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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


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John-Paul Rathbone

Financial Times, May 21, 2015

Original here: Lady Salsa in Havana


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.

Mr Gough’s European backers saw the rebirth of Lady Salsa as a chance to cash in on the giddy new interest in all things Cuban. This has exploded since the December 17 announcement by Barack Obama, US president, that after 50 years of cold war enmity Washington now sought detente with Havana.

“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.

Internal embargo

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.”


John-Paul Rathbone

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14ymedio, Havana | Enero 06, 2015

Original here: Tania Bruguera

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.

Bruguera-TEDGlobal-James-Duncan-Davidson_CYMIMA20150105_0017_13The 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!

Un abrazo,

Tania Bruguera

Havana, 5 January 2015.

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ANNE-MARIE GARCIA, Associated Press, December 9, 2014

Original article here: New Comedy Wave: Panfilo

 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.”

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