Editor’s note: Tremenda Nota is an independent e-magazine in Cuba that reports on the country’s LGBTI and other minority communities and young people. It is a Washington Blade media partner in Latin America.
Tremenda Nota originally published this story on its website in Spanish.
HAVANA — Shortly after taking office the new Cuban president sharpened systems for censoring independent art in Cuba, provoking protests against Decree 349 at home and abroad.
Activists fighting to repeal Decree 349 argue that by late 2018 any artists without formal connections to a state cultural institution will be considered “criminals.” The government will be able to fine artists, confiscate their materials and can even punish any business that uses an artist’s services.
Rapper Soandry del Río explained to Tremenda Nota that “the decree makes it very clear: Anyone producing art must have a permit and be under the supervision of institutions.”
The new regulations on cultural policy and contracting artists was signed on April 20, 2018, two days after Miguel Díaz-Canel took power, and will take effect in December of this year.
A group of artists and musicians against the decree have sent letters to the Cuban president, to the Office of the Prosecutor General and to Alpidio Alonso, the new minister of culture. They have also attempted to hold a concert on the corner of Damas and San Isidro Streets in Old Havana as well as a protest in front of the Capitol, Parliament’s new headquarters.
Obviously, state security prevented the concert and stopped the artists before they could stage their performance on the steps of the Capitol. Only Yanelys Núñez, a curator and art historian, managed to complete her protest in the name of her colleagues by smearing herself with feces from the floor to symbolize how the Cuban state treats independent creators like “a piece of shit.”
Yanelys Núñez, visual artist Luis Manuel Otero, producer Michel Matos, poet and performer Amaury Pacheco, actress Iris Ruiz and urban musicians Soandry del Río and Sandol Pérez, together with other independent artists, hold regular meetings at the Museum of Politically Uncomfortable Art in Havana. They debate the fundamentals of a manifesto that has yet to be published, while beyond these walls few neighbors seem to be interested in art.
However, on Aug. 11, during the protest concert held by a group of artists on the corner of Damas and San Isidro, locals confronted the police and filmed arrests on their phones. Yanelys Núñez, Luis Manuel Otero and Amaury Pacheco, among others, were detained for several hours.
Nevertheless, independent artists and activists will not give up criticizing the decree, which criminalizes independent art in Cuba.
The law states that, “Whoever provides artistic services without being authorized to do artistic work in an artistic post or occupation” could be fined 1,000 or 2,000 Cuban pesos ($38 or $75.) Also, the ‘competent authorities’ can confiscate an artist’s materials and other property. If they repeat the offense, the fine increases to 4,000 Cuban pesos ($150.)
“Now they’ll arrest you, they’ll repress you. They already do it without a law, so imagine what they’re going to do with the law,” argued independent producer Michel Matos, one of the founders of the Rotilla Festival.
Critical voices argue that the new law establishes the conditions for “preemptive censorship.” According to Laritza Diversent, a lawyer who is the director of Cubalex, in December “we’ll only be able to enjoy artists and artistic expressions that are approved by the state or its institutions.”
The expert argues that the decree itself “fosters selective, discretional and discriminatory application. Will they put the same effort into pursuing musicians charging for services at Yoruba religious ceremonies, as an anti-establishment rapper?”
Decree 349 gives the Ministry of Culture the exclusive authority to grant “permission” to artists. The ministry will designate supervisor-inspectors to “impose the appropriate measures.”
The authorities will not only have the power to fine independent artists, but also to “immediately” suspend public shows held without the consent of the Ministry of Culture or its entities. Supervisor-inspectors can also confiscate materials used for artistic activities and cancel self-employed people’s work permits when in violation of the decree.
What changes if nothing changes?
Until Decree 349 comes into effect contracting artists are regulated by the October 1997 Decree 226, titled “Personal violations of the regulations governing the provision of artistic services.”
Unlike its predecessor, “349 gives the category of a non-state place or public institution to the (private) addresses of independent artists’ spaces and in particular to cuentapropistas (self-employed entrepreneurs),” explains Diversent.
Once the decree comes into effect, cuentapropistas who contract artistic services without the Ministry of Culture’s authorization “cannot invoke their constitutional right to the inviolability of the home” because the buildings where an authorized economic activity is carried out will be considered to be a “non-state public institution.”
Diversent continues, “In other words, the state authorities can enter, search and confiscate as authorized by criminal procedure law.”
Many members of the Facebook group “Artistas cubanxs contra el Decreto 349” (Artists Against Decree 349) think it is no coincidence that the new regulations are appearing in the midst of a generational transition in the country’s power structures. For example, Michel Matos believes that the decree could be the new government’s response to the alternative 00 Havana Biennial held by independent artists in February 2018.
Matos says, “We believe that the authorities are filling the cracks in cultural spaces.” “The transition from Raúl Castro’s power, one of the commanders of the Sierra [Maestra], to Díaz-Canel could be interpreted as a weakening of power by critical sectors or dissidents. That’s why they have to close doors, even before they open.”
The criticism and protests against the new law have not gone unnoticed by several regional organizations. At the end of August, Amnesty International Americas Director Erika Guevara-Rosas said, “Instead of consolidating their control over artists perceived to overstep state-sanctioned criticism, the Cuban authorities should be making progressive changes to protect human rights.”
Nevertheless, a defender of the controversial law reduced the independent artists to “polyps of art and culture” and made no allowance for dialogue between the different parties. The campaign against 349 is a “scuffle in a cultural war, without many signs of artistic altruism or desire for spiritual enhancement,” argued Cuban writer Jorge Ángel Hernández in the digital magazine La Jiribilla.
Decree 349: Yin or Yang?
Unlike the 1997 Decree 226, the new law includes several cultural policy guidelines. Decree 349 also considers the broadcast of pornographic, violent, sexist, vulgar and obscene content to be in violation as well as the use of patriotic symbols, if it is against current legislation. It also penalizes discrimination based on “skin color, gender, sexual orientation, disability and any other injury to human dignity.”
According to several official media sources the new decree answers long-term demands by the artistic profession.
“The letter and spirit of Decree 349 responds to the insistent demands by Cuban intellectuals and artists, trying to give order to the always complex field of art commercialization,” writer Antonio Rodríguez Salvador states in Sancti Spíritus’ provincial newspaper Escambray.
On Sept. 3, Tremenda Nota contacted the National Union of Cuban Writers and Artists (UNEAC) by email. However, the country’s main professional association for artists did not respond and has not issued any statements.
Although visual artist Sandra Ceballos, founder of the independent gallery Espacio Aglutinador, circulated a letter by email asking her colleagues to denounce the decree, to date only the theater company El Ciervo Encantado has rejected this law with a satirical video shared on Facebook. All other demonstrations of support for the campaign against Decree 349 have come from independent Cuban artists, living both in Cuba and abroad.
The few voices publically defending Decree 349 argue that the activists are ignoring the part of the legislation related to cultural policy. Rapper Soandry del Río, in the name of the main group of artists against the law, told Tremenda Nota that they “agree that no xenophobic or racist expressions should be allowed, or anything else of the kind.”
Yanelys Núñez argues that, “They are anti-discrimination regulations but they are also part of a larger strategy. The authorities know that some intellectuals dislike the speakers that people put on the street with loud music or the sexist videos that they play in bars and cafes, for example. They take advantage of that and slip in the other [censorship of independent art].”
The decree has been criticized for including “imprecise,” “vague” or “excessively broad” restrictions. For example, Article 3.1 penalizes the broadcast of content in the media that “infringes the legal dispositions that regulate the normal cultural development of our society.”
Amnesty International argues that “prohibiting artistic expression based on concepts such as ‘obscene,’ ‘vulgar’ or ‘harmful to ethical and cultural values’ does not meet the tests of legitimate purpose, necessity and proportionality required under international human rights law.”
The organization also fears the arbitrary application of the decree to “further crackdown on dissent and critical voices.”
Rapper Soandry del Río believes “the decree is not about art or about people paying their taxes. No, it’s all about control, about a specific political problem.”
Two opinion pieces published in the La Jiribilla defend Decree 349, they argue that it does not “go against artists and their creative expressions,” it just puts limits on the unauthorized practice of a profession; it establishes guidelines for the commercialization of art. Several publications have insinuated that activists against Decree 349 are not real artists or that they are agents funded by imperialism.
In a similar vein, in August the director of the Center of Communication at the Ministry of Culture, Alexis Triana, called artists protesting against the controversial law “mercenaries” and “bandits.”
Despite the state’s cultural institutions’ reluctance to join the debate, Yanelys Leyva insists that the primary goal of the activist group against Decree 349 has been to establish dialogue with institutions about their urgent concerns and needs “in an open space for debate that has not been established.”
However, in Cuba artists criticizing the state’s policies have never been heard by the government. Since 1961, Fidel Castro speech known as “Words to Intellectuals” left those considered to be “counterrevolutionaries,” “hypercritical” or “dissidents” outside the debate.
It is clear that Decree 349 will maintain or reinforce the marginalized positions of those who are outside the political-cultural canon. The Ministry of Culture will decide who they consider to be artists and who are not, what they consider to be art and what is not. “But this process will have highly ideological implications because the Ministry of Culture belongs to the same power structure that governs Cuba,” explains producer Michel Matos.
Matos asks, “If I am a critical artist, if I’ve had a confrontation with the institutions, will the Ministry of Culture give me this approval? You don’t have to be a genius to know they won’t.”