Tracy Wilkinson’s article “Young Cuban Artists Testing the Boundaries of Dissent” explores young rappers (some of which have been recruited by the U.S. Agency for International Development to foment youth protest against the Castro government), while touching upon not-so-young artists such as writer Leonardo Padura, to highlight modes of dissent in various types of Cuban cultural production. Here are excerpts:
[Omar] Sayut is part of an increasingly restive young generation of Cubans using music, art and other creative forms to express themselves on a communist-ruled island that often represses dissent and criticism. As Raul Castro allows more leeway and has joined in historic talks with the U.S. to improve relations, they’re looking for new opportunities and new exposure.
Some have fashioned ways to criticize that are permitted, or at least tolerated. Many test the boundaries, pushing, retreating, advancing over time. Others land in jail, repeatedly.
In late December, Sayut was detained briefly when he attended a show in Havana’s Revolution Plaza by artist Danilo Maldonado involving two pigs, one marked “Fidel” and the other marked “Raul.” Maldonado, a graffiti artist and caricaturist who uses the name Sexto, remains in jail. Around the same time, Tania Bruguera, a provocative Cuban artist who mostly lives abroad, tried to launch an open-mike performance in the plaza during which anyone, including critics of the government, could speak out. She was arrested just before the scheduled start of her show. (She has since been released.)
Leonardo Padura, Cuba’s acclaimed novelist, has managed to sidestep government wrath, writing critically without challenging the system. His popular detective novels, often likened to the work of a Cuban Raymond Chandler, do not portray a pretty Havana; it is a city haunted by deprivation. [. . .] His most ambitious work, “The Man Who Loved Dogs,” deals with Leon Trotsky in ways that are not in line with Orthodox Communist thought favored by the Castros.
And yet, he manages to stay free. Or perhaps Cuba’s leaders prefer not to repress someone of Padura’s international reputation. Consequently, he is often held up as the example of what can and cannot be said artistically in Cuba. And as an informal spokesman in defense of difficult Cuban artistic creativity.
“If it is true that some sectors, and especially the newspapers and television, are little more than instruments of propaganda instead of information, we also need to recognize that today many people in the cultural sector are expressing themselves with greater depth within the space of ‘conditional freedom,'” Padura wrote in a collection of essays called “Living and Creating in Cuba.”
[. . .] The hip-hop movement in Cuba suffered an enormous setback last year when news reports revealed that the U.S. Agency for International Development, using intermediaries, was secretly recruiting (often unwitting) Cuban rappers to foment youth protest against the Castro government.
The scheme, first reported by the Associated Press, led to the arrest of several musicians and the government takeover of what had been one of Cuba’s most popular independent music festivals.
One group implicated most prominently in the USAID program (which the agency denied was secretive or illegal) was the hugely popular Los Aldeanos. Its hard-hitting lyrics were candidly critical of the government, with titles such as “Long Live Free Cuba.” After the reports surfaced, the group’s members moved to Florida. [. . .]
Among those who defended Los Aldeanos, saying the group had been unfairly duped by the Americans, was Rodriguez, the nueva trova star, whose son was among those caught up in the scheme. He accused USAID of “manipulation and intervention.”