CubaBrief: CPJ denounces harassment, assault against Cuban independent journalist. Prominent Mexican artist gives perspective on free expression in Cuba

Pablo Helguera, a Mexican artist, author and educator in 2015 wanted to publish an essay on a crackdown against artists in Cuba, but was persuaded by the American art museum he was working at not to do so. The repression visited upon Tania Bruguera and other artists took place less than a month following the official call to normalize relations between Cuba and the United States in December 2014. Helguera describes what happened in an introduction that essay that he has now published in Hyperallergic and that we reproduce below in this CubaBrief.

“In January of 2015, artist Tania Bruguera was detained by the Cuban government. Bruguera had planned to restage a performance artwork about freedom of speech in the iconic Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, addressing the need for free expression in Cuba in response to renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Despite her lack of official permission to perform the work, Bruguera proceeded to advertise the event, in a campaign called “#YoTambienExijo” (“#IAlsoDemand”); this resulted in her arrest and, subsequently, a series of detentions and interrogations which persist to this day. In 2015, I wrote this essay in response to those events, but was prevented from publishing it due to the leadership at the museum where I was employed, who argued that my expressing my opinion on the matter would be construed as representing the view of that organization. I, mistakenly, listened to those objections at the time.”

We have heard over the course of 2020 the slogan that “silence is violence,” and in the case of totalitarian dictatorships this goes beyond violence into a question of life and death. Dr. Helguera’s introduction and essay are important and welcome.

Tania Bruguera

Tania Bruguera

Today, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) is speaking out for Carlos Manuel Álvarez, an independent journalist harassed and assaulted by Castro’s secret police. The CPJ reports:

“On December 21, at about 2 p.m., security agents in the Playa municipality of Havana summoned Álvarez to a local police station, where they interrogated him for more than two hours and then forcibly transferred him to his family’s home in Cárdenas, in Matanzas province, according to press reports and a video the journalist posted to Facebook.

Álvarez is the director of the Cuban online literary journalism magazine El Estornudo, and also contributes reporting to Spanish newspaper El País, according to those reports.

In the days leading up to the summons, Álvarez was held in de facto house arrest, with security agents stationed outside his home, monitoring him and barring him from leaving, according to news reports. During the interrogation, security officers questioned Álvarez about leaving his home in the evening of December 19, asking where he went and who he met with, he said in the Facebook video.

While being transferred from Havana to Cárdenas, Álvarez briefly escaped custody, but agents found him and assaulted him, and then forced him back in the car, according to those reports and Álvarez’s Facebook video, which showed numerous scratches on his arm that he said were inflicted by the agents.”

Carlos Manuel Álvarez after being roughed up by security agents in December 2021

Carlos Manuel Álvarez after being roughed up by security agents in December 2021

In 2016 Carlos Manuel Álvarez in Al Jazeera published an essay that outlined what happened to Tania Bruguera when she tried to hold her event in Revolution Plaza, and quoted Pablo Helguera. Today thanks to regime violence, the journalist is not only reporting the news, but as a target of repression he is also the subject of news, and reported on by human rights organizations.

Committee to Protect Journalists, December 23, 2020

Cuban journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez harassed, assaulted by security agents

December 23, 2020

Miami, December 23, 2020 — Cuban authorities must stop harassing and intimidating journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez, and allow all members of the press to report freely, the Committee to Protect Journalists said today.

On December 21, at about 2 p.m., security agents in the Playa municipality of Havana summoned Álvarez to a local police station, where they interrogated him for more than two hours and then forcibly transferred him to his family’s home in Cárdenas, in Matanzas province, according to press reports and a video the journalist posted to Facebook.

Álvarez is the director of the Cuban online literary journalism magazine El Estornudo, and also contributes reporting to Spanish newspaper El País, according to those reports.

In the days leading up to the summons, Álvarez was held in de facto house arrest, with security agents stationed outside his home, monitoring him and barring him from leaving, according to news reports. During the interrogation, security officers questioned Álvarez about leaving his home in the evening of December 19, asking where he went and who he met with, he said in the Facebook video.

While being transferred from Havana to Cárdenas, Álvarez briefly escaped custody, but agents found him and assaulted him, and then forced him back in the car, according to those reports and Álvarez’s Facebook video, which showed numerous scratches on his arm that he said were inflicted by the agents.

Álvarez told CPJ yesterday via messaging app that he was scheduled to be interrogated again that day. In his video, Álvarez expressed concern that authorities would jail him if he attempted to leave Cárdenas.

In recent weeks, Álvarez has been subject to at least 17 days of de facto house arrest, and was previously detained when he tried to visit his parents, according to press reports and a Facebook post by El Estornudo.

“Cuban authorities must immediately cease their sustained and vicious harassment campaign against journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Senior Researcher Ana Cristina Núñez. “Cuba has the most hostile environment in the Americas for the press, and the continued harassment of journalists that we have seen there in the past weeks indicates that, contrary to the regime’s propaganda, the situation is worsening.”

Álvarez is a member of the local freedom of expression group the San Isidro Movement, and has recently reported for El País on the government’s crackdown on protests organized by the movement.

Álvarez was scheduled to participate on December 21 in an online course on investigative journalism along with Salvadorian journalist Óscar Martínez, according to media reports. He missed the event, having received a call to appear at exactly 2 p.m. at the police station for a “matter of urgency,” according to media reports.

Cuban authorities have repeatedly harassed journalists since protests affiliated with the San Isidro Movement began in late November, as CPJ has documented.

CPJ emailed the Cuban National Revolutionary Police and the Ministry of the Interior for comment, but did not receive any responses.

https://cpj.org/2020/12/cuban-journalist-carlos-manuel-alvarez-harassed-assaulted-by-security-agents/

Hyperallergic, December 17, 2020

Opinion

Art and Freedom of Expression in Cuba, Throughout the 21st Century

As Cuban authorities continue to target artist Tania Bruguera, Pablo Helguera publishes, for the first time, his 2015 essay on Bruguera’s attempt to stage a public performance on free speech.

by Pablo Helguera December 17, 2020

The artist and activist Tania Bruguera (photo via Tania Bruguera's Facebook, used with permission)

The artist and activist Tania Bruguera (photo via Tania Bruguera’s Facebook, used with permission)

In January of 2015, artist Tania Bruguera was detained by the Cuban government. Bruguera had planned to re-stage a performance artwork about freedom of speech in the iconic Plaza de la Revolución in Havana, addressing the need for free expression in Cuba in response to renewed diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba. Despite her lack of official permission to perform the work, Bruguera proceeded to advertise the event, in a campaign called “#YoTambienExijo” (“#IAlsoDemand”); this resulted in her arrest and, subsequently, a series of detentions and interrogations which persist to this day. 

In 2015, I wrote this essay in response to those events, but was prevented from publishing it due to the leadership at the museum where I was employed, who argued that my expressing my opinion on the matter would be construed as representing the view of that organization. I, mistakenly, listened to those objections at the time. I publish it today in its full form, in the context of the recent news of Tania Bruguera’s continued harassment by the Cuban government and the general pressure that the regime is placing on the Cuban arts community and the San Isidro/27N Movement — a collective action formed by a group of Cuban artists demanding freedom of expression in Cuba. I feel this piece contextualizes the larger issues around freedom of expression that Cuban artists are contending with, which became a center of debate during Bruguera’s first detention five years ago. While Bruguera is not the only artist being attacked by the Cuban authorities during this moment, I think the issues described here might be helpful to shed light on the larger debates around art and freedom of expression in Cuba today.

—Pablo Helguera, December 2020

* * *

One evening in March 2009, during the opening days of the Havana Biennial, the Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam was booming with activity. Those of us who entered saw a set comprising an orange backdrop, a podium, and, at the center, an open microphone. Everyone in attendance was invited to come on stage and speak their mind, as openly as they wished. There was a palpable tension in the air. The act of offering an open mic in Cuba is unheard of; simple, yet profound in its implications: the voice of an average individual could be powerfully amplified.

Like many artworks made in Cuba, the piece had an official explanation as well a more delicate subtext. Entitled “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” and conceived by Tania Bruguera, the performance was ostensibly a tribute to the first speech Fidel Castro gave after the triumph of the Cuban revolution, famously delivered with a dove sitting on his shoulder. The subtext of the performance, to a perceptive public, was the fact that freedom of speech is forbidden in Cuba, and that public criticism of the regime crosses a line that can never be tolerated on the island.

Many Cubans who took the stage did so tentatively, as if in disbelief about the power that their voices could have. Some nervously rambled about the need for freedom of speech, hardly comprehending the fact that they could hear their own voices projected to a crowd. Others, like the budding blogger Yoani Sanchez, were professional dissidents who used the occasion to articulate stinging critiques of the Cuban government. Later Sanchez would recall, “those of us who participated will never forget that minute of freedom in front of the microphone that would cost us years of official insults.”

Bruguera, its organizer, has received substantial international recognition for her work. She has also developed an uneasy relationship with her country’s government. This tension finally came to a head in the past few days when Cuban authorities detained the artist as she was planning to present this performance again, this time in a public square, the Plaza de la Revolución.

The attempted restaging of “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” was meant to test the Cuban government after the announcement that it was reopening relations with the United States. The project seemingly came as a spontaneous response to President Obama’s December 17, 2014, announcement of the upcoming normalization of US-Cuba relations. A day after that speech, Tania Bruguera published a manifesto-like letter titled “Querido Raúl, dear Obama, and querido Papa Francisco,” which at first appeared to celebrate the historic announcement of the opening of relations between the United States and Cuba. The artist ended her letter with a proposal:

“Today as an artist I propose to you, Raúl, to place the work ‘Tatlin’s Whisper #6’ in the Plaza de la Revolución. Let’s open all microphones and let all voices be heard; let’s not allow only the sound of coins as what may be offered to us to fill our lives. Let no microphone be turned off. Let’s learn to do something with our dreams. […] Let’s make sure that it will be the Cuban people who benefit from this historic moment. Nation is that which ails us.”

No average Cuban citizen is allowed to organize a public event at the Plaza de la Revolución. Bruguera knew this well, which is why her defiance and determination to proceed made it even more threatening to authorities. Delivering many more statements along the way, Bruguera traveled to Cuba to reenact her performance on December 26, 2014. The campaign leading up to her performance was branded #YoTambienExijo (“I also demand”).

Once Bruguera arrived in Havana, she initiated discussions with a range of culture officials, each of whom advised her against proceeding. On December 29, the day before the scheduled performance, she met with Rubén del Valle, director of the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Plásticas (CNAP), who objected to her event on the grounds that it was “counterrevolutionary”; would only provoke in negative ways; and, ultimately, would interfere with the delicate process of reopening relations with the United States. He requested that Bruguera hold the performance in the National Museum of Fine Arts. She reportedly agreed, but only on the condition that the performance be held at the museum entrance. Del Valle rejected the idea, as he wanted to “control admission” to the event. In the end, the meeting produced no agreements.

At around 5am on December 30, the police banged on the Bruguera family door. According to Bruguera, they did not announce themselves as the police. They took her away “to talk.” Other officers seized her computer and every other piece of equipment in their house, telling her family that there was a legal case against her — a detail that no one shared with Bruguera herself while she was at the police station. They let her keep her cellphone, but she didn’t want to use it, knowing that they would try to track whoever she called.

That was the beginning of a nightmarish three-day episode during which Bruguera was detained, released, detained again, released again, and then arrested one more time on New Years Day, to be released once more on the following day. As of this writing, she remains in Cuba; her Cuban passport has been confiscated — she does not hold a US passport — and will be sent back to the United States with the instructions that she never return to her native Cuba, where she grew up and where her mother lives. She is reportedly working with a lawyer to present her case to the United Nations Human Rights Commission.

Those interested in discrediting Bruguera are quick to mention that she is the daughter of a revered fighter of the Cuban Revolution. Usually, this is an insinuation that the artist is so close to the regime that she is somehow exempt from the consequences that other dissidents may suffer or, worse, that as a daughter of the system she should be granted no compassion. The reality, as is often the case, is more complex.

Tania’s father was Miguel Brugueras del Valle, a close confidante of el Ché and Fidel, and part of the July 26 movement that brought down the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. Brugueras del Valle later served in the foreign service in Lebanon, Argentina, and Panama, and at some point was named Cuba’s vice minister of foreign relations and tourism. He passed away in 2006. Per her own admission in public talks, Tania had a difficult relationship with her father because of their radically different views about the future of Cuba. Overall, the family tends to be very strict about the separation between the political and the personal.

I met Tania in Chicago in 1997, when she was a rising star in the Cuban art scene. As a Cuban new to the United States, Tania was dazzled by what she saw. She was barely getting used to the world of capitalism (“we just gave her a credit card, so that she understands how credit works,” I remember her then-partner telling me), and she was hit hard by witnessing the inequality it brings. Her work has always had a strong political dimension, often fighting for human rights and for the disenfranchised. She has produced countless projects in the United States and Europe, most recently dealing with immigrant rights. It is, however, in Cuba where Tania is often at her best, as she can understand and negotiate the delicate social and political tensions better than anyone. I still hold this belief today, after her near-intervention at the Plaza de la Revolución has threatened to put a stop to all her activity as an artist and free individual. Even if it is regarded as a non-event, this performance that did not happen may also be remembered as the most defining of her career.

It is impossible today to conceive of an artistic action of relevance that would not be immediately mediatized — that is, subjected to the debates, discussions, and dissemination characteristic of social media. Some art, in fact, constitutes a de facto social media campaign. And this, in essence, was #YoTambienExijo.

In an insightful article reflecting on #YoTambienExijo, the Cuban-American artist Coco Fusco discussed some of the logistical challenges that Bruguera’s project encountered, including the communication with the Cuban art world and its use of social media: “Bruguera’s reliance on the internet to convene the Cuban public has provoked a certain degree of skepticism from critics about her intentions. ‘The Cuban people’ did not show up at the plaza and it is likely that most Cubans on the island have no idea of what #YoTambienExijo is.”

While it is true that Cuba places severe restrictions on internet access, Cubans often find ingenious ways to connect with the outside world. A recent connectivity scheme in Cuba, “el paquete semanal,” involves renting out hard drives with a week’s worth of HDTV programming. The cost can range from $1 to $10, and while the commercial enterprise doesn’t have a political dimension, it effectively allows Cubans to watch international television programming and listen to contemporary music. In the art scene, Cuban artists and curators disseminate information via email, which is, paradoxically, supplied by the Ministry of Culture. The local art scene was very much aware of the impending performance by Bruguera, to the point that it had become a running joke amongst them to say “see you on the 30th at the plaza.”

Of course, the performance at the Plaza de la Revolución never took place. On the afternoon of December 30, 2014, social media channels were in a state of confusion, with photos of international reporters awkwardly standing at 3pm at the plaza, waiting for some action — but Tania was nowhere to be seen. Shortly afterward, it was announced that she had been detained along with other activists and collaborators. Reinaldo Escobar, the husband of the influential blogger Yoani Sánchez, was taken away, and Sánchez found herself in house arrest. As people speculated about Bruguera’s possible whereabouts, it was reported that she was in a local prison, wearing a gray prisoner’s outfit.

The international response was swift. In addition to widespread online protest, the New York Times and the Washington Post soon published articles on the matter, followed by one from the New York Times condemning the Cuban government’s actions. The US State Department also offered a lukewarm communiqué expressing “concern” for the detention of the dissidents. It is unclear whether any of this had an effect on the Cuban authorities’ decision to free Bruguera on the following day.

Before her second and third arrests, the Cuban authorities had already seemingly decided to launch a social media campaign to smear Bruguera. A regime-friendly blog, Cubadebate, published an interview with Rubén del Valle. In the interview, del Valle built what would become the state’s primary arguments to discredit Bruguera. “More than a performance, I think this is a reality show,” he said, characterizing her proposal as counterrevolutionary and manipulative: “I told her that the streets are a permanent debate forum, and I proposed to her to do the project in factories, bus stops, in the market. None of these proposals was accepted.” Official Cuban channels constructed a portrait of the artist as imposing, intransigent, and unreasonable. Furthermore, del Valle tried to connect Bruguera with far-right, anti-Cuban forces in the United States: “[Tania’s] main supporters and her information hub are represented by people whose essential project for the future of Cuba is the restoration of capitalism and the penetration of far-right American ideas in all the aspects of our national culture.” Still, it remains an open question why the authorities did not consider allowing the performance to proceed and instead find ways to contain it. Their brutal resort to censorship and imprisonment has caused a public relations nightmare.

While Bruguera is a cultural force in Cuba, she has detractors amid the local art community. Take Lázaro Saavedra, who critiqued “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” as a work more about itself than about the issues it purportedly addressed, when he put his two cents in on December 30 in a letter disseminated via social media. Saavedra came to prominence in the 1990s, producing conceptual artworks that are remarkable in their inventiveness and critical observations of social dynamics in Cuba; he is also known for his cartoons, as almost a Cuban version of Dan Perjovschi. In a blog post, Saavedra dismissed Bruguera’s performance as an “aRtivist action” and a publicity stunt for which the artist had nothing to lose. Rather than “Tatlin’s Whisper #6,” he proposed, it should be called “La Bulla de Tania” (“Tania’s Hubbub”). He wrote:

“for a Cuban artist who may live most of the time outside of Cuba and may use the fight for civil rights as an ‘artivist’ medium in Cuban territory, any confrontation with the Cuban government will not have a real repercussion in their daily life because it [the government] is outside the sphere of influence for them; on the contrary, to come to Cuba is a means to accumulate ‘work achievements’ for the ‘international circuit’ of the ‘global’ art world by direct confrontation with an authoritarian government.”

Speaking with local Cuban artists and curators about the political reality in Cuba can be a confounding experience. While there is frequently outright, if confidential, recognition of the failures of the revolution, there is equally often a fierce belief in the philosophical principle of the revolution itself. For Latin Americans who lean Left, contemporary Cuba can be a difficult experience to process. The romanticism of the story about a little piece of land that one day stood up to the United States to assert its own political course is powerful, and still fuels the spirit of many. Yet the disappointment is palpable, and the way in which the revolution devolved into an ongoing socioeconomic crisis produced by a totalitarian regime is a bitter pill to swallow.

Bruguera’s performance came as a slap in the face for most Cuban artists — a way of saying out loud what everyone already knows but is unable to say. This act alone generated uneasiness, and in some cases, derision. The critical focus was redirected toward the artist herself, to her presumably self-serving intentions and the suicidal stubbornness of doing something that she already knew no one is allowed to do. It is perhaps unsurprising that the artist’s plight generated more scrutiny than sympathy. This is a common issue with the criticism of activist art, which is often dismissed as both art and activism because it neither delivers on an assumed promise of social transformation nor presents viewers with traditional symbolic or formal elements to absorb and reflect upon as it happens when one is at a gallery. The problem with this kind of criticism is that it unfairly raises the ethical bar in ways that are never done to conventional artworks. In the case of this performance, nothing short of an outright human sacrifice of the artist would appear to have sufficed as a worthwhile action, since critics like Saavedra immediately point to an alleged minimum of risk and substantial career benefits for artists living outside Cuba. 

However, such comments suggest that a socially motivated artwork can only be considered successful to the extent that the artist pays a high personal cost. In any case, the consequences that Bruguera suffered for her action were beyond undesirable. The local art community chose to interpret the censorship of “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” as a selfish ploy by an artist benefitting from controversy, even though it resulted in the artist facing a forced exile from her homeland.

Saavedra concluded his post with an almost surreal admission that the absence of freedom of speech in Cuba is a fact “known by everyone including the government, only that it doesn’t like it to be reminded about it or see it made visible, as it was confirmed by the #YoTambienExijo campaign.”

All this unveils a painful reality about the Cuban art community. Cuban artists who are truly committed to the fight for civil rights don’t have a viable future, in their career or otherwise. In this sense, the resentment of some local artists for those living in countries that respect freedom of speech is understandable. As Fusco points out in her article, the graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado (El Sexto) has been repeatedly detained for works that are critical of the regime. If Maldonado were imprisoned for his work for a longer term, it is highly unlikely that he would be rescued by an international human rights campaign. The only solutions for a Cuban artist, then, may be to either leave the island or play by the rules and refrain from touching the most delicate political issues, while building an international career on the international art market (as Carlos Garaicoa or Los Carpinteros have).

Tania Bruguera is unique as an artist who has managed to exist in two very complex political and social systems, each of which has its own contradictions and inequities. The fact that this time Bruguera’s brush with the Cuban authorities almost resulted in her permanent imprisonment makes one think of how artists who become critics of their governments — even those with prominent international careers like Bruguera — never truly become untouchable (for example, Ai Wei Wei). But whatever may result from this episode, it is clear that Bruguera’s action has raised difficult questions about the effects of the historic reopening of US-Cuba relations. Whoever ends up writing an art history of the Cold War will need to address the place of “Tatlin’s Whisper #6” as a work that, for better or worse, painfully laid bare the profound obstacles in the freeing of artistic expression within the political sphere.

With inevitable deaths of the Castro brothers, as well as most of those who fought in the revolution, on the horizon, there is an undeniable chance for a transformation in Cuba. For the first time in half a century, a young generation of Cubans may decide on a new course for their country. One can only hope that the Cuba to come will be one where setting up an open microphone in a plaza is no longer a state crime, but an uneventful, even uninteresting, gesture.

https://hyperallergic.com/609353/art-and-freedom-of-expression-in-cuba-throughout-the-21st-century/

Al Jazeera, November 26, 2016

Tania Bruguera: Cuban artist fights for free expression

How the internationally renowned dissident artist turned a performance piece into a fight for freedom of expression.

Bruguera stands in front of her house in Old Havana before her 100-hour open studio reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism [Courtesy of INSTAR]

Bruguera stands in front of her house in Old Havana before her 100-hour open studio reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism [Courtesy of INSTAR]

By Carlos Manuel Alvarez

26 Nov 2016

Havana, Cuba – It is December 17, 2014 and the Cuban artist Tania Bruguera is at Pope Francis’ weekly public mass at the Vatican. 

As a political artist, Bruguera has developed one of the most powerful bodies of work in installation and performance art in Latin America. She has come to Rome to present the pope with elements from her campaign, Dignity has no Nationality. It is part of her new project – a public political platform called the International Immigrants’ Movement.

On the train to Venice, where she’ll be participating in a performance art festival, Bruguera gets the news: after more than a year of secret negotiations, Cuba and the United States have announced the restoration of diplomatic relations.

“I became very anxious … fearful, hopeful, all at once,” she says. “An event like this marks a separation between the present and the past. You wonder, what’s to be done now?”

She continues: “In a way, something like this means everyone has a new role, as if the parts are being reshuffled; the old metaphors suddenly acquiring new meaning. Everything becomes re-contextualised.”

Two days later, she publishes an open letter to Raul Castro on Facebook. It is the first action of Yo Tambien Exijo (YTE), which means I Also Demand, a civic platform made up of a group of friends and colleagues, with Bruguera as its main spokeswoman.

“I found it suspicious that the government would try to sell an image to the world that portrayed everyone in Cuba as being happy with the agreement with the US. The government has always felt entitled to the feelings of its citizens, and thus acted as Cubans’ only legitimate spokesperson. In my interpretation, people weren’t happy. People were shocked. They felt a certain hope, a hope that they hadn’t felt for years, the hope that something might change. But that’s not the same as happiness…,” Bruguera says.

“Cuba’s president simply informs us. He dictates new resolutions without us knowing what sort of external pressures or intentions lie behind them. That’s because in Cuba, there is no institutional transparency.

“A president should navigate with its people through a political process like this, because it is also an emotional one. I find it as much an act of violence to say something can’t be done as to say now everyone is obliged to do it.”

Bruguera announces on social media that she intends to restage her performance on free speech, Tatlin’s Whisper

In the piece, which was last performed in Havana at the 2009 Biennial, participants are given a microphone and one minute to speak about anything they choose. 

In a country where many believe the only microphone belongs to the state, the 2009 performance was an unprecedented event where even dissidents had a platform.

This time, however, Bruguera says she wants to bring the performance to a public space, preferably Plaza de la Revolucion or Revolution Square – the government’s symbolic bastion.

Revolution Square or ‘Censorship Square’? 

But it soon becomes evident that Bruguera’s proposal isn’t welcomed by the authorities.

Various government-run blogs, magazines and online newspapers begin to portray her as a peon serving those pushing for the US annexation of Cuba or as attempting to destabilise the government. 

Raul Capote, a former state security agent turned blogger, writes (link in Spanish): “They’re not interested in peace or freedom of expression, but in sparking confrontation, provoking confusion and instability, at a time when the fascist right in Miami is shaking before the end of its hegemony of terror.”

Her attempt at political intervention is framed as an act of political opposition.

When Bruguera arrives at Havana airport on December 26 she is met by the political police who start filming her. Her every step is scrutinised.

In such moments, one lives in the present, Bruguera says.

“You enter this state, this state in which you are very much alert, trying to understand the semantic consequences of your actions, and how they are interpreted,” she says. “You are trying to keep them from sequestering your own story.”

A symptom, which will dictate the events to come, begins to emerge.

Pablo Helguera, the director of adult academic programmes at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, MoMA, describes it on Facebook (link in Spanish): “It is impossible to think of a relevant artistic action in the second decade of the 21st century that hasn’t been mediatised – or in which such mediatisation isn’t part of the work itself.

“Tania’s work is precisely that – a campaign – and whatever occurs or doesn’t occur within it is part of the work. It’s no surprise that the government stumbled into it like one stumbles into a black hole.”

Others criticise Bruguera, saying she has allowed political dissident groups to usurp her performance.

Bruguera says that both government and dissident forces seized upon her work at some point, mostly without really understanding it, after discovering an element worth exploiting for their own political goals.

But, she tells herself, she has worked with dissidents and activists in Europe and the United States who have used her work for various ends, so why not let those in her own country do so?

Over the next few days, a struggle ensues between Bruguera and Cuba’s cultural bureaucracy.

She visits the Havana police and the national police to ask about the permits she needs for her performance. But no one knows the answer; a regulatory limbo is imposed. 

She has two meetings with Ruben del Valle, the president of the National Council of Plastic Arts (CNAP), who suggests alternative venues, like the National Museum of Fine Arts. For Bruguera, Revolution Square is vital to the performance, but she nevertheless accepts del Valle’s alternative and agrees to a reduced performance of 90 minutes.

But before they finalise a deal, del Valle says the museum must choose the show’s participants.

For Bruguera, this amounts to killing the performance.

She decides that the performance belongs in Revolution Square.

Revolution Square has become Censorship Square, she argues.

A first act of political rebellion

Forty-eight-year-old Bruguera grew up in the upmarket Havana neighbourhood of El Vedado. Her father, Miguel Brugueras, was an underground militant during the Batista dictatorship and became a diplomat after 1959. He was a trusted ally of the revolution’s senior leadership.

Miguel Brugueras’ family never knew what he did on his trips abroad. According to Bruguera, he rarely spoke. At 18, in reaction to her father, Bruguera dropped the last letter of her surname and along with it lost any possible inheritance, either material or symbolic. It was her first act of political rebellion.

Between 1980 and 1983, she studied at the Elementary School of Plastic Arts in Havana and later attended the San Alejandro Fine Arts School, where she was a student until 1987. In 1992 she graduated with a degree in painting from Cuba’s prestigious arts university, the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA). 

It was a time of upheaval in Cuban art.

As Cuban essayist and intellectual Rafael Rojas argues (link in Spanish), “Between the 80s and 90s, a generation of plastic artists carried out a renovation of Cuba’s cultural life. This was a generation that, while pertaining to the Soviet bloc, was aware of the most groundbreaking movements taking place in Western art, and attempted to assimilate and adapt them into the Cuban context. Among the most emblematic artists in that transition was Tania Bruguera.”

Over the next two decades, Bruguera would maintain an influential presence in Cuba, mostly as a teacher at the ISA through her renowned Behaviour Art programme, which she established in 2002.

She simultaneously built a powerful international career. She has dealt with subjects such as migrants’ rights, the use and proliferation of weapons, drugs in Colombia and violence on the Mexican border. She taught at the University of Chicago, as well as at the National School of Fine Arts in Paris, and won distinctions like the Guggenheim Fellowship (1998) and the Prince Claus Award (2008). 

But around Christmas of 2014, things began to crumble.

“It was the first time Tania was doing a specifically political project in direct reference to Cuba,” Clara Astiasaran, an art critic, curator and YTE member, explains.

“Her work has always been political, but this time she was directly addressing the nation’s president regarding a foreign policy decision that was key to Cuba’s nation-building efforts over the past 60 years – the idea of anti-imperialism.”

Arrested

On the evening of December 29, Bruguera feels scared for the first time.

She goes for a walk, feeling confused. The performance has been announced for 3pm the next day, but friends have warned her that she won’t be allowed to attend.

She contemplates her options: she could sleep at someone else’s house, dress up as a homeless person and show up unannounced at the square, or she could wander around town until the show starts.

Instead, she walks to her mother’s house in Vedado and starts making phone calls, inviting artists and friends, trying her best to make the situation appear as ordinary as possible.

The next morning at 5.30am there’s a knock on the door. 

From her balcony, Bruguera can see the political police surround her building. Certain of what’s about to happen, she sits down with her mother and 94-year-old aunt and asks them to stay calm, no matter what.

It’s not until noon – after picturing the reaction at Revolution Square when people realise that she’s not there and fearing a breakout of violence – that Bruguera takes off her glasses and jewellery and opens the door.

She doesn’t see anyone so she calls out and a couple of officers appear. Bruguera has already tried contacting her sister in Italy to ask her to announce the performance’s cancellation, but ETECSA, the state-run telecommunications company, has cut off her landline and mobile phone.

She is charged with incitement to break the law, inciting public unrest and resisting the authorities, which is later dropped when it becomes apparent that she never resisted. Her Cuban passport is confiscated.

Bruguera is driven to the first of more than 30 interrogations she will be subjected to. 

WATCH: The Listening Post – Cuba: Media blind spots, tunnel visions and cliches

Detention and interrogation

At 3pm, a calm hangs over Revolution Square. It is hard to believe that it is at the centre of such turbulent events.

There are some international reporters, carrying their credentials, and a few cameras on tripods, along with the usual symbols: the statue of Jose Marti, the silhouette sculpture of Che Guevara on the facade of the Ministry of Interior building and of Camilo Cienfuegos on the Communications Ministry building, the Jose Marti National Library and the National Theatre.

There are also dozens of curious bystanders, standing in groups waiting for Bruguera to arrive. They watch the side streets and try to divine who among them is an undercover agent. Cars and buses drive up and down Boyeros Avenue, just as on any other afternoon. An hour later, people start to leave. 

A few days earlier, graffiti artist Danilo Maldonado Machado, known as El Sexto, had spray painted the names of Fidel and Raul on two pigs. He was arrested as he tried to release them on to the street and sent to prison.

An antenna, which according to INSTAR, was set up on the roof of Bruguera’s mother’s building in the lead up to Tatlin’s Whisper to snoop on the conversations in her home [Courtesy of Studio Bruguera and the YTE platform]

As Bruguera is driven to a police station, several other activists and well known political dissidents are arrested. Some weren’t even planning on participating in Bruguera’s performance.

Earlier that day, CNAP had issued an official statement: “In light of the circumstances, it is unacceptable to carry out the performance in the symbolic venue of Plaza de la Revolucion, particularly given the widespread coverage and manipulation the counterrevolutionary media have been doing of this.”

At the police station, Bruguera is given an inmate’s uniform to wear. She is locked in a cell with another woman, who, she concludes, must be a government informant because of all the questions she asks about political dissidents.

“It was at that moment,” Bruguera says, “I learned that injustice has a way of manifesting itself physically and isn’t just a concept. I stopped eating, not out of courage, but because I thought what was being done to me was unfair, and I had no other way of making that clear.”

A few officers interrogate her. Some are persuasive; others just shout. She is then handed over to a psychologist who asks questions such as: “What kind of television shows do you watch?”

She can’t tell whether this is supposed to push her to the point of desperation or to help pass the time.

Back in her windowless cell, exhausted from so much conversation, she tries to get some sleep. The next day she is released.

Having learned that other dissidents are still in prison, she heads to El Maine monument, on Havana’s Malecon, where she makes a public appeal for people to return to Revolution Square. She is again detained.

This time, she has another female cellmate.

“[She] looked like an undercover informant that had been planted there to watch me,” Bruguera says.

“I didn’t want to speak with anyone, and she stayed relatively quiet and polite. We didn’t talk about anything, other than her asking me whether I was planning on eating, and me telling her, No, I’m not. At some point, she started doing her hair and I ended up helping braid her hair in silence.”

Three national security officers take turns to interrogate her: Agents Andrea, Javier and Kenia, the lead investigator in her case. Bruguera doesn’t know whether these are their real names.

Andrea is younger and the least experienced. Javier seems more seasoned. He knows a lot about Cuban art in the 1980s, Bruguera’s career and even tries to play mind games with her by reminding her about her father. With Kenia, whose interrogation technique involves giving revolutionary spiels while mixing in talk about personal things, she establishes a more systematic interaction. 

“There’s something interesting about Kenia; she seems like an honest person,” Bruguera says. “I don’t know whether she is truly honest. Things are not what they appear to be during interrogations.”

On New Year’s Eve, Bruguera is again released. 

She welcomes 2015 with a court case against her, no passport, and unable to leave town.

“The performance turned out to be not so much what didn’t happen at Plaza de la Revolucion,” wrote Helguera (link in Spanish), “but the display of hysteria and arrogance that ensued on the part of the Cuban authorities … Cuba lives in a perpetual state of hysterical manipulation, and any person – whether an artist or not – who manages to break that balance will of course be viewed with terror and indignation.”

The line between empowerment and disengagement

In one of the few instances in which a Cuban artist or critic publicly criticised Bruguera’s work, National Plastic Arts Award laureate Lazaro Saavedra wrote in an essay(link in Spanish), “Just like with Tatlin’s Whisper, in 2009, Tania will be leaving Cuba having scored yet another ‘goal’ for her artistic resume and amassed thousands of anecdotes.

“She will be criticised, and also celebrated for her braveness and rebellious spirit in social media – both real and digital – and some curator or critic will fittingly mention her in their writings about contemporary art, etc. When she goes, she will be leaving behind her thousands of Cubans fighting for our civil rights, and as always there will be hundreds or thousands abroad pushing them. He who pushes doesn’t get hurt.”

According to him, “There is more provocation in Tania Bruguera’s YTE than success or progress in regards to civil rights beyond what’s obvious and has been said over and over: the government will not allow open microphones or all voices to be heard.”

That is precisely the point some scholars might have made without the risk of arrest: What happens when political art works within a society but then gets recognition outside of it? What’s the line between empowerment and disengagement?

Though many critics I spoke to disagreed with Bruguera’s work, they would not publicly debate it, partly out of concern that they might be seen as condoning the government’s actions.

Some critics say that had Bruguera carried out her performance inside a museum she would have managed to mount a challenge to the high bureaucrats of Cuban culture. But by taking it outside, she left culture unchallenged and undisturbed, while her work was insubstantial from a political standpoint, receiving scant public attention.

“As a creator,” Saavedra wrote, “Tania should have found an intelligent way to circumvent censorship and formal structures of social control and created a temporary autonomous zone where it would be possible to ‘open microphones’ and let ‘all voices’ be heard. But she failed, and the voices are still waiting to be heard.”

What began as a plan to perform Tatlin’s Whisper at Revolution Square, pictured, became the 2014-15 performance #YoTambienExijo (#IAlsoDemand). Here, individuals are gathered on December 30, 2014, the day the free speech performance was meant to tak…

What began as a plan to perform Tatlin’s Whisper at Revolution Square, pictured, became the 2014-15 performance #YoTambienExijo (#IAlsoDemand). Here, individuals are gathered on December 30, 2014, the day the free speech performance was meant to take place [Courtesy of Studio Bruguera and the YTE platform]

The performance continues

In early January 2015, more than 2,000 figures in the international art scene begin demanding that Bruguera’s documents be returned to her after her third arrest in 72 hours. On January 5, Bruguera returns her National Culture Award and renounces her membership of the national union of writers and artists. Two weeks later, she receives a case number: No 25 for the year 2015.

Over the next month, police interrogations and citations follow. Bruguera has to show up at the police station in Vedado, from where she is driven around the city to various “interrogation sites”. 

Some question why she always seems so willing to go and be interrogated.

“In order for it to work, the performance had to stick to the law,” she says. “Since it’s dealing with the issue of tolerance, the work had to show the control mechanisms the system has and all the legal contradictions which exist in Cuba.”

At the end of January, YTE sends a letter to Raul Castro and Maria Esther Reus Gonzalez, the justice minister, demanding they decriminalise free expression and remove all charges against Bruguera.

In response, Kenia, the investigator, tells Bruguera that the prosecutor hasn’t yet made a decision about her case and she will have to wait for another 60 days.

Over the following months, the wave of international solidarity grows. Renowned artists such as Anish Kapoor and Jeremy Deller sign an open letter published in The Guardian. 

She chronicles her experiences on social media. In one piece called The Eyes of Power, she writes: “I have looked into the eyes of power for four months now and throughout this time, I held my gaze, beginning a journey into another Cuba, a Cuba that belongs to those fighting for their right to free expression.

“Today, I’m in a Cuba that neither the tourists nor the businesspeople calculating the risks of their investments on the island will see, nor will the artists attending the Havana Biennial, because they will be safely inside the bubble of the art world.”

On May 20, just before the Havana Biennial opens, Bruguera begins an open-studio performance, a 100-hour reading of Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism at her home in Old Havana. 

This reading is the first undertaking of the Institute of Artivism Hannah Arendt (INSTAR), founded by Bruguera.

Although Bruguera thinks her performance has several endings and may not yet have ended, the reading could be considered the culmination of her work: what began as Tatlin’s Whisper and has continued with everything that has happened since, the performance she has now titled #YoTambienExijo, also the name of the platform, YTE, which she considers part of the work. 

“I think this work was quite a success, because I was able to try out different theories I had about political art, which I had written about, discussed at conferences, carried out separately in one or another work, but here managed to lay out in a very clear way,” she says. “For instance, one of the concepts that is present is what I call ‘doing work for a specific political moment’. That is, when works don’t emerge out of the artist’s personal, intimate desire but rather the political conditions where they will be developed. That was very clearly the case.

“The other thing that was at play was the investigation I have been doing for over 20 years about the limits between art and life, the creation of moments during which those limits force you to ask a very fruitful question – is that art you are being exposed to?

“Finally, I was able to experiment with the concept of behavioural art in which the work becomes complete through the reaction of the audience – their behaviour generates new content and meaning. This means there are no right or wrong answers to the work, just honest answers.”

Astiasaran, the art critic and YTE member, believes the project was successful at the time for two reasons. “It brought alliances from the art world into politics,” she says, “and showed the path for different agendas to become sovereign as well as politically and ideologically independent.”

On June 29, 2015, after a lengthy bureaucratic feud, the public prosecutor’s office dictates that the case against her be discontinued. Bruguera gets her passport back and on August 21, after taking part in several marches with the dissident group the Ladies in White, she flies out of Cuba.

Following months of organisation overseas through YTE, and after a successful Kickstarter campaign raising more than $100,000, INSTAR is formally launched on April 8, 2016.

In May, Bruguera returns to Cuba.

Her house now serves as INSTAR’s headquarters. 

“This time of polarised feelings, of the lack of citizens’ resources to change the course of things, calls for us to reclaim public space as a civic space rather than a venue for propaganda where above all there is a lack of transparency and institutional tolerance. Since the government likes to simplify things into right or wrong, I would like to share with others the construction of complex concepts or emotions, like forgiveness,” she says.

Translated from Spanish to English by Alvaro Guzman Bastida. 

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

https://www.aljazeera.com/features/2016/11/26/tania-bruguera-cuban-artist-fights-for-free-expression