The Coming Country

I

The relationship between aesthetics and politics in Cuba, commonly circumscribed to the post-59 period, corresponds to a local tradition that gave birth to the nation. In 1867 the island installed the most complete image of itself on the Champ de Mars in Paris. Since the organization of The Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations at the Crystal Palace in London in 1851, the exhibition had been the format used for the dissemination of science and progress as canons of a universal ideology. Although the representation of the Spanish monarchy for global events depended on the official initiative, the collections of the annexed territories were conceived by their provincial commissions. The one prepared by Cuba for the 1867 contest was put together by delegates from the boards of Agriculture, Industry and Commerce, Public Instruction, the Royal Economic Society and educational centers. To the contents described by the legislation for the overseas colonies ―”the most representative products of the local wealth that form the basis of its trade; mainly, tobacco, sugar, minerals and wood”[1], among them Jaime Partagás’ cigars and those from the Carvajal y Partagás factory, from Anselmo del Valle (gold medals), Juan Poey’s collection of fresh fruits (silver medal), Costa y Compañía’s fruits in candy, syrup and dry (bronze medal), sugar from Las Cañas sugar mill, owned by Juan Poey, and from El Ácana, owned by Juan Manuel Alfonso (gold medals), or sugar from El Carmen, owned by Justo G. Cantero, author of the book Los Ingenios, illustrated by Eduardo Laplante―, the Cuban selection added maps by the geographers Esteban Pichardo ― Mapa de la Isla de Cuba ― and José María de la Torre ―maps of the island and Havana in different scales―. Cuban exhibitors made up half of the participants from Spain in the latter class, while the pedagogical materials from the island, that included works such as Diccionario de voces cubanas and Geografía de la isla de Cuba, by Pichardo, Historia de la isla de Cuba, by Pedro I. Guiteras and Apuntes para la historia de las letras y la instrucción pública en la isla de Cuba, by Antonio Bachiller y Morales, were only preceded in number by the contributions from Barcelona and followed by those from Madrid. To the fossil collections of Manuel Fernández de Castro and Francisco Jimeno with the first impressions of ammonites that proved the existence of Cretaceous lands in Cuba were added seven complete collections of animals ―mammals, birds, reptiles and batrachians, crustaceans, arachnids, insects and land mollusks― by Juan Gunladch, a Cuban herbarium by Francisco Jimeno (honorable mention), two skulls of Carib Indians with artificially flattened foreheads according to a study by Felipe Poey and his collection of marine mollusks and Cuban fish. Poey’s first Natural History of the island was also included ―the two volumes of his Memorias sobre la Historia Natural de la Isla de Cuba ― and the Repertorio físico-natural de la isla de Cuba.

With the opening of the national pavilions located in Rue des nations, the Paris Exhibition established the configuration of collective identities within a global geopolitical taxonomy. The Cuban microcosm was set up on Rue d’Espagne, in front of the Swiss section, and inside the replica of the Palace of Monterrey ―the agricultural annex of the peninsula―. The fairs and their architecture contributed, as spaces for contemplation and self-exposure, to the invention of the individual subjectivity and the enthronement of collective sovereignty. The one in 1867 anticipated, with the cognitive representation of the country produced by the national elite, the national body that a year later the war would begin to gestate. In April, while Prince Napoleon was opening the still unfinished buildings of the exhibition, the Cuban and Puerto Rican delegates of the Junta de Información were finalizing in Madrid the elaboration of the special laws for the overseas possessions indicated by the Constitution of 1837. But the postponement of the social reform that was to end the state of exception in the Antillean territories with the exercise of autonomy and the imposition of a new tax policy, led to the declaration of independence in Lares, Puerto Rico, on September 23, 1868 and in Yara, Cuba, on October 10. With the separatist insurrection, the political exercise transcended the optical organization of the visible and the regulation of meaning to assume the systemic modeling of the nation.

What the 1959 process brought to the foundational aesthetic practice was the reversal of an exchange that started from the use of symbolic resources for intervention in the social issue. The revolutionary management of the vanguard as a tool for the ex nihilo transformation of society ― “If a revolutionary is not an artist, he is not a revolutionary […]. Revolutionary action is an artistic act,” Alfredo Guevara commented on Che and photography―, and of the place of the author by the political leader is being currently regained by the artist. This recovery, however, does not take place with the renovation of the procedures of art: the advantage of the contemporary creator in the social impact is due to his abandonment of the artistic to gestate original political operations of popular inspiration.

The approval on July 7, 2020 by the Political Bureau of the Cuban Communist Party of the “economic-social strategy in the post-Covid 19 recovery stage” seemed to announce an expansive implementation of economic self-management. A few months later, the development program based on the liberation of the productive forces was concentrated on the application of a costly measure of subsistence: the re-dollarization of the economy to obtain convertible currency from the population and from the communities of Cubans living abroad, the latter being the second source of income of foreign currency for the country until 2019[2]. The cautious recognition of the informal practices by the new strategy ―expansion of activities for self-employment and import and export by the non-state sector; measures deferred during the constitutional reform driven by the transformations of the economy and used now as emergency an exit in the face of shortages― as well as the reduction of the participation of nationals to small and medium enterprises, reserving only the mixed companies with guarantee of majority action for foreign investment, make explicit what the previous amendments hid. The strategy for the post-Covid 19 recovery, more than preserving a socialist regime de jure synonymous with the homeland and the nation, attempts to extend the quality of the irreversible to the control of the country by the bureaucratic elite. The postponed discussion on political changes has become unavoidable with the arrival of another structural crisis aggravated by external circumstances. The debate, still rejected by the State in an inclusive format, happens, as the first ordering of the Cuban universe, from the periphery. The class whose communitarian cultural project impelled the nation in the 19th century, although elitist, was marginal because of its impossibility to access political power. Today, the post-national redesign of the island is the result of popular creativity.

In the sixties, literature started to struggle with the men in power for the creation of Cuba as a total work; in the eighties, participationism was the first attempt to recover the avant-garde action seized by the instituted revolution. The restitution of the political use of aesthetics as a function of art was then manifested in the artist’s direct intervention in the links between production and consumption (Proyecto Castillo de la Real Fuerza, March-October 1989), in the integral reformulation of the system of culture as an autonomous network of open interactions (Proyecto Paideia, February-August 1989), and in the emancipation of citizen participation. The Artecalle graffiti, the meetings in the park of G and 23 organized by the group Re/unión led by Juan-Sí González, Jorge Crespo and Eliseo Valdés, incorporated the audience into a public sphere without mediation.

After a cycle of complaints and meetings with a State whose ideological apparatus threatened to displace the cultural institution in the decision making about art, the representatives of participationism were exiled from their field to the extra-artistic territory of political dissidence (Juan-Sí, Crespo and Valdés, for example, with the transit from “a moderate contentious attitude in the arts to a posture of frontal opposition from the law”[3] [Arte y Derecho ―Ar-De―] and Paideia with “Tercera Opción: una alternativa democrática por la independencia económica, la soberanía política, la justicia social y los derechos del hombre”). Alfredo Guevara’s sentence was changed to: “if an artist is not a revolutionary, he is not an artist”. However, 1988 should have meant a new period for Cuban politics, announced like all the previous ones, through dialogue. The loss of legislative power over culture, evident after the closing of Tomás Esson’s personal exhibition A tarro partido II (January 1988) due to accusations by the Provincial Party Leadership, led to the meeting of the First Secretary of the CCP and the Councils of State and Ministers with the young intelligentsia during the First National Council of the Hermanos Saíz Association (HSA) in March of that same year. The second of Fidel Castro’s meetings with the intellectuals ―the creators of the future presented as the true critics of his generation in the 1961 discourse―, culminated in a pact reached behind closed doors that added, to the already granted formal freedom, the freedom of content ―“Today we have to go further, today we have to go not only to the form, but to the content”[4]―. The words from 1988 proposed an amendment of the aesthetic manifesto of the revolution with the reconfiguration of the possible: “I believe that we have to be brave and even march on new paths. Someone said that we can be wrong, we can say: ‘Yes, we can be wrong about some things, but here there have to be space for everything.’ […] And I could say: it is preferable the mistakes of having a lot of freedom, to the inconveniences of not having any freedom”[5]. The speech, which following the revolutionary tradition of transforming the oratory of the leader-creator into a de facto code, should have started the stage of transparency with a new cultural policy, remained unpublished until after his death. The year after the publication of the complete text as a posthumous wish by its author to be considered as his political testament for the arts[6], the approval of Decree 349 ―the first to be signed by Miguel Díaz-Canel as President of the State and Ministers Council― annulled the legacy of sovereignty by limiting the freedom of expression. To the pretext of moral and political discipline as a façade for ideological inspection, the “contraventions for the provision of artistic services” added the criminalization of the art studio as an alternative art institution through the criminalization of the author.

His artistic disqualification under the accusation of being a counter-revolutionary ―which would be fair to translate as his opposition to the exclusive use by the State of the aesthetic tools to shape the future, and his massification as a means of exercising democratic participation― was complemented by the annulment of the creative exceptionality implicit in the new definition of his legal figure as a professional worker. The economic background of the artistic activity was used to reinvest the state institution with a symbolic authority already displaced towards the independent circuit of Cuban culture. The recentralization gave a judicially resurrected Ministry of Culture the function of monitoring the increasingly blurred boundaries between the exercise of art and political management.

II

If the creator of the eighties was expelled by state decision from the artistic field, the contemporary placed himself spontaneously outside it. The work of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has transcended the debate on aesthetic dogmatism ―the regulations that impose what should or should not be considered art―, to start a public discussion on political authoritarianism. In his first interventions, Resistencia y reciclaje (2011), his povera sculptures supplanted the urban installations of legitimate art ―Louise Bourgeois’ spider outside the Museum of Fine Arts, JEFF’s elephants in front of Havana’s Capitol― to authenticate popular creativity by context. The same operation, consequence of his development as a sculptor, was replicated in his comments on the country’s economic strategies. The location of the actions in the series Con todos y para el bien de unos cuantos (2017) in the space that triggered the demand and with the audience of the affected subjects, enabled the aesthetic interpellations as social demands. The official press was compelled, although silencing the cause, to answer the question of the inaugural gesture of the series. In “¿Dónde está Mella?” (Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski, April 22, 2017) it was the artist’s body, dressed as a living sculpture, that resurrected the missing bust of the communist leader, a post-59 substitute for Andrés Gómez Mena’s effigy. The void left by the image of Julio Antonio Mella on the boulevard of the old Manzana de Gómez after it became the first five-star plus hotel on the island ―like the iconic exchange of its previous owner with the transfer of the building to the state administration― stated the political background of the new exchange: that of the ideological symbols of the socialist revolution for the financial signs of state capitalism.

The transformation of the CUC stores into Versace, Armani or Yves Saint Laurent collection boutiques introduced the debate on the reproduction of inequalities as a consequence of the economic decisions taken by the country’s leadership in the name of social programs for the benefit of the majority. Equity had served as an argument for the ban on the use of tourist services by locals implemented de facto in the 1990s with the re-accommodation of the industry for the Western visitor, and only recognized with the announcement of its repeal in the first speech of Raúl Castro as president of the Councils of State and Ministers on February 24, 2008. The action “Gran rifa del año” (2017) activated a collective strategy to manage the accessibility that is today proscribed by the scarce liquidity of the average Cuban family. With the hashtag #unidospodemosmás Alcántara and his collaborator, the artist Néstor Siré, began the promotion on social networks of a raffle that had as a prize the accommodation for one night in the new installation. The sale of 250 tickets at the price of 2 CUC covered the stay of the winner in a hotel designed for luxury tourism, mostly American.

The criticism of the lack of transparency of the guidelines for the economy continued with “Lo que a Michelangelo Pistoletto no se le ocurrió” (August, 2017), the third action in the series that re-enunciated, based on daily experience, the precept of the Martian Republic and the socialist state endorsed by the Constitution: “With everyone and for the good of everyone”. Although its place of occurrence continued to be the Hotel Manzana, its resonance was amplified with the reflection of the art. The recreation of the performance in which the Italian artist impacted the mirrors of his installation Twenty-two Less Two at the 53rd Venice Biennale (2009), took place in front of the building that hosted his first exhibition on the island a few months earlier (November 25, 2016-March 13, 2017). The silkscreen prints on stainless steel mirror (Mirror Paintings) exhibited in the rooms of the National Museum of Fine Arts, although they reproduced portraits of the daily life taken by Pistoletto during his participation in the 12th Havana Biennial (2015), seemed to repeat the images reflected in the windows of the neighboring Hotel Manzana. The re-edition of the povera artist’s gesture by the poor artist who threatened to destroy the unitary projection of the citizenry, the glassy facade of inequality, did not intend to sabotage state property but to offer fragmentation as a possibility for a truly open and plural social perspective ―”All mirrors are connected”, says Pistoletto, “―whether they are shattered or intact― […] I see society as a kind of broken mirror.[7]

The intrusion of Alcantara’s aesthetic demands ―an artist without academic studies but with a creative self-education―, was translated into civic transgression ―subject that added to the marginal condition of the citizen within the configuration of Cuban civil society, the indicators of race and urban geography: “a black man from El Cerro”, as the author describes himself from social conventions―. The Museo de la disidencia en Cuba (2016), a work created with the curator Yanelys Núñez, predicted its artistic significance and the place where he would soon be placed by the State Security[8]. However, by designifying the term dissidence as a word banned by the dictionary of the revolutionary language, the virtual and interactive platform that is the Museo de la disidencia en Cuba decriminalized the action of separating from the common doctrine by the exercise of opinion. The Museo did not discuss with a specific institution but the institutionalism as a whole. The fact that the first sanctions were imposed by the magazine Revolución y Cultura when Núñez was fired from her job represented the symbolic evidence of the transition towards the systemic questioning: the revolution and its culture.

The movement from the field of art to the common territory of citizen participation would take place in 2017 with the pilgrimage to the National Sanctuary of Saint Lazarus located in the town of El Rincón, more than twenty kilometers from Havana. The cult of the miraculous saint ―a mixture of the man from Bethany resurrected by Jesus, the leprous beggar followed by dogs in the Gospel of Saint Luke, and the orisha Babalú Ayé― was not new to Cuban art or to the artist’s work. In 2001, the Enema collective ―organized by the artist Lázaro Saavedra― had produced the performance Suelo raso in which the participants, lying in a row, covered the distance from the municipality of Santiago de las Vegas to El Rincón. The continuous relay of the human chain, which was joined by some devotees, divided the group in their perception of the work as an artistic gesture or a ritual act. The symbolic space of the popular religiosity is the place of origin of the pilgrimages of Alcántara. In 2012, during two months of daily pilgrimages, he exposed the population of Havana to the worship of a black sculpture of Babalú Ayé (currently preserved in El Cerro by donation of the artist to a family of practitioners of the Rule of Ocha-Ifá). The offerings were used to improve the living conditions of the dogs confined in the Zoonosis Public Health Center, where they are sacrificed if they are not adopted within three days. The questioning to the public health of Los perros también van al cielo (2012), taken today to the plane of the legal vindication with the demand by the associations of independent animalists of a Law of Animal Welfare, transcended to the national healing in the pilgrimage of 2017.

With a chain and a stone tied to his foot, like the shackles on the ankles of the Africans or the political prisoners in colonial Cuba (José Martí, in a gesture that today we would qualify as artistic, had a ring with the word CUBA cast with the iron of the shackles he wore in prison), Alcántara began a pilgrimage dragging himself from Old Havana to El Rincón. Although the action emulated the popular creativity of the religious promise, its similarity was fractured with the offering of individual sacrifice for the management of a collective redemption. The transcendence of the properly artistic and the purely mystical was produced in the prayer:

Oh! Saint Lazarus
You who are stronger than all presidents
and the forces of this world
I ask you to help me with your divine power,
in this situation that afflicts the Cuban people
and me as part of it,
in this moment of despair
that we men cannot solve.
I summon you and pray to you, miraculous saint,
that you eliminate all poverty for Cubans;
that neither death nor violence
be the path of transition;
I ask you for genuine democracy
where we would be protected by the law.
Saint Lazarus, make my supplication yours
I ask you to remove the blockage,
Prosperity
Freedom of speech and expression
Freedom for political prisoners
Free Internet access.
Cessation of discrimination on the basis of race, gender and creed;
no more repression!
Oh! Babalú
You who have always lived abandoned by everything,
sick and hungry, no one would help you,
and you always had a good heart
and you always put your trust in God
Intercede for us today.
Bring my generation back to faith[9].

Alcantara’s plea recalled Ar-De’s “Oración a San-Pinga bendita” in 1988: “My Lord! Make me a force for peace, not for disunity because of aesthetic, ideological or religious differences. Grant me sustained courage in difficult times, do not let me fall into hypocrisy and fear in the face of censorship, repression and marginalization to which others want to subject me for defending my rights and my freedom. Forgive them! Grant me Oh! divine deity, reason and lucidity to understand and respect the ideas of others. Help me to defend diversity and optionality as an authentic form of unity among men. Teach me not to be authoritarian and despotic, don’t allow me to become dogmatic. Grant me, Lord, strength and do not permit my truth and conscience to become corrupt. Lord, forgive those who allow themselves to be bought, those who do not understand that the cultural freedom of some cannot be achieve by the ideological oppression of others. Even though they know what they are doing, forgive them!”[10].

Distributed at the UNEAC during the dialogue to which the group was summoned after the closing of the G and 23 project ― “To foolish words, the silent, bleeding, holy… ear of Van Gogh”, Juan-Sí, Crespo and Valdés called the meeting that culminated with the confinement of the officials in the Sala Villena for more than two hours, a metaphor of the exclusive debate that continues to occur until today―, the 1988 prayer was also a call for democratic plurality. If Ar-De appealed to the rational principle of humanist ethics (“My Lord! Free me from adulation and falsehood, san-dick-fy my vertical firmness both in heaven and on earth, so that your kingdom may live in every man, in every Cuban, in every artist. A-men. Homeland is humanity!”)[11], Alcántara resorted to faith as a civic exercise for national communion. Cuban religiosity ―inter-confessional, utilitarian and separated from traditional religious institutions― was invoked as a space of sovereignty conquered by popular resistance: from the syncretism of African practices during four centuries of Spanish domination, to clandestine worship during the first three decades of socialist atheism. A place of creative independence where all approaches have a place. The plural San Lázaro ―object of the most extended devotion on the island after the one professed to the Virgin of Charity of Cobre-Oshún, patron saint of Cuba―, gathers every year in El Rincón Catholics, Yorubas, laypeople, agnostics, immigrants, residents, opponents and revolutionaries.

The artist’s arrest a few hours after starting his tour legitimized the event as a political action. The authority interrupted the pilgrimage with an arbitrary three days’ imprisonment during which Alcántara kept his burden and attire in the saint’s style. The official counter gesture revealed the perception of the event not as an artistic performance of punctual and ephemeral impact, nor as a miraculous request of indefinite occurrence. The aesthetic offering of the sacrifice as a means for the recapture of an individual and collective destiny was a public declaration of heroism. The thing that allowed in this work the overcoming of art, also guaranteed its symbolic originality. Like popular life practices, Alcántara’s strategies are artistically innovative and politically efficient because, unlike state solutions, they produce effective results for social transformation.

III

Due to its critical dynamism, the informal economy had become at the beginning of the 21st century a source for the updating of aesthetic procedures. The creators re-edited the underground networks in a dual-operational service art ―the state training devalued by the inverted pyramid was recycled into underground activities, such as the skills of a retired Interior Ministry agent in the distribution of films from an illegal bank (“Contraseña VHS”, Celia and Yunior, 2005-2006); or non-existent businesses were activated and prohibited ones were amplified by linking official and illegal spaces, such as the Computer Youth Clubs with Internet access to the black market of computers (“Extensión_JCCE”, Celia and Yunior, 2006-2007)[12]―. The partial normalization of informal practices in self-employment with the implementation of the Social and Economic Policy Guidelines of the Party in 2011 displaced the reservoir of popular creativity towards self-employment. The new headquarters of entrepreneurial talent and private initiative, inherent to the market economy, became the center of questioning of the unproductiveness of the centralized structure. The experience accumulated since then by the entrepreneurship has consolidated in self-sustainable partnerships the interactions of subsistence. The passage from precariousness to consolidation has occurred, not because of a legal recognition that still forces activities to participate in the illicit and the unregulated, but because of their continuous experimentation with self-management. The essayistic nature of these self-sustaining societies, in perpetual adaptation to the variations imposed by bureaucratic vigilance and official discouragement, has allowed the exercise of autonomy to expand beyond the economic field.

The artist, in his condition of model self-employed ―the first one in being recognized as an independent worker in 1988―, and of his creative production as a laboratory for the updating of the Cuban socioeconomic system, has promoted, from the gaps opened by the regulations for the individual commercialization of his work, a parallel cultural circuit around the art studio. With the legalization of the purchase and sale of real estate among nationals in 2011, the workshop stabilized its urban settlement and began to incorporate depressed or absent functions of state management. The systematic organization of curatorial and editorial projects (Estudio Figueroa-Vives; El Oficio), alternative art education (Instar; Transdisciplinariedad. Arte y Ciencias Sociales), theoretical discussion (the painting workshops at Alejandro Campins’ studio), specialized local and international promotion (El Apartamento), scholarship programs (Artista X Artista) have defined the institutional evolution of the studio[13].

It is this inventive logic of survival, derived in the executive process for self-development and guild and community empowerment, that art mimics for the political exercise of sovereignty. This explains why, although Alcantara’s operations arise as responses to everyday emergencies, they are not oriented to amending their effects. The restoration of personal objects, the remodeling of houses, the production of domestic furniture or of paintings or votive images that were carried out in 1990 by the members of the first Pragmática Pedagógica of René Francisco Rodríguez for La casa nacional, is replaced in the present by the eradication of the causes. If the transitory coexistence with the neighbors of the citadel of Obispo 455 subtracted the institutional mediations between the work, the creator and his audience, the permanent residence of Alcántara in Damas 955 ―the artist’s home studio, headquarters of the Museo de la disidencia en Cuba and of the San Isidro Movement (SIM) ―, has allowed him to replace the occasional aesthetic assistance with the creative self-management of personal guarantees. In the move towards citizen participation, Alcántara’s work abandons everything that should identify it as art in order to become a creative process of social transformation.

Just as the video works that opposed the direct documentation of reality to the monolithic representation of the State were reproved in the first decade of the century for their amateurish transparency, the exceptionality of Alcántara’s popular procedures is employed today as a way of disallowing their contents. The abandonment of the aesthetic grammar that requires specialized training or the presence of intermediaries for its decoding guarantees, however, the total delivery of the information. The common subject who from hand to hand and from computer to USB consumed the testimonies of prostitutes and pimps (Sucedió en La Habana, Chapter II, Henry Eric Hernández, 2004) or of local undocumented immigrants (Buscándote Havana, Alina Rodríguez, 2006) without knowing that it was art what he was consuming, is now witnessing the direct transmission on social networks of the symbolic exercise of sacrifice as if he were experiencing episodes of patriotism. When Yanelys Núñez, in the event that gave rise to the MSI, smeared her body with excrements in front of the Cuban parliament, it was not an artistic performance that the public in situ or virtually contemplated. Núñez’s radical gesture in the face of police reprimand as the only response received to the signatures collected and delivered along with open letters and requests for dialogue to the Ministry of Culture, trade associations, the Attorney General’s Office, the National Assembly and its Committee on Constitutional and Legal Affairs, and to the president of the state and the government against Decree 349, was perceived as a courageous gesture: “I have seen acts of courage in my life,” said one user, “but this one exceeded all my expectations […] A true act of rebellion, it is the most absolute challenge I could imagine. You have to be very brave for this”[14].

As if the immediacy of the video works of the first decade of the century was put into practice today in real time, the live transmissions of the acyions of the heroic aesthetic transform the common audience into citizens. The resynchronization of production and consumption in data files integrates the spectator to the event; a participation that is either in situ ―recorded by the camera at the place of the event― or virtual ―tracked by the algorithm of social networks― is always empirical, never immaterial. Alcántara’s actions cannot be copied or reproduced. Their digital existence only allows them to be re-acted: each operation, dated and recorded in the virtual file, of opening, sharing, liking, disliking, commenting, reading or watching represents a new performance. Also because the aesthetics of heroism sacrifices the author. The fictional conception of the artist as an exceptional creator of meanings only accessible by hermeneutic revelation is supplanted by that of the real person who exists in the offline Cuban reality and to whom the online data refer. More than the humanization of the hero/artist, it is the virtual de-subjectivation of identity, alien to social taxonomies and hierarchical divisions, that promotes interaction as co-authorship.

The place where participationism occurred in the 1980s was the institutionalized public space; the place of the aesthetics of heroism is the virtual public space. The training of the political imagination that Ar-De rehearsed in “Una tarde de sándwiches” (1988) with the march of the subjects sandwiched between banners along 23 Street ―”En el jardín de las revoluciones hay un potrico de madera cuyo nombre es oportunismo”―, is practiced today with the challenge #MiCartelParaElCambioEnCuba ―”Menos Comités, más ciudadanos”, “Derechos para el pueblo, no más represión”, “Libertad y vida”, “Abajo el continuismo, queremos cambio ya”―. The call for the joint configuration of public protest ―“El 10 de octubre […] todos subamos nuestro cartel”[15]― takes place in a dimension emancipated from the fictional frameworks (material, technological and institutional) of the State.

The conquest of this context of transparency has also been a popular occupation. The process of de-institutionalization and de-massification of the Cuban society, started in the nineties as a consequence of the Special Period, took place inside the private residence. Housing, which added to its unregulated internal divisions the functions of public life ―from recreation relegated to the family sphere to the informal economic and information exchanges―, gave rise to an ungoverned territoriality. From this residential city derives the Cuban millennial; a subject that is defined less by its fragmented exposure to technology than by its independence from traditional political formalizations. The new generation exhibits an expansive diversity ruled by the arbitrariness of its autonomy and the creative self-design of its identity. The updating of the domestic community with the interactions of self-employment and the transmission of content by cell phone since December 2018, have stabilized the precept of “being who you want to be” as a self-invention of the social self.

Restrictions on wireless connection have circumscribed internet access to the expanding circuit of Cuban followers. The high prices of data packages and the download speed associated with the still widespread 3G network limit its use to voice and text messaging through Telegram and WhatsApp, and to updating Facebook, Twitter and Instagram profiles. Virtual communities expand the radius of daily exchange, inform the identities of their members and model a new country. In addition to this, there is also media transparency, a fact that more than implying the opening of the world to the domestic city, is distinguished by the self-exposure of its inhabitants to the global view. This extroversion had its origin with the wireless areas in July 2015. Its foundation in urban squares ―parks, boulevards, promenades, most frequented streets― forced the exhibition of a sociability that, in spite of the permanent alteration of the housing by the recognition of the self-employment in clubs, restaurants, cafeterias, stores, hotels, galleries or recording rooms, conserved the withdrawal of the submerged city. The hotspots imposed the construction of the personal image for the staging of the private communication: from the most dramatic confession to the erotic experience. The public performance of intimacy ―denoted by the striptease made by Alcántara through a video call at the connection point on L and 23 as an anniversary gift for his wife (Proyectos personales, Proyectos colectivos. Unidos por WIFI, 2015)―, and the residential treatment of urban areas ―revealed by the extensive street couches formed by the padding of the curbs and the elaboration by personal effort of WIFI houses like the internal divisions of popular housing (Proyectos personales, Proyectos colectivos)―, did not do more than confirm the overflow of the submerged city and its domestic sociability.

The transition from the voyeurism of filial interactions to the transparency of virtual public space took place in 2016. The process that Cuban photographer Leandro Feal has titled De la reforma a la contrarreforma (2016), began with the first fashion show in Latin America of the French house Chanel on the recently polished Paseo del Prado, the first visit of a U.S. president to the island since 1928, the concert in Cuba of the rock band The Rolling Stones, and the filming of the U.S. franchise The Fast and the Furious. The tour of Havana by Karl Lagerfeld, Tilda Swinton, Barack Obama, Vin Diesel and Mick Jagger turned Cuba into a global trending topic. The unprecedented visibility achieved by a subject that was beginning to emerge from the balconies of the underground city ―a self-organized observatory for the Crucero 2016-2017 collection― coincided with the end of the ordering of offline reality by the historical narrative of the revolution with the death of Fidel Castro.

The popular appropriation of the virtual public space has been undertaken since then as a self-management of the present. The reconfiguration of the country shown in Instagram’s profiles of the Cuban millennial is not that of the socialist realm of national television, the summer of tourist propaganda or the vintage ruins of the foreign press. Although the new generation is built on the landmarks of everyday life ―the Yara cinema, the Malecón, the polarized cover of the Meliá Cohiba Hotel, the store, the agro-market, the monotonous interior of the stores in CUC, the exterior of a CUPET, the Chinatown, the Capitol, the Trade Lodge, the Central Park― the city it shows is unrecognizable at first glance. Its transformation is not due to the manipulation of digital filters, but to the possession of a subject that is also far from the stereotypes established for how to be Cuban. The break of egalitarianism through fashion and of ideological massification through action define the new iconography. The emergent subject models Cuba from its own image; a perceptive organization of reality that has begun to be transcribed to the offline legal order.

The recapture of the urban space ―attempted by Alcántara and his collaborators with the self-management of the #00BienaldeLaHabana (May 5-15, 2018) in view of the cancellation of the official event due to the deviation of public financing towards other areas of the economy― transcended to the configuration of the country with the constitutional reform initiated in the summer of 2018. The mobilization of the debate, from the domestic city to the social networks and from the virtual agora to the public square, unleashed by the campaign that gave birth to the SIM, was replicated by the demands of civil associations and independent media against Decree 370, which restricted the freedom of expression of internet users under the axiom of “social, moral and good customs” discipline; the defense of the egalitarian marriage by the LGTBIQ groups; the demand for the penalization of gender violence; the petition of the animalists asking for the creation of a law of animal protection, or of the nationals of inside and outside the country for the implementation of direct vote.

With the stabilization of the inter-dimensionality of the Cuban society from the connectivity by mobile telephony in December 2018, the aesthetics of heroism has become a constituent art. By the end of 2019, 7.1 million residents on the island had access to the Internet through various means, 3.4 million of them were mobile data clients. As a continuation of the debates opened up by the reform ―a “formal institute” process, “top-down” rather than “material constituent”, that postponed or ignored the issues of conflict― public demonstrations against animal abuse were organized in April and November 2019, for the rights of the LGTBIQ collectives in May of the same year and a formal petition was presented to the National Assembly, the Council of State, the Supreme Court, the Attorney General’s Office, and the President of the Republic to declare Decree 370 unconstitutional (June 2020). The discussion of the resolutions approved for the implementation of the articles of the Magna Carta, which restrict, if they do not deny, the text approved in February 2019, have intensified a civil dialogue unprecedented in the decades of socialist institutionality. The new fluidity of Cuban reality, which has guided the official attempt to translate the state’s regulatory framework into the virtual public space ―the Decree-Law “On the Computerization of Society”―, and its repressive methods ―the acts of repudiation transferred to social networks with the bombardment of comments that aim to discredit its targets―, is witnessing the actions of heroic aesthetics. The online campaign that allowed the release of Alcántara after he was arrested on the charge of violating the Law of National Symbols with the action Drapou o 24h del mes de agosto la bandera como mi segunda piel (2019), that criticizes the regulation on the use of the national emblems by permanently wearing the flag for a month, represented a first moment of articulation, still from inside the guild, of the citizenship.

The confinement in prison or at home to which the acts of conquest of urban space are usually submitted are impossible to execute today with impunity, and unlikely to be consummated. Although police counter-actions continue to isolate subjects in the domestic city, such as the siege of the participants of the SIM’s poetic whispering for the release of rapper Denis Solís that lies at the origin of the hunger and thirst strike on November 18, 2020, they fail to break the link with the virtual public space. Despite the attempts to deactivate the strikers’ telephone lines or the general “blackout” of data services at the time of their eviction from Damas 955, the imprisonment generated the rehearsals for a new society. The coexistence of subjects from diverse professions ―artists, musicians, entrepreneurs, scientists, teachers, writers, students―, different beliefs or filiations ―Christians, Muslims, non-believers―, friends or strangers among themselves, and the online integration of associations and internet users ―journalists, digital publications, critics, creators, intellectuals, lawyers, jurists― through the live transmissions of the strikers, initiated an exercise of social communion unknown until then. The public protest held the day after the strike was interrupted on November 27 by more than three hundred people gathered in front of the Ministry of Culture to demand respect for constitutional rights not only exhibited on a large scale the individual exercise of sovereignty. With the rejection of the conditions proposed by the demonstrators to continue the dialogue initiated on 27N, the representatives of the State displaced the articulation of the civil debate that crosses the domestic and virtual spheres towards the popular initiative.

The figure of the leader-artist has disappeared in the co-authorship and the alliance for the common good. If in the Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba the name of Alcántara was preserved together with that of Núñez, with the SIM it merges into the collective: #SanIsidroSomosTodos. The actions of the heroic aesthetics have enabled the self-recognition of subjects as social actors and the verification of the scope of their association. This uninterrupted exercise, because it has not ceased with new formulations since 27N ―collaboration between magazines and independent media, organization of exchanges and online conferences, retelling of the events by the participants as a response to their discredit in the official media, individual and group demonstrations within the island, joint actions such as the Guaguancuir. Si no puedo bailar pake tu Revolución organized by artists, curators and researchers residing outside Cuba, or the Silbido Nacional convened by the SIM every day at nine o’clock at night―, projects on the constituent design of its citizenship an unprecedented form of political community: diverse, inclusive, which self-manages its unity with creative formats of social concession and its territoriality with an affective geography. The country that is coming is already here.


[1] Lasheras Peña, Ana Belén (2009): España en París. La imagen nacional en las exposiciones universales, 1855-1900, Universidad de Cantabria, Santander, p. 333.

[2] Ver: Mesa Lago, Carmelo (2020): “¿Es este el mejor momento para la unificación?”. En La Joven Cuba, web, 22 de diciembre: <https://jovencuba.com/momento-unificacion/>

[3] Madrigal, Roberto (2017): Juan-Sí González y el Grupo Ar-De (arte y derecho). Ediciones Incubadora, p. 22.

[4] Castro, Fidel (2017): «Intervención inédita de Fidel en 1988 durante el primer Consejo Nacional de la AHS». En Cubadebate, 27 de enero: <http:// www.cubadebate.cu/noticias/2017/01/27/intervencion-inedita-de-fidel-en- 1988-durante-el-primer-consejo-nacional-de-la-ahs/#.WnORKmaZNE4>.

[5] Ditto.

[6] The Cubadebate site introduces the document: “On November 7, 2016, a few days after his physical departure, the Commander in Chief, Fidel Castro Ruz, authorized the publication ―until this moment it had remained unpublished― of his historic speech delivered on March 12, 1988, at the first National Council of the Hermanos Saíz Association (AHS), held at the Convention Palace, and he did it as a gift to the members of this organization for its 30th anniversary, as well as a way of offering this knowledge Cuban people in the midst of the challenges we face today”. Ditto.

[7] “All mirrors are connected –smashed or intact– […]. I see society as a kind of broken mirror”. Jonathan Jones (2014): “Michelangelo Pistoletto: the artist with a smashing way to save the world”. En The Guardian, web, Wednesday, 28 May: <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/may/28/pistoletto-arte-povera-mirror-smasher-eco-houses-interview>.

[8] In a work in progress of political anticipation, the Causa N. 1 de 2019 (2019) and A Thousand Ways to Die Accidentally (2020) again overtake the counterintelligence services with the creation of common charges for the judicial treatment of political dissidence.

[9] Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, artist’s Facebook profile, December 14, 2017

[10] Madrigal, Roberto (2017): Juan-Sí González and Grupo Ar-De (art and law). Ediciones Incubadora, p. 83.

[11] Ditto.

[12] With the authorization of the population to tourist facilities and services, Raúl Castro’s 2008 speech announced the state sale of computers and home video players.

[13] As part of the residence granted to Alcántara in 2016 by this platform ―initiated in 2015 by Carlos Garaicoa’s studio―the Museo de la disidencia en Cuba had its inaugural presentation.

[14] Comment by Rogelio González, Monday, December 7, 2020 12:09 PM to Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara’s post of December 7, 2020 at 10:24 AM: “Thus began the triumphant campaign against 349 in 2018. We are connected”. Artist’s Facebook profile.

[15] Artist’s Facebook profile, September 22, 2020, Havana, Cuba, #MyCartelParaElCambioEnCuba.

MAILYN MACHADO
MAILYN MACHADO
Mailyn Machado. Art critic and curator. She has prepared exhibitions for the National Museum of Fine Arts in Cuba, the Havana Biennial, the Spanish Cultural Centers in America and the Jewish Museum in New York. She has published the books Fuera de revoluciones. Dos décadas de arte en Cuba (Almenara, 2016) and the Open Studio trilogy (Almenara, 2018). Her most recent exhibition is El Circuito del Arte Cubano, El Apartamento, 2019.

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