s base, felt like the Movement had ended and this isn’t true.
Channels of domestic politics in Cuba are very slow. If you don’t have a position in the public space and spaces of pressure, there isn’t anything that allows you to sit down at the negotiations table.
The agreements made
The agreements we made by the time we left, included: A channel of dialogue with cultural institutions. Address the issue of Denis Solis Gonzalez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara “urgently”. Independent artists can meet without being harassed, among other points, such as the safeguard of going home that night without suffering police harassment.
The Government says: “We don’t work under pressure.” So we have to pressure them; they pressure us all the time. In the meeting, a young woman said: “We aren’t here to pressure you, we are here to give you a chance to enter a dialogue and change what’s happening.”
It was like saying: We are giving you a chance to renew your own foundations… because this is going to go ahead regardless. It’s going to be huge… and you won’t be able to stop it. You are rusty as a State. You don’t understand what is happening. New generations don’t understand these dated procedures.
The government will renege on this meeting, but it really has changed Cuban reality. We know that it is being replicated in Matanzas. It could even explode on a national level.
Manipulation and back-tracking
The Government has manipulated everything in its official account of events.
What happened in that room hasn’t had a historic precedent in these past 60 years.
San Isidro has its own list of proposals, which haven’t ended: Luis Manuel and Maykel Osorbo held a hunger strike. San Isidro has very clear strategies. Our reports are clear on our social media pages.
MSI has gained many followers with successful campaigns. Ever since Decree-Law 349 was announced, as well as all of the attacks against Luis Manuel have become successful campaigns, because of what we have done.
I’m grateful to these people – many young people – who said: ENOUGH! and chose to stand outside the Ministry. We know what happens to people who speak openly in Cuba’s public space. The street is the Communist Party’s private property. Public spaces are pretty much closed off.
Recent events have opened-up a space forever. Many other things can be pushed forward. It’s happening as we speak.
Note: *During this interview, we learned that Luis Manuel Alcantara was under arrest in a hospital. His location had been unknown.
Also read this followup article when days later the governernment backed out of future talks.
Culture and the Cuban State examines the politics of culture in communist Cuba. It focuses on cultural policy, censorship, and the political participation of artists, writers and academics such as Tania Bruguera, Jesús Díaz, Rafael Hernández, Kcho, Reynier Leyva Novo, Leonardo Padura, and José Toirac. The cultural field is important for the reproduction of the regime in place, given its pretense and ambition to be eternally “revolutionary” and to lead a genuine “cultural revolution”. Cultural actors must be mobilized and handled with care, given their presumed disposition to speak their mind and to cherish their autonomy.
This book argues that cultural actors also seek recognition by the main (for a long time the only) sponsor and patron of the art in Cuba: the “curator state”. The “curator state” is also a “gatekeeper state,” arbitrarily and selectively opening and closing the space for public expression and for access to foreign currencies and the global market. The time when everything was either mandatory or forbidden is over in Cuba. The regime seems to have learned from egregious mistakes that led to a massive exodus of artists, writers and academics. In a country where things change so everything could stay the same, the controlled opening in the cultural field, playing on the actors’ ambition and fear, illuminates a broader phenomenon: the evolving rules of the political game in the longest standing dictatorship of the hemisphere.
Yvon Grenier is professor of political science at St. Francis Xavier University.
Table of Contents:
List of Acronyms
Chapter 1: Revolution and Cultural Will
Chapter 2: Don’t Cross This Line
Chapter 3: Jesus Diaz, the Unintentional Deviationist
Chapter 4: The Curator State
Chapter 5: How to Write From Mantilla, Of the Small Heresies of Leonardo Padura
Chapter 6: Faking Criticism
Yvon Grenier, a sharp-eyed observer of culture and politics in Latin America, provides an illuminating analysis of the complex relations between Cuba’s intellectuals and the Castro regime. Exceeding the revolutionary rhetoric which has impressed much of the research on Cuba in the past, Grenier looks seriously and rigorously into the state’s cultural policy over time, showing how changes in that policy from repression to liberalization and back have not altered the fundamental position of Cuba’s artists, writers and political scientists, a position marked by fear, censorship, self-censorship, and the need to perform intellectual acrobatics. A must-read for anyone concerned with the fate of creative imagination and critical thinking in authoritarian states. Michael Keren, University of Calgary
Everywhere in the world intellectuals, writers, and academics are a different breed who seek participation and recognition from their public and peers as well as their state. In his analysis of Cuba’s cultural policy during the Cuban revolution, Yvon Grenier carefully shows that in a communist state that quest is particularly difficult and dangerous. In Cuba, a line was drawn early on between those who work within the revolutionary parameters and gain acceptance, though at times managing to be quite critical (dissonance) and those who work outside of it, meeting rejection and ostracism (dissidence). Yet, through his analysis of the hardships, vicissitudes, and circumstances of the lives of important Cuban intellectuals (such as Jesús Díaz, Tania Bruguera, and Leonardo Padura), Grenier further shows that where the line lies can be rather unclear, leading to some crossing it unwittingly while others place their stories in another century and another place to avoid it. Grenier shows that the political control of the cultural life in a one party state like Cuba results not only in censorship but also in self-censorship. For everyone who cares about the quality of intellectual life in Cuba and elsewhere, this is a book not to be missed. Silvia Pedraza, University of Michigan
This book is a path-breaking work that convincingly turns the conventional wisdom about the ‘cultural policy’ of the Cuban Revolution on its head. Most compelling and original is the author’s nimble analysis that distinguishes between a set of unwritten but untouchable “primary parameters” and another set of “secondary” and contextually permeable parameters that such cultural actors must constantly negotiate in order to avoid being dealt “out of the game” of Cuban culture as played on the island under the Revolution. The strongest contribution of the book is to change the focus on cultural freedom in Cuba from one that focuses exclusively on the state to one that focuses equally on the ways Cuban writers, artists, and intellectuals negotiate with the state, in search not only of greater creative freedom but also (and ironically) state recognition and promotion. Ted A. Henken, Baruch College
It is a hot day in central Havana and the doorman at the Television Ballet building is asleep in the heat. But upstairs, Toby Gough, a British impresario, is exhorting nine Cuban dancers to work up a deep sweat. The show they are rehearsing, Lady Salsa, opens in Germany in less than two weeks.
“More fighting spirit please!” Mr Gough urges the troupe after they run through the opening number. “Keep your eyes forward! Engage more, por favor!”
The rough-floored studio has seen better days; the barre is worn, the mud-green paint peeling from the walls, and two plastic fans circulate the stale air. It is an unlikely setting for Mr Gough, a globe-trotting promoter who once brought a swimming elephant to spirit pop star Kylie Minogue away from press photographers after a Sri Lanka charity benefit.
Yet, for more than a decade the resourceful 44-year-old from Sussex has made his base here in Havana, source of dance talent for several touring shows. His troupe and Cuba’s broader dance scene provide a telling viewpoint on the changes on this socialist island.
Mr Gough’s first outing of Lady Salsa, a rousing two-hour journey through Cuban musical history, enjoyed a sellout European tour in 2000. Fifteen years later, he is reviving the show, which follows the life story of Siomara Valdes, a 75-year-old chanteuse who performed at the Tropicana nightclub before the revolution and once taught Nat King Cole the rumba.
“We need a new introduction,” says Mr Gough. “Can we still have: ‘Welcome to Cuba, an island shaped like a crocodile, biting the foot of the United States’? How about ‘nibbling’ or ‘kissing’ instead?” At this, the dancers laugh and blow kisses at their reflections in the studio mirror.
High hopes, slow progress
Gentle irony is a common Cuban reaction to the prospect of US rapprochement. “It’s very easy to go slower,” says a foreign ministry official. US officials are also cautious. “There are many suppositions about how far or fast US executive action can go,” says one. “They often do not take into account the comedy of the various arms of our government.”
Yet the anticipated end of the US trade embargo, which requires an act of Congress, has unleashed a carnival of expectations. Major US companies such as Citi, which lost a fortune in Cuba financing the 1920 sugar price boom-and-bust known as the “Dance of the Millions”, have said they want to return. World leaders and foreign businesses have jostled to mark their territory before the supposed American invasion.
This month alone, Raúl Castro, Cuba’s 83-year-old president, has met Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president; Pope Francis; Matteo Renzi, Italian prime minister; and François Hollande, the first French head of state to visit Havana in a century — although likely not the last socialist visitor to leave unsaid Cuba’s human rights abuses. “How many foreign dignitaries . . . have visited? We have lost count,” wrote dissident journalist Yoani Sánchez in a column on her website, 14ymedio.com. “But their illustrious presence has brought little relief to Cuban daily life.”
That is certainly true of Cuba’s economy. Seven years ago Mr Castro began a tentative reform process, which includes allowing self-employment, the sale of cars and homes, and the mooted unification of Cuba’s myriad currency system. Their purpose is threefold: to boost flagging growth; retain disenchanted youth emigrating abroad; and prepare Cuba should Venezuela’s swelling economic crisis end the estimated $1.5bn of aid that Caracas provides Havana each year.
In theory, the inevitable passing of the so-called historic generation, which led the 1959 revolution, adds further urgency. US actuarial life tables suggest former leader Fidel Castro, 88, has a life expectancy of another four years.
But Mr Castro’s measures have failed to lift growth, which slowed last year to 1 per cent. Nor has a revamped law done much to boost the stock of foreign investment, yet. At just $427m in 2011, according to UN estimates, it would count as small potatoes elsewhere.
“There is more willingness among Cubans to open up than five years ago,” says Lord Hutton, a British peer who led 45 UK businessmen on an April trade visit, one of whom closed a deal — years in the making — to sell seed potatoes to a fried-chips factory. “But there is still a long way to go; patience is required.”
Certainly, for a Financial Times reporter returning to Cuba after a decade of annual visits, there is little change on Havana’s streets, except perhaps a sense of hope. The dismal food has improved thanks to new, private restaurants. To cater to tourists, private homes are being refurbished — often funded by the $2bn a year that Cuban-Americans send their relatives. And Mr Obama’s relaxation of travel restrictions has produced a 20 per cent rise in US visitors this year, Cuban officials say.
About 600,000 came in 2014 and, although that includes mostly Cuban émigrés, it is still far short of the 3m US tourists the International Monetary Fund estimates could travel to Cuba should relations normalise. But the increase has already stretched Havana’s tourist industry, and led to some unfortunate misunderstandings: a few US visitors have taken to pocketing Tropicana glassware as mementoes of their trip.
“They don’t understand that the poor waiters have to pay for the missing items,” rues Yolanda, a Tropicana dancer. Average state wages are $20 a month.
There has also been an explosion of touring shows, and freelance dancers can return from a six-month tour with enough saved to buy an apartment or car. Rakatan, a high-octane extravaganza, played in New York in February. Ballet Revolución, a sinuous meld of ballet and Cuban dance styles, tours Australia in June. Others include Soy de Cuba and Havana Queens.
All draw on talent honed by a dance system organised on Soviet lines. “It’s a machine,” says Aaron Cash, co-choreographer of Ballet Revolución. Like all machines, it can be brutally effective at producing technical excellence. Children are funnelled from an early age into one of four categories; ballet, contemporary dance, folklore or cabaret. One star the system has produced is Carlos Acosta, although his career was only saved from obscurity after he was poached by the English National Ballet.
Like its Soviet-style economic system, Cuba’s dance machine can also be stifling thanks to what is called the “internal embargo”, an official mindset that would bog Cuba down even if the “external embargo” were lifted tomorrow.
“Mental attitudes are a problem,” admits the foreign ministry official.
Its stunting influence is everywhere: at government offices, where bored officials elevate sulkiness to new levels; at state-run clubs such as the Tropicana, where tourists pay $95 to watch dancers run through a stale set; and at the National Ballet, run with an iron grip for over half a century by Alicia Alonso, 93, who is blind but still choreographing. On tour, critics often comment on her dancers’ “artistic straitjacket”.
The internal embargo certainly exists in big business. “My biggest problem is bureaucratic trauma,” says Idermis González, head of co-ordination at Mariel, an $800m free trade zone on Cuba’s northern coast that is the centrepiece of the government’s drive to attract foreign investment.
It also stymies Mr Castro’s tentative reforms, as seen at Zumaya Gutierrez’s small cafeteria. Ms Gutierrez set up the eatery at her village in Mayabeque province a few years ago. She says that she “loves her country”, and that most of her clients are hungry children. “I love them and sometimes give them a break if they do not have money.”
Yet despite this civic sense, her operation is perforce mainly illegal. Shortages and high prices at state retailers mean food supplies can only be sourced on the black market, where Ms Gutierrez, whose name has been changed, also buys fake sales receipts, at $2 a month, so her accounts pass the tax inspectors. Being able to buy supplies legally, and wholesale, would change everything, she says, her eyes brightening. But that is only possible for state companies and sanctioned co-operatives.
Furthermore, eliminating the black market would end a vital cash source for her neighbours, who sell stolen state goods. “Nobody would then have any money to buy my food,” she says. The result, like much else in Cuba, is an apparent impasse.
“Cuba reminds me of our piecemeal reforms before the fall of the Berlin Wall,” says an eastern European diplomat. “Each one requires another to make it effective, and so on. But Havana has not yet realised that, when it comes to the market, you cannot be a little bit pregnant. Some things just don’t work.”
No velvet revolution
Back at the dance studio, Mr Gough has turned to psychodramatic exercises to develop his dancers’ characters and add narrative heft to the show.
“Many Cubans think they can just rock up and dance away and win applause,” he says. “But TV shows like Britain’s Got Talent or Pop Idol have made audiences more demanding. They take slick performances for granted. Technical mastery is not enough. You have to provide drama, the kind that gives the audience a lesson about life.”
Cuba has long provided the world with drama, be it the supposed decadence of pre-revolutionary Havana, or the socialist austerity that followed. What might happen next is only speculation — and most speculations about Cuba have been wrong in the past.
Mr Obama’s move to relax and ultimately end the embargo aims to swivel the spotlight away from Washington’s historic bullying tactics and on to Cuba’s shortcomings. Still, a sudden velvet revolution-style break looks unlikely. Havana also wants to avoid a chaotic Russian-style transition. But China’s example — perestroika over glasnost — while appealing, is contradicted by the slow pace of the reforms.
“The Cubans are in terra incognita, trying to figure it out,” says Pedro Freyre, a Wall Street lawyer with long Cuban experience. “Some of them are very intelligent, but they also have to operate within key intellectual and practical constraints — like going as fast as possible without losing control.”
Next year’s Communist party Congress will be crucial; the reputedly pragmatic Mr Castro, former head of the armed forces, says he wants to deepen the reforms. He has also said he will step down as president in 2018, although he could remain head of the party, where power ultimately resides.
Meanwhile, an army takeover of the economy’s “commanding heights”, the military-tourist complex, is under way. By some estimates, the army controls 60 per cent of the economy, as at businesses like Gaviota, the island’s largest hotel operator. But even military reformers can suffer from the stolid midriff of official inertia.
This became clear when Mr Castro met Pope Francis in Rome. Afterwards, Mr Castro said that, while he remained communist, he was thinking of returning to the church. International media splashed the extraordinary comment, but not Cuba’s state press — thereby censoring the president himself. “The state press is an insult to militants,” as Mr Castro has said.
Mr Gough, like his dancers, has no interest or time for politics; his own show must go on. Sitting on the studio floor, he revises Lady Salsa’s song list. The curtain will drop after Celia Cruz’s “Yo Viveré”, a cover version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will Survive”, while the encore is “Adiós”, a poppy salsa number.
This is a neat way to end the entertainment — but also an ambiguous speculation on Cuba’s future. Who will survive, and goodbye to what?
“The most exciting thing about Cuba now,” Mr Freyre says, “is the unknown.”
This Monday, the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera returned the National Culture Award (Distinción por la Cultura Nacional) she received in 2002, and decided to renounce her membership in the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC).
“I can not receive recognition from, nor be part of, an institution that speaks for all but only through the presidency of the organization. Cultural institutions which, instead of opening a dialogue and a space for aesthetic analysis criminalize and judge, reduce the response to a work to generating fear of the work, and on top of it, distance themselves from it,” says the letter addressed to Cuba’s Deputy Minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas, and delivered Monday to the headquarters of the Ministry of Culture.
Bruguera was released last Friday after her attempt to stage a ‘performance’ in the Plaza of the Revolution in Havana, which would have given one minute at the microphone to any citizen who participated. The artist could not reach the Plaza because she was arrested before leaving home and twice more in the following days. “To peacefully present yourself and speak for one minute is an example of political art and of the function of art in society. It is what is called ‘Art Made for a Specific Political Moment,’ which can be translated as a work undertaken for a specific political context and situation,” she added.
The text of the letter:
Compañero Fernando Rojas Vice Minister of Culture Republic of Cuba
Upon my return from Documenta11, on 27 November 2002 the Ministry of Culture gave me, along with other young artists, the National Culture Award ( Distinción por la Cultura Nacional). For years I did not give importance to this event because it did not change anything in my life or in my thinking. In fact, I didn’t remember if I had saved it, or if it had been lost. After recent events, this Award has taken on another meaning for me.
Today I return the Award to the Ministry of Culture, I put it in the hands of the vice minister with whom I previously have had ideological discussions about censorship. Today I also renounce my membership in the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (UNEAC). I can not receive recognition from, nor be part of, an institution that speaks for all but only through the presidency of the organization. Cultural institutions which, instead of opening a dialogue and a space for aesthetic analysis criminalize and judge, reduce the response to a work to generating fear of the work, and on top of it, distance themselves from it.
I have heard many times in Cuba that this is not the appropriate time to criticize or to use a metaphor or to stage a work. Many times I have censored myself in the face of these words that magically cast blame on a doubt or an opinion. Today I know that the appropriate time for an artist is ALWAYS, but especially when the ways of evaluating the social or the human are suspended, but the appropriate moment cannot be a government directive because this makes it propaganda and not art. The artist would be in service to a government and not to a society. Opinion and art cannot exist only when they are permitted by the institution. I believe that it was the appropriate moment to make a work of art because all the decisions about what Cuba is going to be are still not implemented. There is still hope, many believe that undefined spaces exist within which all of we Cubans could be a part.
The changes in Cuba cannot be real if the decision comes from above and is reported and must be accepted. The changes in Cuba cannot be real if a different opinion is given when the government invites it. The changes in Cuba cannot be real if Cubans are afraid to know certain words, for example Human Rights. The changes in Cuba cannot be real if Cubans fear that having an opinion will leave them without a job. The changes in Cuba cannot be real if what is of interest to the government about Cubans is their money and not their ideas.
How sad is a government that sees a threat to the state in allowing regular Cubans one minute in which they can say what they think without government control! How sad is a government that jails the audience of a work of art!
HAVANA (AP) — Panfilo, the elderly protagonist in a weekly show on Cuban state television, has a broken water pipe in his house. When the city repair worker says it’ll take six months to fix, Panfilo bribes her with a bottle of shampoo and the repair is made the following day.
The audience bursts into laughter when the worker shows up in the next scene with her hair fried by Panfilo’s shampoo, stolen from parts unknown and adulterated with mystery chemicals.
A new wave of Cuban comedians is drawing big broadcast audiences and huge live crowds, using biting humor to take on corruption, shortages, government inefficiency and other everyday problems in a country where the government tolerates little dissent.
Comedian Luis Silva plays Panfilo, a senior citizen at the center of a circle of friends and family on the Monday night show “Vivir del cuento,” which roughly translates to “Surviving By Your Wits.”
Cuba doesn’t release ratings information, but “Vivir del cuento” is the closest state TV comes to water-cooler popularity for programming that is usually a stultifying mix of public affairs, sports and subtitled shows from the U.S. and other countries.
On Tuesday mornings, Cubans discuss the jokes from the previous evening’s show. Fans pack clubs and theaters in Havana and other cities for live shows by Silva and comedians with similarly acerbic styles, often waiting for hours to buy 20-peso (80 U.S. cents) tickets.
Silva “speaks to the social reality of our country with humor. He doesn’t cover things up. He makes us think, and I hope he makes the people in power in this country think, too,” teacher Yahima Morales said as she left a live show in Havana late last month.
The jokes resonate deeply with Cubans frustrated by petty corruption, scarcity of many goods and the poor quality of even the most basic staples. The comics and their fans say the ability to publicly joke about the failings of Cuba’s stagnant, centrally planned economy is a sign of at least a temporary loosening on the culture front.
The government has always allowed a certain amount of artistic freedom to criticize the state in films such as “Strawberry and Chocolate” or “Juan of the Dead.” But the new comics poke fun at the struggles of Cuban daily life in a way unimaginable in state media or a state-sanctioned public performance a decade ago.
“Ten years ago this was unthinkable. Cuban television didn’t touch these complicated topics of Cuban society,” said comedian Carlos Gonzalo, who plays Mentepollo, a yakky know-it-all on the weekly show “Deja que yo te cuente,” or “Let Me Tell You.”
In a recent live show, Panfilo joked about U.S. customs agents confiscating state-baked rolls he was bringing to his sister in Miami, testing them for traces of drugs and explosives. They found nothing suspicious, but couldn’t believe the products were really bread.”How am I supposed to tell this guy that we actually eat this stuff?” Panfilo asked, as the audience broke into laughter.
Still, the jokes of Silva and his fellow comedians don’t even approach the truly harsh, and often deeply dirty, jokes that Cubans direct at each other and their government in daily life. The comedians also admit that two powerful men remain out of bounds.
“There’s a limit that goes by the names Fidel Castro and Raul Castro,” said Alejandro Garcia, a founding figure of the social comedy wave who performs under the name Virulo. He added, however, that he avoids criticizing them out of respect for their accomplishments, not from fear or censorship.
The comedians, like many Cuban artists, work under the formal oversight of the state, in their case for the Ministry of Culture’s 20-year-old Humor Promotion Center, which supervises their contracts with performance venues. The comedians were declared tax-exempt last year, meaning they can keep all of their earnings, but that benefit may not be permanent, said Enrique Quinones, director of the Humor Promotion Center.
Garcia said he hopes the broader opening in Cuban comedy becomes permanent and sustainable. Other openings, both economic and artistic, have been quickly followed by government crackdowns.
“The essence of comedy is that it’s subversive, critical, taking on those in power,” he said. “This country has to transform itself and criticism is playing an important role … Hopefully comedy gets us to change and become better.”