Imprisoned and harassed for her radical projects, the Turbine Hall artist is now uniting the Havana Biennial’s artists against Decree 349, the government plan to criminalise independent art.
A report by Daniel Bates for London’s Guardian.
Bruguera, one of Cuba’s most prominent artists, is coordinating a protest against Decree 349, which was brought in by the country’s communist regime to clamp down on artistic expression. Foreign artists at the biennial, a showcase for Cuban and Latin American art, will be asked to wear T-shirts showing their opposition to the measure and will be asked to mention it during their public appearances.
Bruguera understands that the Cuban government is sensitive to bad press, especially at what should be its most important cultural event, which is why she hopes to subvert what she expects to be a “whitewashing” of Decree 349.
The protests are part of a campaign by a group of artists and Bruguera, whose work occupies the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London until Sunday, against the decree, which was condemned by Amnesty International as “dystopian”. The proposed Decree 349 required artists to get a permit from the Cuban ministry of culture if they wanted to perform or operate in public or private spaces. It also allowed the government to shut down anything that it decided contained “sexist, vulgar or obscene language”.
Bruguera says that since December when Decree 349 was due to be brought in – the government delayed it due to an international outcry – two Cuban rappers have since been detained along with a Cuban artist, Michael Osorno. She describes how Rafael Almanza, a writer who organises salon-style arts events in Camaguey, tried to hold a talk about Decree 349 but he was called at 4am by government agents and told he would be killed if he did so. Almanza confirmed to the Guardian that he has received more than a dozen such calls since then, but no longer answers his phone.
Such harassment is nothing new for dissidents, but what is happening for the first time in Bruguera’s lifetime is that the Cuban government is doing the same towards artists, she told the Guardian on the phone from New York.
“Now there is no way Cuba has independent art.” She says. “If you cannot do anything unless the ministry of culture gives you a permit, where is the independent art? It’s non-existent.”
An unintended effect of the law is that for the first time in 60 years artists from all different disciplines are united in one thing – their opposition to Decree 349. Bruguera says: “People in Cuba are very savvy, they know the fact this new law is saying the government can enter into your house, there are no more private spaces at all in Cuba now.
“The fact they can take your instrument, your goods, they know that all of these decision are not artistic, all of these decisions are completely political. What more do they want from us, how much more submissive do they want us to be? Before there was censorship, you could play around. Now you go to jail, now they take your house. It’s not a joke. There are no more games to play.”
In the face of intense opposition, Cuba’s vice minister of culture Fernando Rojas backed down and said that art would only be banned in extreme cases, such as obscenity or racist content. He also began a nationwide consultation, but Bruguera says it was a sham and Rojas was only speaking to state-licensed artists, not independent artists like her.
Bruguera says: “What we want is to eliminate the decree and work together to find regulations that are based on the needs of the artists and what will protect them, not only the government.”
Bruguera last visited Cuba in late November and had planned to stay for a week. She ended up staying for two months to help with the fight against Decree 349 and passed up the chance to attend the Kochi Biennial in India. During her visit she was detained five times, each time for about 24 hours. One incarceration ended shortly after Tate director Maria Balshawmentioned Bruguera was behind bars during a speech at the Turner Prize award ceremony in London.
Bruguera was constantly followed and harassed on the phone, including one call she recorded. She gave a copy of the recording to the Guardian and in it the interrogator tells her menacingly that she “would not want anything to happen to you”.
The artist has a gallows humour about it and says that woman who spoke with her was “nicer than usual”. She added that the Cuban government “really want to look democratic and sound democratic but they have no idea what democracy is.”
As Bruguera sees it, Decree 349 is a desperate attempt by the Cuban government to wrest back control it has lost since the spread of internet access. Cuba finally got 3G access through mobile phones in December, though it is too costly for most, but there are dozens of public wifi hotspots in parks.
The internet has enabled film-makers to get movies out of the country without the permission of the ministry of culture and musicians have set up their own recording studios. Journalists and authors are sending their writings out of Cuba on their own and Decree 349 will not change that, Bruguera says. What will change is that artists will start to be “blackmailed” by the government.
“People are going to continue doing things but they know it’s illegal.” She says. “Now the government has more control of the artists. Their tactics since the beginning of the revolution say: ‘I let you do that as long as you don’t go against me.’ It’s kind of a blackmail situation and it’s going to be used to separate artists, ‘you are the good artists and you are the bad artists’.”
The Trump administration is unlikely to help matters as its threats to tighten the US embargo allow the Cuban government to paint America as the enemy. Bruguera says the U-turn from Barack Obama’s approach, which culminated in his visit to Havana in 2015 and led to former Cuban President Raúl Castro passing a number of reforms, would lead to stagnation.
Having an aggressive America was “terrain the Cuban government knows”, she says, and that they “know how to cultivate the victim role”. Despite this she was careful about guessing what will happen in the coming months.
“The one thing you learn about Cuba is to never predict anything because it never goes the way you predicted.”