Major Cuban Artists Call to Boycott State-Sponsored Cultural Events on the Island

Raychel Carrión, “Maykel Osorbo” (2022) (image courtesy the artist)

Tania Bruguera, Coco Fusco, and Reynier Leyva Novo are among 23 leading Cuban and Cuban-American artists, scholars, and cultural workers who signed an open letter calling on the international art community to boycott and divest from cultural events sponsored by the Cuban government. The letter denounces the Cuban government’s failing economic policies and gruesome human rights record, including the prosecution and imprisonment of artists and activists. Other signatories include Claudia Genlui Hidalgo, Julio Llópiz Casal, Lester Álvarez, and JuanSí González.

“Instead of guaranteeing Cubans’ freedom of expression, the presence of foreign personalities from the art world contributes to sustaining the myth of the Cuban revolution as a provider of culture,” the open letter reads, adding that it is crucial that “foreigners recognize that the repression of artists is carried out by the same cultural bureaucrats who welcome them to the island, introduce them to a select number of trusted artists and arrange their visits to state-run art galleries.”

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The signatories also criticize the Cuban government’s attempts to artwash its acts of state-sanctioned violence and the reality of economic decline that has taken hold of the country, recently resulting in one of the largest mass emigrations of refugees since Fidel Castro’s rise to power in 1959. In spite of these deplorable living conditions, the Cuban Ministry of Culture is moving ahead with the Havana Art Weekend, to be held in November. 

The open letter comes less than a year after Cuba’s new 141-page Penal Code took effect on December 1, 2022. Replacing the previous code that dates back to 1987, the updated criminal laws include new social media censorship rules, independent funding regulations, and harsher sentences that present “a chilling prospect for independent journalists, activists, and anyone critical of the authorities’’ in Cuba, according to Amnesty International

The Cuban government arrested hundreds of peaceful protesters across the island in July 2021 and October 2022, some of whom are still imprisoned today, like performing artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Grammy-winning rapper Maykel “Osorbo” Pérez. The latter sewed his mouth shut earlier this year to protest harassment and threats he has experienced in a maximum-security prison on the island.

Furthermore, the letter implores international artists to disabuse themselves of the “political fantasy that Cuba is a socialist utopia” and the “outdated Cold War-style vision of Cuba as the victim of imperialist aggression,” urging them not to cooperate with state-sponsored cultural events “until all Cubans on the island are free.”

Read the open letter in its entirety below in both English and Spanish, as provided by the artists.

Open Letter To The International Arts Community Regarding Art and Human Rights in Cuba

Over the past five years, the international art world has been the scene of numerous controversies related to the ethical implications of its partnerships and decision-making. Artists, activists, and investigative cultural journalists have forced institutions to reflect on the ethics of accepting support from companies and individuals that profit from fossil fuels, weapons manufacturing, and highly addictive pharmaceuticals. The #MeToo movement has led to the severing of ties between arts institutions and alleged perpetrators of sexual harassment. The Russian invasion of Ukraine caused the widespread presence of Russian oligarchs on museum boards in the West to become politically unviable. The decision to reject a Turkish curator who had been recommended by an advisory committee to head the Istanbul Biennial because of her political views, and attacks by the right-wing press on a respected Spanish museum director generated widespread consternation in the sector.

Unfortunately, the Cuban government’s repression of its artists, its persistent human rights violations and the country’s humanitarian crisis have not received enough scrutiny to provoke similar concern about the ethics of cooperating with the Cuban state.

We represent a diverse and dispersed community of Cuban and Cuban American arts professionals inside and outside the island who seek to call attention to the situation in our homeland. Cuba is currently facing its most serious political, economic, and humanitarian crisis in decades. This affects us as citizens and creators, and also has implications for all those foreigners whose “solidarity” is constantly solicited by the Cuban Ministry of Culture through its various agents. More than 1,000 political prisoners are currently serving outrageously long sentences for peaceful protest, and among them are several of our fellow artists. The Cuban government’s mass detention of peaceful protesters in July 2021 has been condemned by the United Nations, the European Parliament, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Months of negotiation on this issue with the U.S. State Department have so far yielded no results. The Vatican has pleaded in vain with the government to release political prisoners. The Cuban government has been unwilling to grant any pardon or amnesty.

Cubans on the island face shortages of food, medicine, electricity, and gasoline, as well as the collapse of infrastructure. Inflation has exceeded 70% in 2023. Tourism, the only industry in which the government invests, has fallen more than 50% since 2020. Cuban leaders have cemented alliances with China and Russia and have expressed support the invasion of Ukraine. The Cuban government boasts of a supposedly flourishing private sector that in reality is hindered by thousands of obstacles and offers goods at prices that are exorbitant for the majority of Cubans. It has created a level of class polarization not seen in Cuba for more than six decades. The new penal code stipulates that Cuban citizens can be imprisoned for up to two years for posting criticism of the government on social media, receiving outside funding for independent cultural activities, or engaging in activities that could be construed as interference in government operations. The combined effect of state violence against the Cuban people and economic misery led more than 300,000 Cubans to emigrate last year, making it the largest exodus in the country’s history.

Since 2018, the Cuban cultural sector has been one of the main targets of increasing state repression. That year, in an attempt to crush a proliferating effort to develop cultural projects independent from the state, the Cuban government began issuing laws criminalizing the public circulation of cultural expressions produced without government authorization. Young creators in diverse fields, from music to visual arts, theater, and film, have risen up to protest these measures and have been met with increasing waves of repression. In January 2021, the Minister of Culture physically accosted a group of artists who had shown up for an appointment with him. They were peacefully demonstrating in front of his offices, asking that there be no police or military surrounding the building. Artists have been harassed, interrogated, detained, expelled from their work, subjected to surveillance and house arrest, and forced into exile. Along with dozens of independent journalists who have been subjected to similar harassment, hundreds of young creatives have fled the country. Several Cuban cultural workers have been banned from returning to the island.

These harsh realities have not stopped the Cuban Ministry of Culture from persisting in using art to salvage its public image. While the elderly go hungry because their retirement pensions leave them vulnerable and a Grammy-winning rapper is serving a nine-year prison sentence for “defamation of institutions,” the Cuban Ministry of Culture has given the green light to the Havana Art Weekend, to be held in November to attract foreign art professionals and potential investors to the island and give them a taste of what awaits them at next year’s art biennial. 

In addition, the Ministry of Culture continues to allow some international companies that serve the interests of the state, such as Galería Continua, to operate on the island while prohibiting Cubans from creating their own independent galleries. Just as the Cuban government befriended famous Latin American intellectuals in the 1960s to break the island’s diplomatic isolation, now the Ministry of Culture strives to cultivate another coterie of high-profile art world figures who can be cajoled to lend support and channel hard currency to an economy on the brink of collapse. Just as the Cuban government sent its best artists out as diplomats in the 1960s to improve its international image, the bumbling, aging bureaucrats of the Ministry of Culture today delegate promotional efforts to young artists and curators deemed politically trustworthy who create the impression of an energetic and hip contemporary art scene.

The Cuban government has always used cultural activity to create the opinion among foreigners that the state is benevolent and supportive of culture. As part of this effort, the Cuban government extends its influence beyond its borders, attempting to censor projects and exhibitions in other countries by Cuban artists critical of the State. There have always been Cuban arts professionals who have cooperated, sometimes because they believed in the system, sometimes because they felt they had no choice, and sometimes because they saw an alliance with the state as a way to ensure their professional success. However, the political and economic pressures on Cubans do not apply to foreigners, many of whom remain seduced by the political fantasy that Cuba is a socialist utopia. It is imperative that foreigners recognize that the repression of artists is carried out by the same cultural bureaucrats who welcome them to the island, introduce them to a select number of trusted artists and arrange their visits to state-run art galleries. Foreigners have the freedom to choose without coercion, and the ability to inform themselves about the conditions in which Cubans are forced to live. We ask them to do so before they fall into the outdated Cold War-style vision of Cuba as the victim of imperialist aggression. The government that will benefit from the support of foreigners exercises forms of repression against Cuban artists that they would undoubtedly find unacceptable in their home countries.

We ask outsiders to reflect on what we see as unresolved contradictions. Why is the existence of more than 1,000 political prisoners or draconian legislation criminalizing independent cultural work less questionable than the predatory sexual behavior of a powerful individual? Why is it easier to agree to stop doing art business with Russian oligarchs than to refuse to collaborate with a government that allies itself with Russia and imprisons its most creative people? Why do we celebrate the success of activists in the United States and Europe who forced museums to break ties with millionaires who made fortunes selling opioids, but ignore the artists and intellectuals who risk their livelihoods to point out that the Cuban elite get rich off their tourist ventures while the general population can be arrested for posting a complaint about the government on Facebook social media?

There are many foreigners interested in Cuba who try to convince themselves that by traveling there they are “helping the Cuban people” and “supporting Cuban art.” Many want to believe that their mere presence on the island can alter the machinery of state repression. Let it be known that their dollars go directly into government coffers and are reinvested in tourism and police. Instead of guaranteeing Cubans’ freedom of expression, the presence of foreign personalities from the art world contributes to sustaining the myth of the Cuban revolution as a provider of culture. Anyone who wants to help Cuban artists might consider engaging with the dozens of independent Cuban artists – inside and outside the island – who are on the fringes of Cuba’s official culture struggling to make a living and to have their stories about our country and its beleaguered people heard. In the name of justice for our unjustly imprisoned compatriots, we ask that foreigners not cooperate with state-sponsored cultural events until all Cubans on the island are free.

Signed by:

Lester Álvarez

Yissel Arce Padrón

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Mónica Batard

Tania Bruguera

Raychel Carrion

Sandra Ceballos

Rafael DíazCasas

María de Lourdes Mariño Fernández

Solveig Font

Coco Fusco

Claudia Genlui

Celia Irina González

JuanSí González

Henry Eric Hernandez

Hilda Landrove

Hamlet Lavastida

Reynier Leyva Novo

Julio Llópiz Casal

Camila Lobón

Cirenaica Moreira

Yanelys Nuñez Lleyva

Ernesto Oroza

Samuel Riera

Carta Abierta a la Comunidad Artística Internacional Sobre el Arte y Los Derechos Humanos en Cuba

En los últimos cinco años, el mundo del arte internacional ha sido escenario de numerosas polémicas relacionadas con la eticidad de sus vínculos y las decisiones que toma. Artistas, activistas y periodistas culturales de investigación han obligado a esas instituciones a reflexionar si es ético aceptar el apoyo de empresas e individuos que sostienen relaciones beneficiosas con compañías de combustibles fósiles, fabricantes de armas y de fármacos altamente adictivos. 

El movimiento #MeToo provocó la ruptura entre instituciones artísticas y presuntos culpables de acoso sexual. La invasión rusa de Ucrania hizo que la presencia de oligarcas rusos en los consejos de administración de museos en Occidente se volviera políticamente inviable. La decisión de rechazar, debido a sus opiniones políticas, a una curadora turca recomendada por un comité asesor para dirigir la Bienal de Estambul, así como los ataques de la prensa de derechas contra un respetado director de museo español, han generado consternación generalizada en el sector artístico. 

Desafortunadamente, la creciente represión del gobierno cubano contra los artistas de la Isla, sus persistentes violaciones de derechos humanos y la crisis humanitaria interna de la que es el único responsable, no han recibido un escrutinio suficiente como para provocar preocupaciones éticas con respecto a cooperar con el Estado cubano.

Los firmantes representamos a una comunidad diversa y dispersa de profesionales del arte cubanos y de origen cubano de dentro y fuera de la isla, que pretende llamar la atención sobre la situación de nuestra patria. Cuba se enfrenta actualmente a su crisis política, económica y humanitaria más grave en varias décadas, que nos afecta como ciudadanos y creadores, y también tiene implicaciones para aquellos extranjeros cuya “solidaridad” es constantemente solicitada por el Ministerio de Cultura cubano a través de sus diversos agentes. 

Más de 1.000 presos políticos cumplen actualmente condenas escandalosamente largas por protestar pacíficamente: entre ellos se encuentran varios de nuestros compañeros artistas. La detención masiva de manifestantes pacíficos por parte del gobierno cubano en julio de 2021 ha sido condenada por las Naciones Unidas, el Parlamento Europeo, Amnistía Internacional y el Observatorio de Derechos Humanos. Meses de negociación con el Departamento de Estado de EE. UU. no han dado resultados hasta el momento. El Vaticano ha implorado en vano la liberación de los presos políticos. El gobierno cubano no se ha mostrado dispuesto a conceder indultos ni amnistía.


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