Cuba moves forward with Havana Biennale, but don’t expect government to allow artists who participated in recent protests


It is not uncommon for major artistic events to take place in places that have experienced all kinds of upheaval. Prospect New Orleans emerged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; Documenta is reborn from the ashes of Nazi Germany. And it is not uncommon for proponents of such events to argue that they are revitalizing economies in troubled areas.

The Havana Biennale has always faced challenges from restrictions imposed by the United States, but its last postponement, in 2017, was due to damage from Hurricane Irma. This year he might have expected another delay, as many major biennials have been rescheduled due to the pandemic, but the Cuban Ministry of Culture plans to move forward with the 14e editing. In light of the political conflicts that have been at the heart of Cuban news this year, it would be difficult not to see the next biennial as a kind of smokescreen.

The Havana Biennale will begin with a conference in mid-November, followed by exhibitions inaugurated on December 6 and March 25, 2022. The recent government decision to reopen the country to tourism (for vaccinated visitors only) on November 15 seems perfectly timed to allow such an international event.

While this may seem like a courageous move on Cuba’s part, the ongoing crises in the country are unlikely to be ironed out with a quick fix. Last July, the biggest street protests over the decades rocked the island and led to a massive wave of arrests. A recent report from the non-profit organization Prisoner Defenders alleges that more than 5,000 people have been arrested and that hundreds are still in prison.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara in September 2019. Courtesy of the artist’s Instagram.

Among those still detained are performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and rapper Maykel Osorbo. Both are members of the San Isidro Movement, the collective of poets, artists and musicians that has become a thorn in the side of the Cuban government over the past three years due to its advocacy for freedoms of expression. Otero Alcántara and Osorbo were featured in the hit music video for “Patria y Vida which has become the anthem of opponents of the government. Anyelo Troya, the Havana-based videographer who secretly recorded their segments for the video, was later arrested during the protests and received a 10-month sentence in summary judgment.

Visual artist Hamlet Lavastida was taken into custody two weeks before the start of the protests, when he returned to Cuba after a year abroad. He is accused of instigating other people to commit crimes based on an idea shared in a private chat that was never realized. Although he is already in custody with the start of the July protests, his interrogators have insinuated that Lavastida is somehow responsible for the unrest. In addition to those detentions, dozens of other artists, conservatives, activists and independent journalists who protested the escalating crackdown on civil liberties have been under house arrest for months.

Tania Bruguera speaks with other artists gathered outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana on November 27, 2020. Photo by Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images.

Tania Bruguera speaks with other artists gathered outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana on November 27, 2020. Photo by Yamil Lage / AFP via Getty Images.

Among them is artist Tania Bruguera, who recently left Cuba after enduring months of forced confinement, threats and periodic hostile interrogations. Despite the denunciations of the state repressions of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the European Parliament, the Cuban government shows no signs of slackening; on the contrary, the new law known as Decree 35 will criminalize social media posts and other digital publications that criticize the government.

The political climate of the island itself is plenty of reason to give thought to potential visitors, but Cuba’s problems do not end there. While the rate of COVID-19 infections on the island was relatively low for the first year of the pandemic, the government’s decision last spring to allow Russian tourists to enter the resort town of Varadero has resulted in a Delta variant epidemic which has since spread throughout the island, make Cuba, the Latin American country with the highest number of cases per capita.

Jjust two months ago, the Cuban government celebrating the success rate of its own Vaccines against covid-19, but vaccination was slow. This week, Cuban authorities announced that Chinese vaccines are being imported to speed up the process, which will hopefully allow more tourists to return.

Conflicts between the government and more independent Cuban artists made international headlines last November, when hundreds of cultural workers staged a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Culture to demand an end to police violence against members of the San Isidro movement and to insist on the need for a dialogue with the authorities on the restrictions to creative expression. From this confrontation emerged the 27N group which continued to work on artistic and activist projects focused on civil rights. Internationally renowned Cuban artists such as Hamlet Lavastida, Bruguera, Reynier Leyva Novo, Leandro Feal and Julio Llópiz-Casal are all active members.

July protests in Havana. Photo by YAMIL LAGE / AFP via Getty Images.

After that, officials quickly reneged on their initial pledge of dialogue, denouncing the protesters as provocateurs and mercenaries in the pay of the US government. While Cuban artists have organized independent exhibitions in previous biennials to showcase works that would not be shown in public places, it is highly unlikely that those involved in the recent protests will be allowed to stage anything. whether given the current political climate.

Several prominent cultural figures in Cuba have publicly opposed the state’s treatment of protesters, but some well-known Cuban artists have remained silent throughout the recent unrest. Given Cuba’s long history of making political loyalty a prerequisite for career advancement, it is reasonable to expect that those who have avoided publicly criticizing the government or participating in protests will be among the participants in 14e Havana Biennial. KCHO, Wilfredo Prieto and Humberto Díaz have already appeared on the Biennale’s Facebook page in photos and videos that suggest they are involved in the planning and promotion. Others who have been absent from public debates, such as Yornel Martinez, José Toirac and Mabel Poblet are also likely candidates.

Despite its status as a symbol of Third World independence, Cuba has long depended on foreign grants for the Havana Biennale. The event is as much a boon to the local arts community as it is to the government: the arrival of hundreds of arts professionals and collectors provides enough money through art sales and overseas invitations to keep up the good work. many Cubans afloat for a year or two. European foundations have supported the publication of biennial catalogs, embassies have hosted exhibitions and events, and foreign artists invited to participate are usually expected to gain their own support for the production of their work and travels.

The involvement of American foundations is limited by embargo restrictions, but in the past the American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation and the Copperbridge Foundation have organized group excursions for patrons. None of these foundations responded when I asked about their plans for future participation in the Biennale. On the other hand, Ben Rodriguez-Cubeñas of the Cuban Artists Fund says he hopes he can continue to support American artists participating in “Behind the wall” (renamed “The Juan Delgado Cultural Project ” after its recently deceased founder), a public art exhibition along Havana’s Malecón which is the biennial’s best-known collateral enterprise.

It remains to be seen to what extent the new iteration of the biennial represents the interests of the Cuban state beyond the aspirations of its artists.

Coco Fusco is an artist and writer.

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