CubaBrief: Non-violent action against the Castro dictatorship successfully internationalized #ImmoralBienal #NoToTheBienalOfHavana

There is a social non-cooperation action underway by Cuban artists with the solidarity of other artists from around the world.

“Cuban and international artists and experts have signed an open letter that was posted on e-flux” that include artists Tania Bruguera and Coco Fusco, as well as Cecilia Fajardo-Hill, a British/Venezuelan art historian and curator of modern and contemporary art, called for a boycott months ago of the 14th Havana Biennial ( that started on November 21, 2021 and continues for three months) to protest “injustices committed by the Cuban government against its citizens, including harassment and wrongful imprisonment,” Eileen Kinsella reported in ArtNet News, on October 19, 2021.

Cuban installation artist Tania Bruguera currently outside of Cuba explained the reason for the nonviolent action to The Telegraph: “We have tried everything through dialogue with the government to make them stop political violence and stop censoring and imprisoning artists,” says “The boycott is a strategy when you have no more options.” It is a nonviolent strategy, and it is not limited to artistic freedom. “Without political rights, artistic rights don’t mean much,” says Bruguera. “I don’t just want freedom for art exhibitions.”

In mid July, thousands spontaneously rallied in cities across Cuba, with some shouting “down with dictatorship”, “we have lost our fear” and “Patria y Vida”. The regime response was to call for combat in the streets, and sent out security forces, many dressed in black to fire on unarmed protesters, and beat up others with clubs. Thousands were detained, and hundreds have been identified by human rights defenders that remain jailed.

Hundreds of artists worldwide signed an open letter accusing festival organizers of condoning “violence perpetrated against Cuban cultural workers”. Prominent artists have pulled out, and Cuban artists Coco Fusco and Tania Bruguera announce their departure on social media with the hashtags #NoALaBienalDeLaHabana and #𝐵𝑖𝑒𝑛𝑎𝑙𝐼𝑛𝑚𝑜𝑟𝑎𝑙.

Spanish performance artist Abel Azcona, Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović and the Serpentine Gallery’s director Hans Ulrich Obrist have joined the boycott together with hundreds of other artists.

“Cuba’s top film director, Ernesto Daranas, whose work is often selected as Cuba’s entries for the Oscars, has also questioned the government’s insistence that the protests are the work of US meddling. ‘Putting every criticism in that same bucket is now isolating [Cuba’s government] from reality,’ he said last year”, reported The Telegraph.

The Telegraph also mentions that “Castro was adored by Jean-Paul Sartre”, but Sartre, Beauvoir, together with other writers and thinkers, broke with the Castro regime in 1971 the turning point came with the arrest and imprisonment of Cuban poet, Herberto Padilla in Havana.

Heberto Juan Padilla, a Cuban poet, who like many had been an enthusiastic supporter of Fidel Castro ousting Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, became disillusioned when the Castro regime’s dictatorial nature became clear, and reflected it in his writings. In 1968, however, Cuban judges in the national poetry contest awarded their “Julian del Casal” poetry prize to Padilla’s collection, Fuera del Juego (Out of the Game), which contained critical lines such as:

“The poet! Kick him out!
He has no business here.
He doesn’t play the game.
He never gets excited
Or speaks out clearly.
He never even sees the miracles …”

The book was published but an addendum was added that criticized the work as counterrevolutionary, and Heberto Padilla was placed under house arrest. On March 20, 1971 Heberto Padilla and Belkis Cuza Malé’s home was raided by armed state security agents at seven in the morning and they were arbitrarily detained. Belkis was held incommunicado for three days and released. Heberto was interrogated for over a month and psychologically tortured by the secret police and on April 27, 1971 taken to confess before the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, UNEAC) his counter-revolutionary tendencies. Cuban literary critic José Antonio Portuondo served as the moderator and introduced Heberto Padilla to the gathered group, and the numerous cameras of the official press. Below is an excerpt of a video from the event.

Artists and intellectuals wrote two open and public letters to Fidel Castro about Heberto Padilla, the first on April 9, 1971, was signed by Carlos Barral, Simone de Beauvoir, Italo Calvino, Josep Maria Castellet, Fernando Claudín, Julio Cortázar, Jean Daniel, Marguerite Duras, Hans Magnus Enzensbeger, Jean-Pierre Faye, Carlos Franqui, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Goytisolo, Luis Goytisolo, Alain Jouffroy, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Joyce Mansour, Dionys Mascolo, Alberto Moravia, Maurice Nadeau, Hélène Parmelin,Octavio Paz, Anne Philipe, Pignon, Jean Pronteau, Rebeyrolle, Rossana Rossanda, Francisco Rossi, Claude Roy, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jorge Semprún, Mario Vargas Llosa, and the second on May 20, 1971 was signed by an even greater number of artists and intellectuals. The second letter was in reaction to Heberto Padilla’s “confession” and expressed their belief that it was their “duty to communicate our shame and anger to you” regarding it and expressed concern for “the contempt for human dignity that involves forcing a man to ridiculously accuse himself of the worst betrayals and vileness does not alarm us because he is a writer, but because any Cuban colleague – peasant, worker, technician or intellectual – may also be the victim of a similar violence and humiliation.”

Heberto Padilla with his wife Belkiz Cuza Malé in Cuba 1973

The Telegraph cited as “another factor” … “greater web access, a legacy from the era of President Obama, who loosened tech sanctions on Havana in the hope of exposing Cubans ‘to different points of view’,” but the record shows that Havana did not take the Obama Administration up on their offer.

The Obama Administration sought to engage with Cuba on greater internet access, but was rebuffed in 2009. The White House granted licenses and sought to encourage the laying of a “new fiber-optic cable and satellite facilities between the U.S. and Cuba.” TeleCuba Communications Inc. announced on Oct. 13, 2009 that it had received approval from the Treasury Department “to lay about 110 miles (175 kilometers) of cable from Florida to Cuban territory — seemingly a significant dent in the U.S. embargo against the island.” A regime official described Havana’s position as “wary” of linking cable and satellite facilities with the United States. Instead the Castro regime went with a 1,000-mile undersea fiber-optic cable strung from socialist ally Venezuela to Cuba in 2011 rejecting the 2009 Obama Administration overture.

ETECSA, the Castro regime’s telecommunications company that has a monopoly over communications in Cuba, signed an agreement with Beijing’s Huawei to sell its cellphones in November 2015, in the midst of the Obama thaw.

Western companies are at a disadvantage in Cuba, and in other repressive states, because Huawei is willing to use both its technology and staff to spy on people for repressive governments, and for Beijing. This has been well documented in Africa, and is undoubtedly being done in Cuba. However, Western companies still try to compete. Back in the 1990s in China it was Western companies, like Yahoo, that tracked down dissidents who were jailed, tortured and killed by Beijing. Today, the Chinese have cut out their Western partners and are able to provide this service through Huawei.

Despite the Obama administration’s best efforts Havana did not open up internet access on cell phones in Cuba on their watch. It was not until December 2018, the second year of the Trump Administration that Raul Castro allowed Cubans to access the internet on their cell phones through the state-run telecoms monopoly ETECSA. This was long after the White House changed its Cuba policy and had increased sanctions against Havana.

This should be an important lesson for policy makers that view all through the U.S.-Cuba prism, and that is that the Castro regime has other priorities than normalizing relations with the United States, and chief among them is preserving the dictatorship at all costs, and secondly exporting their model abroad.

Two equally important lessons for the Cuban resistance is that nonviolent actions can frustrate the designs of the Castro regime despite all the dictatorship’s efforts and that there are no permanent victories or defeats. Intellectuals turned against Castro in 1971, but the dictatorship fought back on the international scene and eventually became tolerated. In 2003, following the firing squad execution of three young black men, the Castro regime was widely reviled by intellectuals the world over. Democrats and human rights defenders cannot declare victory and lower our guard. This is an ongoing struggle with a persistent adversary, and the words of British poet T.S. Eliot comes to mind.

“If we take the widest and wisest view of a Cause, there is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause. We fight for lost causes because we know that our defeat and dismay may be the preface to our successors’ victory, though that victory itself will be temporary; we fight rather to keep something alive than in the expectation that anything will triumph.” ― T.S. Eliot

Even after the dictatorship is driven from power, and democracy restored in Cuba, it will be necessary to carry out the work of defending truth and memory of what happened during this period to ensure that Castroism 2.0 does not return, as it did in Nicaragua with the Sandinistas. It can be done, and the examples of Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republica, and a long etcetera serve as proof.

The Telegraph, November 21, 2021

Art and revolution: ‘the Biennial whitewashes the situation in Cuba’

The imprisonment of rapper Denis Solis has led to a boycott of this year’s festival

By Colin Freeman

21 November 2021

Thousands of people in support of a Cuban revolution on the Malecon in Havana Credit: AP

Like many rap singers, Denis Solis is an anti-establishment figure who is no great fan of the cops. So when a policeman knocked on his door last year without a warrant, he filmed the officer on his mobile phone and called him a “coward in uniform”.

This, however, was Cuba, where being a rebel carries rather more risk than it does in the West: Solis was later sentenced to eight months in prison for “contempt of authority”. But the footage of the run-in, which he posted on Facebook, went viral: in six decades of Communist rule, such acts of open defiance are rare. Nor did the matter end there. Solis belongs to Cuba’s San Isidro Movement, a dissident artists’ collective based in a run-down quarter of Havana old town. Following his imprisonment last November, they protested in their hundreds for his release, with many ending up behind bars themselves.

For Cuba’s new president, Miguel Diaz-Canel – an apparatchik who took over from Fidel Castro’s brother Raul in 2018 – the whole thing is just a US-backed “imperial reality show”. Like it or not, though, the show is the talk of the town – not least at the Havana Biennial, a government-backed arts festival that opens today.

Founded in 1984, the three-month-long Biennial is designed to promote artworks from the developing world, styling itself as a platform for artists ignored by the West. This year, though, the San Isidros are urging a boycott of it – derailing an event that normally burnishes Cuba’s image for revolutionary idealism.

Already, hundreds of artists worldwide have signed an open letter accusing the festival organisers of condoning “violence perpetrated against Cuban cultural workers”. Several prominent participants, meanwhile, have pulled out. “We have tried everything through dialogue with the government to make them stop political violence and stop censoring and imprisoning artists,” says Tania Bruguera, a Cuban installation artist currently based in New York. “The boycott is a strategy when you have no more options.”

Protestors show their support for rapper Denis Solis Credit: Shutterstock

Bruguera, 53, is known in Britain for her 2008 work Tatlin’s Whisper, which featured mounted police corralling visitors in the Tate Modern’s vast Turbine Hall. She is also familiar with the rather more restricted environments of Cuban jail cells, having been arrested during the protests over the past year.

“The Biennial is a big event which helps to whitewash the political situation, where people who are inclined to defend the Cuban revolution can enjoy mojitos,” she added. “It’s always been a bubble, where nobody’s ever actually in contact with the Cuban people.”

The protests that began last year are the biggest in Cuba since the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union’s collapse ended the aid that had kept Cuba’s state-run economy afloat. The regime has survived partly by introducing market reforms – but also by maintaining its repression of critics.

However, Solis is not an easy hero to embrace. In his film of the stand-off with the policeman, he also calls the officer a “faggot”, and declares support for Donald Trump, who reimposed sanctions eased during the Obama years. Such comments have made it hard for human rights activists to treat him as a martyr, and easy for regime supporters to denounce him as a US stooge.

Nonetheless, the wider protests sparked by his detention have gone well beyond the usual red lines. The Cuban regime’s attitude to the arts can be largely summed up by a speech Castro gave to the island’s intellectuals in 1961, when he set out their creative parameters. “Within the revolution, everything, against the revolution, nothing,” he said.

“Without political rights, artistic rights don’t mean much,” says Bruguera. “I don’t just want freedom for art exhibitions.” The protests have also chimed with wider public discontent over food and medical shortages caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Last July, that led to thousands rallying in cities nationwide, some shouting “down with dictatorship”.

“These protests really are unprecedented in Cuba in the last 20 years, as they’re linking bread-and-butter issues like healthcare, food and jobs to the issues of freedom and democracy,” says Dr Christopher Sabatini, a Cuba analyst at London’s Chatham House think tank. “That strikes at the heart of what the revolution’s about.”

People take to the streets to air their discontent at the Cuban government Credit: AP

Another factor is greater web access, a legacy from the era of President Obama, who loosened tech sanctions on Havana in the hope of exposing Cubans “to different points of view”. That has helped protesters to mobilise and share videos, despite officials often cutting social media access off.

The government, however, has been mobilising its own supporters through so-called repudios – real-life trollings, where mobs of loyalists gather to hurl abuse at regime critics. “I had five repudios this year – they’re done by paramilitaries dressed as civilians, who claim to be just your neighbours defending the revolution,” says Bruguera. “It’s horrible – you can get 20 people around you, screaming at the tops of their voices and sometimes getting very violent.”

The government has also organised its own pro-Biennial counter-petition, saying that more than 600 signatories worldwide have endorsed its “anti-hegemonic” character and that at least 300 artists will still be attending.

However, several prominent guests have already pulled out of the Biennial, including the Spanish performance artist Abel Azcona, while signatories to the open letter include the Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović and the Serpentine Gallery’s director Hans Ulrich Obrist.

Cuba’s top film director, Ernesto Daranas, whose work is often selected as Cuba’s entries for the Oscars, has also questioned the government’s insistence that the protests are the work of US meddling. “Putting every criticism in that same bucket is now isolating [Cuba’s government] from reality,” he said last year.

True, an artists’ revolt is some way off a popular “revolucion”. Cuba’s security forces remain firmly in control, with police flooding Havana this week to head off further protests. There have also been more arrests and repudios, while around 650 people detained in July’s unrest remain in jail, according to human rights groups. 

But given the regime’s past courting of artists worldwide – Castro was adored by Jean-Paul Sartre, for example – the boycott deprives the government of much of its “moral authority”, says Dr Sabatini. “A lot of intellectuals support the Cuban ideal, even if they wouldn’t want to live there themselves,” he said. “So if they too are now coming out against the regime, it removes one of the last remaining symbols of the support for the government.”

From the archives

France24, November 26, 2016

How the world’s left loved and loathed Fidel Castro

Fidel Castro’s Cuban revolution was often hailed on the left as a new utopia, but by the 1970s Castro’s vision had lost its lustre leaving many writers, philosophers, and activists deeply disillusioned.

Text by: Nicole TRIAN

A leftist icon of the second half of the 20th Century, Fidel Castro was a charismatic figure who stayed true to his ideology beyond the collapse of the Soviet Union and long after his Cuban socialist model fell out of favour.

But when he took power in 1959, the spirit of revolution inspired some of the era’s greatest intellectuals who shared Castro’s desire to stamp out colonialism and exploitation.

Friends of the Revolution

In 1960, the French intellectuals Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir arrived in Cuba during the ‘high point’ of the revolution and quickly became enamoured with Castro’s revolutionary ideals.

Beauvoir wrote, “after Paris, the gaiety of the place exploded like a miracle under the blue sky.”

Sartre’s philosophical ideas were being debated around the world and as he stepped up his political advocacy — speaking on issues like the war in Algeria — he earned a moral authority among those keen to denigrate colonial and capitalist ideologies. In a televised press conference Castro honoured Sartre and Beauvoir by presenting them to the nation as friends of the revolution.

When the couple returned to Paris, Sartre published a string of articles praising the revolution and Castro’s leadership.

On a return trip to Cuba a year later, however, the joy Beauvoir had earlier described had all but disappeared.

She and Sartre would come to reject Castro’s socialist dream.

From Paris to New York

Across the Atlantic In the leftist circles of 1960s New York, Castro’s Cuba was as fashionable a topic of debate as women’s liberation, the war in Vietnam and civil rights.

Enthusiasts like beat poet Allen Ginsberg who welcomed Castro to New York in 1960 and feminist writer Susan Sontag, saw the Cuban socialist model as a counterbalance to Soviet repression and US capitalism.

They, like many academics on the left, argued that Cuba would never be like the Soviet Union – a one-party regime intent on ruling by oppression.

C. Wright Mills who popularised the term ‘new left’ wrote that the Cuban government of the mid-1960s was “not communist in any of the senses legitimately given to this word”.

Castro’s ambitious social programmes — which included boosting home ownership in cities, land redistribution in rural areas and literacy campaigns — gave the intellectual left much to hope for.

Writer Norman Mailer said of Castro that he was “the first and greatest, hero to appear in the world since the Second World War”.

But as Castro loyalists on the left focused on the achievements of the regime in ending poverty and improving health and education, many Cubans were slowly losing their freedoms.

Words as weapons

In 1961 Castro’s Words to the Intellectuals speech delivered in the national library marked the beginning of a period of censorship of writers and intellectuals. Castro warned of things to come when he said: “Within the revolution, everything. Without the revolution, nothing.”

Castro was taking Cuba towards a more hardline socialist model. It was a sign that the love affair between the intellectual left and the beguiling revolutionary leader was coming to an end.

For Sartre and Beauvoir, along with other writers and thinkers, the turning point came with the arrest and imprisonment of Cuban poet, Herberto Padilla in Havana.

Sartre, Beauvoir, Ginsberg, Sontag and Colombian author and friend to Castro Gabriel Garcia Marquez were among several writers who denounced the Cuban leader in an open letter published in the New York Review of Books in May 1971. They urged Castro to release Padilla, writing:

“……the use of repressive measures against intellectuals and writers who have exercised the right of criticism within the revolution can only have deeply negative repercussions among the anti-imperialist forces of the entire world, and most especially of Latin America, for which the Cuban Revolution is a symbol and a banner.”

Gabriel García Márquez, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1982, wrote of Castro’s “love of the word” as being one of his defining traits but not above his competitiveness and desire to win.