Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera poses for a photograph taken on Dec. 31, 2014, after released from detention and, allegedly, before she was arrested a second time. Photo credit: Adalberto Roque/AFP/Getty Images. Source: Los Angeles Times
As the new year began, Cuba commemorated the 56th anniversary of the triumph of the Cuban Revolution with a normalization of relations with the US in the works. In the meantime, things remain as usual.
Thanks to a Facebook post of an old pal from college, an assistant professor of literature at Georgia Tech, I found out about performance artist Tania Bruguera and her run-in with the Cuban Revolution and its guardians. Bruguera was arrested last year on December 30 before she could stage “Tatlin’s Whisper #6”, a performance work, in Havana’s revered Revolution Square, the main venue for government-organized rallies. She was detained for several hours and released the following day, announcing soon afterwards that she would hold a press conference. Bruguera was detained again after the announcement was made and detained until that evening, charged with “resistance and disrupting the public order” and, therefore, forced to surrender her passport and barred from travelling outside Cuba (she spends time in both Europe and the US). Her day in court will come in the next several days.
What was the point of “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” and why did the Cuban government banned its exhibition? According to a press release posted on Bruguera’s web site the day before her arrest, the aim was for citizens to “express what ideas they have about their nation and its future, after the re-establishment of relations between Cuba and the United States” and to do so without allowing “calls to violence, discrimination, affronts to the integrity of individuals, illegal acts or violent actions against public order.” Bruguera was unambiguous in describing her work as political art, but with a very specific purpose (“This is a contribution of Art to the necessary discussion of ideas in Cuban society”) and as part of a larger domestic human rights movement, known as #YoTambienExijo. Described in this fashion, Bruguera’s performance is open to all viewpoints and does not incite an open rebellion, but the Cuban government only saw yet another existential threat: The National Council of Fine Arts denied her any institutional support for the performance and prohibited its exhibition at Revolution Square out of concerns that the performance was manipulated by counterrevolutionary media outlets. (To be sure, it offered alternate venues for Bruguera to do her performance, but she rejected the idea.) The arrests soon followed.
Bruguera’s case is best understood as part of a larger story. The relationship between the Cuban Revolution and artists has been a complicated one; as CFR’s Julia Sweig has stated in her book Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know, the Revolution did a great deal to cultivate and suppress cultural production in Cuba. At its very outset, the revolutionary government saw fit to not only make art accessible to all Cubans, but also – according to Nicola Miller in “A Revolutionary Modernity: The Cultural Policy of the Cuban Revolution” – to establish links (selectively) between Cuban cultural heritage and cultural decolonization (yes, national liberation yet again). But state sponsorship of cultural production came hand in hand with increasing narrow-mindedness toward artwork that criticized the revolutionary process, prompting intense debates on the actual role of art and artists in it. Things came to a head in 1961, when the Cuban Film Institute banned the short-subject film “PM” and Fidel Castro gave his lapidary and long-winded “Words to the Intellectuals” speech, at which he decreed “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing.” The rationale behind that approach was described by Castro himself in his speech (my translation):
The Revolution wants artists to put their maximum effort in favor of the people. It wants them to put their maximum interest and effort in revolutionary work. And we believe that it is a fair aspiration of the Revolution.
Does it mean that we will tell people here what they have to write? No. Let anyone write what they want, and if it is not good, that is their problem. If what they paint is not good, that is their problem. We forbid nobody to write about any subject. To the contrary. Let anyone find expression in the way deemed pertinent and express freely the idea that wants to express. We will always appreciate their creation through the prism of the revolutionary glass. That is also a right of the Revolutionary Government, as respectable as anybody’s right to expression.
Although Miller contends that state sponsorship of cultural activity predates the Cuban Revolution, the consequence of this rationale is a cultural policy that, contrary to the idea of a vehicle for human liberation argued by Miller, micromanages artistic creation for the sake of politics by encouraging ideological compliance at best and, at worse, self-censorship – none of which is consistent with art as the liberating force it is supposed to be. At the very least, it is like looking at Jekyll and Hyde. On the one hand, Cuban artists paint, sculpt, write, perform, and film – sometimes masterfully, with accolades to boot – with state encouragement and sponsorship. To their credit, a few works have managed to push domestic boundaries, as in movies like “Strawberry and Chocolate” (which explores homosexuality) and “Plaf” (which features spoofs of government bureaucracy). On the other hand, pushing the boundaries of acceptable content too far is a violation against the Revolution’s inalienable right to exist (in other words, it is counterrevolutionary) and merits prosecution and jail. Indeed, for every Chucho Valdés winning Grammys for blending jazz with Afro-Cuban music, there is a Paquito D’Rivera who thought that official cultural policy is too restrictive for the most unfettered expression of his creativity and decided to defect in protest. For every Alejo Carpentier that became an acclaimed writer and a willing servant of the Cuban Revolution (he was Ambassador to France) there is a Reinaldo Arenas sent to a labor camp, jailed, and forced into exile because his work is considered too deviant. The Bruguera affair is thus an instructive case study because it straddles between the carrots and the sticks of existing cultural policy: The performance that had her arrested last December was presented in 2009 at an internationally-known and state-sponsored art festival, the Havana Biennial. (Those who have no problem with understanding Spanish will find this post very interesting.) In short, Cuban artists are forced to be free, in pure Rousseauian fashion.
What are the possible effects of the Bruguera affair In the US? I think that pressure against Obama for normalizing relations with Cuba may intensify because the Menéndezes, the Rubios, the Diaz-Baralts and the Ros-Lethinens of Capitol Hill, along with their allies outside the Cuban diaspora (ex. Ted Cruz) and the Latino community (ex. Rick Perry and Chris Christie), will take this as yet another opportunity to insist on returning things to the anachronistic and ineffectual way they used to be. Most importantly, the incoming GOP congressional majority will now have a perfectly good reason to attempt everything I mentioned in my last post (blocking the confirmation of the US ambassador to Cuba, using the congressional “power of the purse” to block policy altogether) and then some (preventing Cuba’s removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism). It may be, as William LeoGrande said in a Los Angeles Times op-ed, that the constitutional power to reestablish diplomatic relations with other countries lies exclusively in the President’s hands and that a relationship with Cuba may be up and running by the time the next appropriations bills are debated and Republicans can use federal money as a political tool. Yet because the problem continues to be hyper-partisanship around everything, even foreign policy, Republicans will go ahead nevertheless. At the very least, they could force Obama onto a quid pro quo similar to the last budget agreement or will simply not go down without a good verbal fight (fought, needless to say, with a little help from Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and all the rank-and-file conservatives they can attract). On top of that, there is the possible effect on the presidential race: Even if Obama manages to implement his Cuba policy unimpeded, the GOP will find a presidential candidate that opposes it (of which there is plenty of) and present him/her to hardline Cuban exiles as the one who will redress Obama’s backstabbing, and the latter will vote for that candidate en masse, out of sheer anger. If that candidate wins in 2016, the normalization of relations with Cuba will be dead in its tracks.
Yet as things stand now, this event will not spell the end of the normalization of relations because neither government – especially the US – appears to have said so. It could have been the end of it if Obama overreacted or imposed anything related specifically to the Bruguera affair as a precondition to proceed as planned, which would compel the Cuban government to demand respect for its sovereign decisions and political system yet again (in other words, things as usual). It hence bears repeating that the US and Cuba should avoid rhetoric (or actions) that feed on each other’s fears and prejudices, just as Henry Kissinger recommended China and the US to do for their future engagements with each other. For Cuba and the US to proceed in that fashion in the light of the Bruguera affair is imperative because one thing does lead to another: Five decades of isolation and confrontation from the US fed into the siege mentality of the Cuban government and gives it a convenient excuse to ban politically bothersome artists, which in turn feeds into the animosities of both Republicans and Cuban hardliners and encourage them to oppose the new Cuba policy tooth and nail. Obama has gone out on a limb by doing what no Chief Executive has done since Jimmy Carter and going beyond the prior precedent. It will not be easy. The last thing he needs is for the Cuban government to make things even more difficult for him by clinging onto bad habits. Assuming that the US decides not think of normalization as a subterfuge for exercising leverage and influencing Cuba’s political future, Cuba should not think of it as a vindication of domestic business as usual. If the US is now willing to relax certain provisions of the embargo, Cuba should cease expecting artists – its own people, for that matter – to conform to revolutionary groupthink and allow for meaningful dissent.
All those who have jumped the gun and accuse the Mexican government of disappearing and murdering the Ayotzinapa 43 (or for hiding its actual role in the crime) must make a similarly angry response to the Bruguera affair. I am not holding my breath, though.