A controversial new decree threatens to derail a thriving cultural scene in Havana.
An Op-Ed piece by Rubén Gallo for The New York Times.
“There is a centuries-old tradition of censorship that started during Spanish colonial times and continues today,” Antón Arrufat, one of Cuba’s most respected writers, told me recently. We were discussing the controversial new law known as Decree 349, the subject of much concern within Havana’s cultural community.
The decree requires artists to obtain government approval before performing or displaying their work, while also regulating the artwork itself. For example, it prohibits audiovisual content that contains “sexist, vulgar and obscene language” or that uses “national symbols” in ways that “contravene current legislation.” Government inspectors can impose fines on offenders and confiscate their property.
Opposition to the decree has been widespread, and public figures as diverse as Silvio Rodríguez, the country’s foremost composer of revolutionary songs, and Tania Bruguera, the dissident performance artist who was detained recently for organizing a protest, have urged the government to reconsider. During a recent meeting with high-ranking cultural officials, a group of artists cautioned against a regression to a form of censorship that has not been seen in Cuba for decades.
One of the most eloquent voices against the decree has been that of Mr. Arrufat, an 83-year-old poet, playwright and novelist who has lived through the ups and downs of the Cuban Revolution. “All attempts at censorship ultimately fail,” he told me, “because all they do is turn a work of art into a monument: They call attention to it and give it fame. In the end the censor will be forgotten and the work will live on.”
Mr. Arrufat is no stranger to censorship in Cuba: In the early 1970s he was accused of spreading counterrevolutionary messages with his work “The Seven Against Thebes.” Based on the Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, the play — the story of a Theban who returns to his homeland with an invading army — was read as expressing support for the Bay of Pigs invasion, which was led by Cuban exiles. In the aftermath of the scandal, Mr. Arrufat lost his job at a Havana theater and no press or journal would publish his work until he was rehabilitated in the 1980s.
Mr. Arrufat’s troubles were the result of a large-scale government campaign at the time to rein in artists and writers and ensure their work upheld the values of the Cuban Revolution. The Cuban historian Ambrosio Fornet refers to this dark period as “the five gray years” (others believe it extended throughout the ’70s and describe it as a “black decade”), and it was marked by widespread censorship and harassment. During this time, Heberto Padilla, a poet and friend of Mr. Arrufat’s, was jailed and forced to make a public confession, causing international outrage. The Padilla affair, as the case became known, led many staunch supporters of the revolution — including the author and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa — to break with the Castro regime.
The effects of these restrictive policies were disastrous for Cuba: The vibrant cultural scene sparked by the revolution of 1959 collapsed as dozens of writers, including many of Mr. Arrufat’s friends, abandoned the island. Abroad, news of the ill treatment suffered by figures like Mr. Arrufat, Mr. Padilla and later Reinaldo Arenas darkened the image of Cuba. The nation went from being hailed as a center of creative freedom and experimentation — as it had been in the early 1960s, when Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Allen Ginsberg flocked to Havana — to being denounced for its oppressive bureaucracy and mistreatment of artists.
The tide began to turn for Mr. Arrufat and other blacklisted artists in the 1980s with the rise of Abel Prieto, a poet from a well-connected family who headed an influential, state-run publishing house and eventually rose to the position of minister of culture in the 1990s. Mr. Prieto undertook the project of rehabilitating figures who had been marginalized in the 1970s.
In 1984 Mr. Arrufat published a novel, “La Caja Está Cerrada” (“The Box Is Shut”), an ambitious, 700-page bildungsroman inspired by his childhood in the 1940s, which he had written during his years as a pariah, when the only work he could find was in the basement of a dreary suburban library. Mr. Arrufat’s recollections of those years remain sharp: “I could not publish a word in any government publication. My books were withdrawn from libraries across the country. But I kept on writing because that is the one thing they could not take away from me.”
Government interference in culture decreased significantly in the 1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the catastrophic Cuban recession that ensued, and it decreased further in the 2000s, after Raúl Castro assumed the presidency in the wake of his brother Fidel’s illness. Since then Cuba has developed a thriving cultural scene that recalls the glory days of the early ’60s, with a world-renowned international film festival, dozens of artist-run galleries and vibrant theater.
A new kind of cultural tourism has developed — foreign art collectors, literary agents and television and film crews are flocking to Cuba in search of new talent. Today, Cubans enjoy a degree of freedom of expression that astonishes many visitors: Plays and films deal overtly with politics, sexuality, censorship and other topics that in the past would have gotten figures like Mr. Arrufat in trouble.
Mr. Arrufat has also benefited from this wave of newfound artistic freedom. After being awarded the National Prize of Literature, Cuba’s highest literary honor, in 2000, his play, “The Seven Against Thebes,” finally premiered at a Havana theater in 2007, almost 40 years after it was written and censored. And in 2016, Mr. Arrufat opened his own cultural center, the Ateneo de La Habana, in an elegant mansion that the government had put at his disposal. He has been entirely free to create his own eclectic cultural program, which includes poetry readings, painting exhibits, book presentations and panel discussions with visiting academics.
Mr. Arrufat has decried Decree 349 as opening the door to the type of censorship he experienced in the 1970s. “Artists and writers could fare even worse now,” Mr. Arrufat said. “Back then there was no decree or law to justify censorship; now the government’s right to censor is inscribed in the law.”
Cultural officials have vigorously denied that censorship is the impetus behind the decree, but Cubans are right to be worried. In theory, inspectors would have the power to shut down a poetry reading at Mr. Arrufat’s space, or any other art opening or play, simply because they deemed the work to be immoral. Though Mr. Arrufat doubts this will actually happen, the decree has managed to spread anxiety throughout Cuba’s artistic community.
The authorities must reconsider their outdated attempt at cultural regulation — just as they recently reconsidered a series of widely opposed new regulations against entrepreneurs — lest they destroy one of the most vibrant, sophisticated and creative sectors of Cuban society, one that has brought the country international prestige as well as much-needed hard cash. The new government has a clear interest in breaking away from the old Cuban tradition of censorship. As recent decades have shown, Cuba thrives most when its artists are left alone to do their work.