The world must look beyond Cuba’s carefully manufactured PR image

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117089″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]The Cuban revolution has always been adept at PR. Even in the early days, before the revolution succeeded in overthrowing the American backed dictator Fulgencio Batista, Cuban rebel leader Fidel Castro was a master of propaganda.

When the American journalist Herbert Matthews visited the Sierra Maestra in 1957 and sat down with Castro for an interview, the guerrilla chief fooled Matthews into thinking rebel forces were stronger than they were by marching the same columns of men past at various intervals and by having ‘messengers’ report the existence of non-existent rebel units.

“From the look of things, General Batista cannot possibly hope to suppress the Castro revolt,” wrote The New York Times’ correspondent in his subsequent dispatch.

Over the ensuing half a century, Havana’s propaganda has been equally powerful, fostering an image of Cuba abroad as a besieged outpost against United States aggression; as a beacon of healthcare and education; and as a country in which children are taught to live lives of heroic self-sacrifice in emulation of revolutionary icon Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara (who is the subject of a cult of personality in Cuba).

For those living at a great distance from the Cuban reality, it is easy to be fooled by the idealistic penumbra that surrounds the Cuban revolution. The arbitrary arrests, the grinding poverty, the tentacles of the state that reach into every aspect of daily life – all are submerged in the minds of foreign admirers beneath a tide of romantic kitsch.

Yet as thousands of Cubans take to the streets in unprecedented protests against the dictatorship, it is important that Western human rights and free speech organisations do not allow the distorted image of Cuba as a tropical socialist outpost against capitalism to muddy their thinking.

Many, thankfully, have not. Each year Amnesty International produces a detailed and damning report on the human rights situation in Cuba. In its 2020 report, Amnesty noted that the authorities in Havana “continued to repress all forms of dissent, including by imprisoning independent artists, journalists and members of the political opposition”. Since the mass protests began on 11 July 2021, Amnesty has been closely monitoring the situation, publishing regular updates as to the whereabouts of Cuban activists and dissident voices.

Human Rights Watch has produced similarly comprehensive reports in its coverage of the deteriorating situation on the island for opponents of the dictatorship. Reporters Without Borders (RSF) has condemned the Cuban government’s repression of citizen protests.

Yet despite the mass of evidence that the government in Havana is an egregious violator of human rights, evidence that is accumulating in real time; and despite the landmark protests by thousands of Cubans who risk imprisonment simply for taking to the streets, one senses that Cuba is unlikely to become a cause célèbre activists in the way that, say, Palestine has become so, or even Belarus or Myanmar.

Worse, some left-wing organisations in the United States and Britain, ostensibly dedicated to human rights and firmly embedded within the social democratic institutions within their countries, have sided openly with the dictatorship. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Young Labour, Black Lives Matter and the Progressive International have all released statements in support of the dictatorship in recent days.

It is vital that organisations dedicated to free speech and human rights continue to draw attention to repressive conditions and abuses inside Cuba. However it is also important that liberals and progressives take the reports that these organisations produce seriously – as seriously as they do when the same accusations are made of less fashionable (or PR-savvy) dictatorships.

During the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, many liberal and progressive voices were quick to jump on news stories featuring battalions of heroic Cuban doctors sent around the world to aid the anti-pandemic efforts. It would be nice if such interest in Cuba wasn’t so fleeting; if it looked beyond Havana’s carefully manufactured PR operation; and if it expressed itself for once by actually listening to the Cuban people and what they want.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][three_column_post title=”You may also want to read” category_id=”7874″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Heberto Padillo’s ‘confession’ 50 years on

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”116621″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes”][vc_column_text]Fifty years ago today, the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla made a dramatic public confession at the Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba under the watchful eye of State Security agents.

In his auto-da-fe, Padilla denounced himself, his wife and several close friends as counterrevolutionaries.

The confession sent shockwaves around the world.

Two days earlier, Padilla had been released from a 36-day detention at Cuba’s State Security headquarters.

Padilla had fallen foul of the island’s authorities after his return from an extended stay in the Soviet Union, where he opened Cuba’s first press agency in Moscow and befriended dissident poets.

Padilla’s ritualised public penance sent ripples across the literary world while the Cuban government tried to use his “confessions” as proof of its right to imprison the poet.

Internationally, Padilla’s confession was seen as Cuba’s version of a Stalinist show trial – footage of the confession was suppressed by the authorities.

However, his supporters were conflicted. Index wrote at the time how the feeling began to grow that Padilla’s confession had been forced in some way and that perhaps he had been subjected to brainwashing techniques or possibly even torture.

“A majority of the original letter’s signatories seemed to share this view and signed another letter of protest against the whole affair while a minority accepted the confession at its face value and supported the government position. As a result, progressive left-wing literary circles were split in their assessment of the affair and this led to a series of charges and counter-charges that continued for many months,” we wrote.

Whatever the reason for his confession, it served as a harbinger of what was to follow: a period known as the Grey Five Years in which dozens of Cuban artists and writers were banished from public life.

The Cuban government’s treatment of Padilla made its protocol for handling intellectuals and artists visible and has since functioned as a warning to those that seek to challenge the primacy of state authority.

The passage of five decades means that Padilla’s public show of defiance has been largely forgotten internationally but the words he spoke retain their power even today.

Cuba’s government is once again cracking down again on a new generation of Cuban artists and intellectuals, portraying them as lackeys of foreign powers.

On 17 April, the headquarters of the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) was raided and the visual artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara (winner of a 2018 Freedom of Expression award with the Museum of Dissidence), and the rapper and poet AfrikReina detained.

It is against this backdrop that Padilla’s words are again being spoken as part of Padilla’s Shadow, a project of MSI and 27N, which protest against state censorship of artistic freedom in the country.

Twenty Cuban intellectuals and artists, including  Hamlet Lavastida and Cuban poets Néstor Díaz de Villegas and Katherine Bisquet , will today livestream a choral reading of Padilla’s confession under the direction of Cuban American artist Coco Fusco.

Many of the project’s participants have told Fusco that they are shocked by the text, that it has provoked bouts of anxiety, sleeplessness and nightmares.

Néstor Díaz de Villegas said, “In stark contrast to History Will Absolve Me, the self-defence speech that Fidel Castro gave in court in 1953, Heberto Padilla indicted history by incriminating himself with his auto-da-fe. His confession is the definitive comedy of errors of the Cuban Revolution.”

Hamlet Lavastida, who has designed the commemorative project, said, “Heberto Padilla’s confession represents the irruption of Sovietism in Cuban cultural life. In order to create ‘perfect literature’ it became necessary to purge from the creator everything that was antagonistic to the great disciplinary story of the State.

“Skepticism, disenchantment, cosmopolitanism and existentialism had to be extirpated. This form of cultural repression was undoubtedly and absolutely novel in the Latin American cosmos. Never before had State Communism been so effectively virulent within Latin American culture. This was its contribution, its regrettable contribution, one contribution that is ongoing.”

Katherine Bisquet said, “The confession is disturbing. It plunges you into a desolate time, not because of its vitality, because of its existential nullity.”

“Those words tell me emphatically that we have had to stop feeling everything we could feel, which is to say we had to fake madness in order to survive the real induced madness, the madness from which we do not return.”

You can read Padillo’s poetry that Index published here and watch the 50th anniversary commemorative project, Padillo’s Shadow, below:


Cuban artists still condemned to silence

Cuban Film Posters exhibition

August 2015: opening of the Cuban Film Posters exhibition Soy Cuba as part of World Cinema Amsterdam. Credit: Shutterstock / Cloud Mine Amsterdam

“[T]he fault of many of our intellectuals and artists is to be found in their ‘original sin’: they are not authentically revolutionary.”
— Che Guevara, Man and Socialism in Cuba, 1965

Last year was a good one for Cuban artists. With renewed diplomatic relations with the US, a boom in Latin American art and Cuba’s exceptional artistic talent — fostered through institutions such as the Instituto Superior de Arte in Havana — works by prominent Cuban artists fetched top dollar at international auctions, and the Cuban film industry was firmly in the international spotlight.

While the end of the embargo brought with it hope for political liberalisation on the island, as with previous periods of promise in Cuban history cases of repression and censorship of dissident artists were rife in 2015.

So let’s begin again: Last year was a good one for Cuban artists who adhere to the country’s long-established revolutionary narrative and don’t embarrass the regime.

The fear of censorship for art that is critical of the government has been fostered through decades of laws and repression that limit freedom of expression. This can mean stigmatisation, the loss of employment and even imprisonment. Charges such as “social dangerousness” and insulting national symbols are so vague they make convictions very easy.

“Artists are among the most privileged people in Cuban society — they make money in hard currency, travel, have frequent interaction with foreigners and they don’t have boring jobs,” explains Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American artist, 2016 Index Freedom of Expression Awards nominee and author of Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba. “Artists function as a window display in Cuba; proof of the success of the system.”

But if an artist engages in political confrontations, they can draw unwanted attention, says Fusco.

One artist accused of doing just that is critically-acclaimed Cuban director and fellow nominee for this year’s Index Awards Juan Carlos Cremata. In 2015, he staged a production of Eugene Ionesco’s Exit the King, about an ageing ruler who refuses to give up power. The play lasted two performances before being shut down by the National Council of Theatre Arts and the Centre for Theatre in Havana.

“Exit the King was banned because according to the minister of culture and the secret police we were mocking Fidel Castro,” Cremata told Index on Censorship. “This wasn’t really true; what they fear is real revolutionary speech in theatre.”

When he spoke out against the move, Cuban authorities terminated his theatre contract, effectively dissolving his company, El Ingenio.

Cremata, whose career spans three decades, confesses the shutting down of Exit the King took him by surprise. “We are living in the 21st century, and according to the official propaganda, Cuba is changing and people can talk about anything,” he says. “This, as it turns out, is a big lie by people who are still dreaming of the revolution.”

“With their censorship, they show how stupid, retrograde and archaic their politics are,” he says.

As so much funding for artists comes from the state, non-conformist artists often find themselves in difficult financial situations. “I’ve had to reinvent my life,” Cremata says. “I’m trying to receive some help from friends who offer to work with me for free, but this will not be eternal, as they have families.”

Cremata himself has an adopted daughter and has her future to think about. “I truly believe life will change and better times will come with or without their approval, but it is very, very hard.”

Art has always been at the centre of Cuban culture, but under Fidel Castro it became a tool for spreading socialist ideas and censorship a tool for tackling dissent. Evidently, Cuba isn’t entirely post-Fidel, explains Fusco. “Fidel is still alive, his brother is in charge and his dynasty is firmly ensconced in the power, with sons, nieces and nephews in key positions,” she says. “Although I don’t think anyone over the age of 10 in Cuba believes the rhetoric anymore.”

Very few may believe the rhetoric, but going against it can still land you in prison, as was the case with Index Awards nominee Danilo Maldonado, the graffiti artist also known as El Sexto. Maldonado organised a performance called Animal Farm for Christmas 2014, where he intended to release two pigs with the names of Raúl and Fidel Castro painted on them. He was arrested on his way to carry out the performance and spent 10 months in prison without trial.

International human rights organisations condemned his imprisonment — during which he was on a month-long hunger strike — as an attack on freedom of expression.

The prospect for improving political freedoms doesn’t look good, and anyone who expected any different due to Cuba’s normalisation of relations with the US is naive, says Fusco.

“Washington is not promoting policy changes to improve human rights,” she says. “Washington is promoting policy changes to 1. develop better ways to exert political influence in Cuba; 2. to revise immigration policies and control the steep increase in Cuban illegal migration to the US; 3. to give US businesses and investment opportunity that they need (particularly agribusiness); 4. to avoid a tumultuous transition at the end of Raul Castro’s term in power that would produce more regional instability (i.e. the US does not want another Iraq, Libya or Syria).”

Even within Cuba there is an absence of discussion about civil liberties, strong voices of criticism of state controls and collective artist-based efforts to promote liberalisation.

“Artists are generally afraid to mingle with dissidents,” says Fusco. “There are a few bloggers who post stories about confrontations with police and political prisoners, a few older human rights activists who collect information about detentions and prison conditions, a handful of opposition groups who advocate for political reforms, but they have virtually no influence on the government.”

In the past, Cuban authorities used the US embargo as an excuse to justify restrictions on freedom of expression. Now that the excuses are running out, it is time for the Cuban government allow its dissidents the same freedoms as its conformists.


Ryan McChrystal is the assistant editor, online at Index on Censorship

Chavez to start own blog

Following the success of his Twitter account, Hugo Chavez has launched his own blog in order to increase his online presence. Chavez announced that he plans to publish transcripts of his speeches and articles, as well as a guest column by Fidel Castro. His Twitter account, which only began a month ago, has already more than 400,000 followers.