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Latin America Report

Cuban Artists Are Captivating The World. But Can They Challenge The Regime?

Ismael Francisco
Cuban artists protesting in front of the Cuban Cultural Ministry in Havana on Nov. 27.

Artists' sudden, stunning push for free speech and expression in Cuba is resonating with ordinary citizens in ways authorities have rarely seen.

Any public protest that challenges Cuba's communist regime is lucky to draw more than a dozen people.

Attracting hundreds turns the world's head — which is what happened in Havana two weekends ago when a group of Cuban artists known as the San Isidro movement led demonstrations in front of the Ministry of Culture.

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They were denouncing the conviction of dissident rapper Denis Solís, who earlier in the month had been sentenced to eight months in prison for contempt because he’d posted a video of Cuban police entering his home without a warrant: The video admittedly included disrespectful remarks from Solís — but nothing, say legal experts, that merited eight months behind bars.

The large San Isidro protests, which included a surprising number of non-artist Cubans as well as celebrities, like movie star Luis Perugorría, alarmed Cuban officials enough that they appeared to agree to a dialogue about free speech and expression.

But the regime quickly reverted to form and has since backed away, condemning the artists — per usual — as puppets of the U.S. and Cuban exiles in Miami. On Twitter, Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel called their protests “an imperialist show” orchestrated by the Trump Administration.

Still, instead of being crushed, the artists’ push for free expression continues resonating strongly in and outside Cuba. That’s prompting many to ask: could this eventually lead to at least some small measure of human rights reform there?

READ MORE: Cuban Socialism Meets Social Media. This Summer It's a New Revolution.

“I’m cynical but also very hopeful," said Reuben Rojas, a Miami Dade College English professor who heads the nonprofit Other Oceans, which builds social and cultural bridges between the U.S. and Cuba.

Rojas is in regular touch with many Cuban artists — including protest leader Luis Manuel Otero, who until last week was detained by Cuban authorities after he and others held a hunger strike in response to Solís' sentence.

“They say [the protests] will not stop," said Rojas. "This movement has been one of the biggest of my recollection [in Cuba]. It’s a different time in history. Cubans have Internet now; and even if it's controlled, they’re communicating with each other in ways they couldn't before.”

Rojas says one of the artists’ more immediate reform demands is the repeal of Decree 349. The law was enacted two years ago and it requires Cuba’s artists to get official permission for just about every paint stroke, song chord and script sentence they create.

"Even my Cuban artist friends who just like to paint sunsets say the decree has badly affected their lives and their livelihoods," Rojas said.

Thanks to the social media access Cubans have today, they see this isn’t just about art — it’s about rights abuses they face too. I mean, they can get arrested just for complaining about long food lines.
Tania Bruguera

At the same time, the artists insist this is about more than tight regime control over them.

"Regular Cubans relate to this," said Tania Bruguera, an internationally known Cuban installation and performance artist who is also a leading artist dissident. She once dressed in public as a Santería god known for haunting people on their birthdays if they’ve failed to keep their promises — and did it on the birthday of Cuba’s then dictator, Fidel Castro.

So when the artists’ outcry began last month, Bruguera told me by phone from Havana, Cuban police kept her from leaving her home for more than a week.

“It was a sign that this campaign scares the government more than others it’s faced," she said.


Even so, Bruguera is helping lead that campaign — which is also known as N27 after their big November 27th demonstration. She believes it will last because ordinary, non-artist Cubans are connecting with an artist movement in ways they hadn’t before. And recent Cuban social media posts back her up.

“Thanks to the social media access Cubans have today, they see this isn’t just about art," says Bruguera. "It’s about rights abuses they face too. I mean, they can get arrested just for complaining about long food lines.”

Cuban performance artist Tania Bruguera in Havana in 1998 as an Afro-Cuban god in her piece "Destierro," a commentary about the Cuban regime.

This of course isn't the first time Cubans have stepped out to stand up to the government. Last year too saw unusually-large demonstrations, including an unauthorized gay pride march in Havana that drew hundreds of people, and a broad movement called #BajenelPreciodeInternet (Lower the Price of Internet) urging the regime to make Internet prices more accessible.

But the artists' colleagues outside Cuba believe this drive could be more effective.

“The Cuban regime doesn't seem to understand that restraining an artist is like literally filling their tank with rocket fuel," said award-winning Miami playwright Carmen Pelaez, a Cuban-American and friend of Bruguera’s.

"The Cuban regime's usual playbook is to give people a certain amount of rope and then pull it back as soon as it gets the least bit spooked," said Pelaez. "What's impressive about the San Isidro [and N27] artists is that they just cut the rope! They said, We're not playing the game anymore. We don't just want limited artistic freedoms like getting this grant or that permission to travel abroad to exhibit. We want real freedom of expression for all Cubans."

Pelaez, whose play “Strapped” opened last weekend at Miami Beach’s Colony Theater as part of its "Seven Deadly Sins" production, feels it’s not surprising Cuban artists are at the vanguard of this unusually potent challenge to the regime.

After all, she says, Cuba’s original independence hero — José Martí — was foremost a poet.

“Story and strength," said Pelaez. "He gave people a better story and he showed them how to make it a reality. The Cuban artists have made the brave space a safer space for ordinary Cubans to be in now.”

Still, Rojas of Other Oceans says the Cuban regime is just as determined to control that Cuban story these days.

He points out Cuba’s artists had actually experienced fewer restrictions over the past few decades. But because the regime has had to give Cubans more economic freedoms in recent years, he says it has cracked down on artistic freedom again as a way to keep Cubans from getting any ideas about political freedoms as well.

“Because they loosened these screws on part of their system," says Rojas, "they felt like they had to grab more control of the Cuban Revolution’s narrative. And who has a narrative more than artists?”

And for the moment, those Cuban artists have the stage.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said Cuban-American artist Carmen Pelaez was born in Cuba. She was born in Miami.

Tim Padgett is the Americas editor for Miami NPR affiliate WLRN, covering Latin America, the Caribbean and their key relationship with South Florida.