The Paradox of Authorized Independence

The ways in which culture is financed and produced in the 21st century are changing rapidly. In Latin America and the Caribbean, states are weakening as institutional matrices of cultural activity, even in countries such as Brazil and Mexico, which stood out in the continent by their longstanding public policies in the 20th century. Wendy Brown, a philosopher at the University of Berkeley, associates the crisis of the cultural states with the advance of neoliberalism. Other thinkers, such as the Norwegian sociologist Per Mangset, think that the wear and tear of cultural policies is related to a bureaucratic atrophy that prevents institutions from channeling the dynamism of the artistic and intellectual field in the 21st century.

Cuba, perhaps the Latin American and Caribbean country whose state has exercised its power in the most absolute way over culture in the last six decades, has not been able to avoid this crisis. Both because of the rise of the neoliberal logic and because of bureaucratic dysfunctionality and intolerance, Cuban cultural policy has been overtaken, aesthetically and ideologically, by the artistic and intellectual production. This phenomenon is not alien to the social changes taking place on the island since the end of the last century. The artistic and intellectual field continues to be mainly administered by the state, but the construction of meaning that this field promotes in the public sphere often transgresses the limits fixed by that power.

The 2019 Constitution can be interpreted as an attempt by the state to adapt to social change. An attempt that, as so many constitutionalists inside and outside the island have observed, did not manage to legally channel that change and, at the same time, put many obstacles in its way to shore up the state’s monopoly. Instead of fully assuming the growth and pluralization of the civil society, as a consequence of the dismantling of part of the state sector, the diversity of forms of property and the advance of the market, tourism and new technologies, power sought to obstruct citizens’ access to the rights of association and expression.

In the area of culture, some decrees such as Decree 349, which attempts to regulate the boundaries of the artistic community, and Decree 373, which seeks to delimit those boundaries, specifically in the “independent audiovisual and cinematographic” sector, are part of the same project of legal containment of social change in Cuba. Rather than moving to a clearly authoritarian modality in which the state replaces absolute control with a variant of limited hegemony, the government is trying to monitor and redirect the expansion of the community of independent artists in Cuba.

The wording of Decree 373 makes this clear. After reaffirming Article 39 of the Constitution, which grants the state the function not only of “fostering” or “promoting” culture, but also of “orienting” it, and after referring that orientation to a state ideology, which in a symptomatic evocation of the founding law of the ICAIC (Cuban Institute of Cinematographic Art and Industry), of March 20, 1959, is defined as the “new humanism that inspires our Revolution”, the decree admits the “increase of a variety of formats and modalities that have favored the appearance of new creative, technological and productive perspectives” in the audiovisual and cinematographic sphere. The decree is, therefore, the official response to the dilemma of the growth of independent cinema in Cuba.

It is remarkable that Miguel Díaz-Canel’s government, faithful to a casuistry tradition that has not been well studied yet, applies to the cinematographic and audiovisual production a definition of the state ideology that, historically, precedes the declaration of the “socialist” character, in the Marxist-Leninist sense of the term, of the Cuban Revolution, in April 1961. While the Constitution, in its Article 5, establishes that the official ideology is “Martian, Fidelist, Marxist and Leninist,” Decree 373 says that it is “humanist,” in the fundamentally liberal and republican sense that was attributed to humanism in the Cuba of 1959. This shift has its origin in criteria of flexibility but also in the discretionality of power.

After admitting the existence of a new subject in the margins of the State, the independent audiovisual and cinematographic creator, the decree proposes the creation of a Registry or Directory of all the artists of that condition. An Admission Committee, headed by the presidents of the ICAIC and the ICRT (Cuban Institute of Radio and Television), the two institutions of the Ministry of Culture in respect to which the independence of the cinematographic or audiovisual creator is asserted, will be in charge of creating this Registry. Without registering as an independent artist in this State Directory, the practice of cinematographic or audiovisual artistic independence in Cuba would not be legal or legitimate.

It has been said that on the island, unlike most of the international community, the independence of the artist is exercised against the state and not against the large corporations of commercial cultural production. The formulation is true, although with nuances, since autonomy from the state is also a demand of cultural projects in a region like Latin America and the Caribbean, where public institutions have traditionally been the protagonists in cultural production and distribution. What defines Cuba’s exceptional legal status, which the 2019 Constitution passively inherited from the 1976 Constitution, is both the absence of private production, whether large or medium, and the non-existence of the concept of legal autonomy within the public sector.

If legal autonomy existed, as in most democracies on the planet, independent artists would only have to register their production company with the country’s tax and banking administration. Under democratic conditions, the registration of independent artists in a directory of government agencies, as a condition for them to be able to work, would be seen as a mechanism of control and subordination, which distorts the raison d’être of autonomous art.

This paradox of authorized independence can only be found in systems that do not recognize cultural autonomy. However, the legal process of the autonomy of the “cultural state”, as Marc Fumaroli has studied, is not exclusive to democracies, nor does it lack certain limits under a democratic political regime. In Latin America and the Caribbean, during the 20th century, there were multiple cases of the validity of the principle of cultural and educational autonomy, and even true cultural states, such as Mexico’s, under authoritarian political systems. This last observation is valid to conclude that a democratic transition is not indispensable to achieve cultural autonomy and that the demands of Cuban independent creators are achievable under the current constitutional order.

Decree 373 is not utterly devoid of advantages for filmmakers and independent artists, since it makes official the possibilities for the articulation of cooperatives or collectives of industrial production. But the route to autonomy inevitably involves the repeal of this decree and the enactment of a true film law, such as the one demanded by Cuban artists themselves for years. Like the constitutional text, the new official legislation on cinema and audiovisual production is an attempt by the state to confiscate the voice of its citizens.

Rafael Rojas (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1965). He is a historian and essayist. He has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Havana and a PhD in History from El Colegio de México. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Letras Libres and the newspaper El País, and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Istor of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE). He has published the books: Un banquete canónico (2000), Revolución, disidencias y exilio intelectual cubano (2006), La vanguardia peregrina. El escritor cubano, la tradición y el exilio (2013), among others. Since July 2019, he occupies chair 11 of the Mexican Academy of History.


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