A new law threatens artistic expression in Cuba

Photo: Daniella Fernández. Taken from Cuban Women Photographers and used with permission.

Cuban artists and activists face growing concern over limits to freedom of expression with the implementation of Decree 349, a law that aims to regulate cultural and artistic activities, including book sales. The decree was approved in January 2018 and will go into effect by December.

The controversial decree requires artists to secure affiliations with official state institutions as their sole funders. It also outlines which authorities have the power to enforce the decree, including potential sanctions applied when violations occur.

Likewise, Decree 349 allows for fines and seizure of instruments, equipment and other property used in the infringing activity. Artistic events may face immediate shutdowns if deemed in violation.

The decree criminalizes actions that violate “human dignity.” Any content seen as discriminatory based on race or sexual orientation will become punishable by law. Violent images will also be scrutinized.

Since its publication in July, several Cuban artists have strongly opposed it, especially those associated with independent workshops and community projects as well as those in opposition to the current government. Many independent artistic projects that currently thrive thanks to crowdfunding online worry that the new law will complicate their livelihoods.

One of the most frequently used arguments is that this decree will limit the creativity of independent artists and open the door to governmental censorship and directives against content considered contrary to the government.

Various campaigns against Decree 349 have taken place concurrently with discussions about the proposed new constitution for Cuba. For many, however, these discussions have diverted attention away from the protests against the decree.

One specific campaign called Artistas Cubanxs en Contra del Decreto 349 (Cuban Artists Against Decree 349) was spearheaded by a group of intellectuals, artists, and activists including art historian Yanelys Nuñez, visual artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, poet Amaury Pacheco and rapper David D'Omni. (Amaury Pacheco and David are also members of the Omni-Zonafranca project.)

The campaign seeks to collect the minimum 10,000 signatures required by the current constitution for a law to be reconsidered.

Meanwhile, the activist platform Avaaz has joined the debate with a petition and open letter about the decree's legitimacy. The letter expresses concern for the future of art and culture in Cuba if only state-run organizations are authorized to grant permission for artistic events as well as decide who finances them:

Hoy día, el sistema de crowdfunding ofrece nuevas fuentes de apoyo a proyectos artísticos por parte de amigos. […] El hecho de que un artista cubano logre financiar sus creaciones por medios propios no lo convierte en un opositor — millones de individuos en el mundo se benefician de las nuevas tecnologías para difundir sus obras al margen de las instituciones culturales establecidas.

Today, crowdfunding provides new sources to support the artistic projects of our friends. […] The fact that a Cuban artist can self-finance their creations doesn't make them a dissident — millions of people throughout the world have benefited from new technologies to disseminate their work beyond the established cultural institutions.

The open letter calls attention to some of the decree's vague legal parameters such as: “content injurious to ethical and cultural values will be punished.” Addressed to Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, and the new Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso, the letter has been signed by artists and intellectuals such as Tania Bruguera, Laritza Diversent, Coco Fusco, Yanelys Nuñez and Enrique del Risco.

Concerns stated in the letter were also shared by Cubalex, a human rights organization:

Los artistas independientes o que no tienen vinculación con las instituciones del estado o grupo de la sociedad civil, se verán doblemente discriminados debido a que sus formas y medios de expresión son percibidos por el Estado como contestatarios, por tanto una forma de expresión de la opinión política.

Independent artists or those who do not have associations with state institutions or groups from civil society will see themselves doubly discriminated against because their forms and means of expression are perceived by the state as a challenge, or an expression of political opinion.

Questions have emerged regarding the decree in religious spaces where artistic activities take place. Such is the case with Rule of Osha, a series of dance and music rituals found in Santeria, a widely-practiced religion in Cuba.

Meanwhile, a hip-hop collective comprised of artists David D'Omni (Omni-Zonafranca), Raudel Collazo of “Escuadrón Patriota” and rocker Gorki Aguila, of the band “Porno para Ricardo” have produced protest songs against the decree:

Tu censura está en clausura de conciertos que tumbaste.

Siempre estuvo ahí, solo la legalizaste.

Nos acusas entonces de politizar el arte, dime

¿Qué hiciste tú cuándo lo colocaste

En la Constitución con sanciones al artista?

Basta ya de represión sigue creciendo la lista.

Your censorship is in the closure of concerts that you shut down.

It was always there, you only legalized it.

Then you accuse us of politicizing art,

But tell me,

What did you do when you put in the constitution sanctions for the artists?

Stop already with the repression whose list keeps on growing.

In favor of the decree, Jorge Angel Hernández explains his point of view in La Jiribilla, a pro-government magazine:

Las reacciones opuestas al Decreto 349 coinciden, casualmente, en centrarse en la presentación de un caos futuro de censura y represión; anuncian el Apocalipsis y protegen, sin mucha sutileza, las fuentes de financiamiento injerencista que les van permitiendo los diferentes niveles de protagonismo en el espectro público internacional.

The opposed reactions to Decree 349 coincide, as it happens, to focus on presenting a future chaos of censorship and repression. They announce the apocalypse and protect, without much subtlety, the sources of interfering financing that will allow them to achieve several levels of prominence in the international public spectrum.

Controversy over the decree has led to confrontations between artists and the government. Artistas Cubanxs en Contra del Decreto 349 (Cuban Artists against Decree 349) scheduled two concerts for August 11 and 15 to publicize their movement against the decree, but the National Revolutionary Police shut down the event and arrested a few artists. Diario de Cuba recorded the arrests and shared the footage on its YouTube channel:

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