Cuba: The Protest That Art Anticipated

The protests of July 11 in Cuba were not called by artists, nor led by intellectuals, nor conceived in a laboratory of aesthetic trends. They were popular demonstrations provoked by an extreme situation that combined political immobility, economic inefficiency, a pandemic, growing inequality, lack of freedoms and the U.S. embargo.

That uprising, unprecedented in the history of socialism, also had a cultural magnitude that is worth taking into account. It is not a matter of overestimating it, but to underestimate it would be not only a mistake, but also an injustice. Because although the artists did not lead the protests, several of them did join them. They did not set them in motion, but they did support them as ordinary citizens. They did not lead them, but many of them ended up in jail for joining that day. If we add to this the fact that there has been no lack of intellectuals aligned with the government, presenting these events as another maneuver of imperialism, it is evident that this revolt already has its own chapter in the cultural war of contemporary Cuba.

Art was not in charge of launching the demonstrations, but it did anticipate them. It is enough to take a look at the last year in which events that went beyond the artistic circles had already taken place and had had a direct impact on society. Among the best known, those activated by the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism (INSTAR), the San Isidro Movement (SIM) or the N27, whose origins are in the collective protest in front of the Ministry of Culture at the end of November of 2020. These and others less publicized events can be read as preambles and, at the same time, testimonies that the world of culture was putting its finger on the sore spot of urgent problems. On the other hand, a network of independent or institutional publications on the island and in the diaspora had already been responsible for announcing the apogee of a new generation connected to the world and to the strategies for channeling their disagreement with it. Cubans born after the Soviet debacle who choke on the slogans in favor of eternal socialism mixed with the implementation of a State capitalism, very palpable and very deadly, that contradicts what the government preaches. It is the same generation that looks with astonishment every day on Instagram at the pact between the new money and the old nomenclature that has given rise to the iconographic recomposition of our tropical oligarchy.

Then and now, the government has been unable to live up to its great paradox: that of a communist state that is forced to administer a society that is already post-communist. Then and now, it has chosen to hide behind a parallel reality and continue to offer the same answers to unprecedented situations. Hence its interpretation, after suppressing the protests, consisted in dividing its participants into three immovable categories: that of the “confused revolutionaries”, that of the “mercenaries,” and that of the “criminals.”

This being the case, it did not take long for the cultural clash to escalate between those who remain anchored in the Cold War and those who are trying to leave it behind. Between those who want to move towards the future with the rhetoric of the past and those who have decided to synchronize their words with that future which is already present. Between the adepts of the ideological Western between a persistent Stalinism and a resurgent McCarthyism and those who conceive what happened as a national chapter of the recent global manifestations, launched against all models (also neo-liberalism, Chinese capitalism, the degradation of Sandinism), in whose wake the Cuban protest could find its place. Between those who reduce the issue to an exclusive battle between Freedom or Communism, Blockade or Sovereignty, and those who consider that there are a series of historical and current factors that do not admit such simple binarisms.

An example. Two days after the protests, while hundreds of people were still in jail on the island, a Cuban-American mayor of Coral Gables had no better idea than to censure Sandra Ramos, a Cuban artist living in Miami, on suspicion of sympathy with communism. The decision also affected the well-known Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang, who resides in New York. “My aesthetic taste ends where communism appears,” said Vince Lago, and one wonders what he would do with Picasso.

For a while already, the Cuban issue has not been about politics —nor about that cliché of the art of the possible— but about political capital and its immediate and cynical yield, which needs to revolve around the unsolvable because it is precisely in the lack of solutions where its profit lies.

It is not by chance, then, that once again the recurrent ghost of Creole anti-intellectualism appears, always ready to conclude that where the people are, the intellectuals must go; what’s the use of words, if we already have the facts; what’s the use of thinking, if action is enough for us. It is time to liquidate elitist nuances from the ideological debate and, for that, nothing better than the proliferation of Fake News —Camagüey falling on July 11 and establishing an independent anti-communist government, the Castro family taking refuge in South Africa— as well as the vindication of “Meme creators,” Influencers and Youtubers with their different flavors of populism, some of whom also ended up in jail (the government still has control of the analog mode).

In the days following that protest that went around the world and has become a watershed in the contemporary history of Cuba, I perceived in Havana a certain state of shock and gloom. As if people had internalized that neither the Cuban government is going to open up, nor the U.S. embargo is going to be lifted, nor the world left is going to understand us. “We have to solve this on our own.”

So it has its logic, channeled through reggaeton, that nationalism is being revived with the corresponding overdose of the word “homeland” being thrown around left and right.

Five years earlier, during the euphoric days of the Obama era, a friend woke me up one night on the phone. He was calling me from La Fábrica de Arte Cubano, where he had run into Juan Carlos Monedero, founder of Podemos in Spain, and whom he had tried to convince that, if he wanted to meet the future Cuban left, he should look for it in the street and not in official circles. That young man is today one of the most solid artists of the new Cuban art. His name is Hamlet Lavastida and he has just exhibited his impressive work, Prophylactic Culture, at the KFW in Berlin.

No sooner had he returned from that trip than this archeologist of anticipation was imprisoned on charges of “incitement to rebellion.” During the recent Feria de Arco in Madrid there were several demonstrations in favor of his release, so the last two editions of this event have been marked by Cuban art. (Let’s remember that the previous one had been dedicated to Felix Gonzalez-Torres).

As prescribed in his work, Hamlet Lavastida anticipated his own punishment (and that of others). But in his series not all the clues refer to censorship.

In his fretwork and murals, through subtle cracks, our unpostponable freedoms can be sensed.

Also his own.

* This text was originally published in Babelia, El País

Iván de la Nuez. Essayist and curator. Among his books are La Balsa Perpetua [The Perpetual Raft], El Mapa de Sal [The Map of Salt], Fantasía Roja [Red Fantasy], El Comunista Manifiesto [The Comunist Manifesto], Teoría de la Retaguardia [Theory of the Rear Guard] and Cubantropía [Cubantrophy]. Among his exhibitions, La Isla Posible, Parque Humano, Postcapital, Atopía, Iconocracia, Nunca Real/Siempre verdadero y La Utopía Paralela [The Possible Island, Human Park, Postcapital, Atopia, Iconocracy, Never Real / Always True and The Parallel Utopia].


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