The Art Of Turning Artists Into “Enemies”

Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara on a park bench in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, 10 November 2017 — He scribbled on a wall and they detained him for several months; he founded an opposition party and they accused him of buying some sacks of cement; he opened an independent media outlet and they denounced him for treason. Every step taken to be free ended with a disproportionate repression that can only be explained through the fear that the ruling party feels towards its own citizens.

The case against the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has once again exposed the fear that beats in the highest spheres and spills over onto everyone who leaves the assigned fold. The police officers who entered his house last Monday went in search of any evidence to incriminate him, because they are the executors of a punishment policy that is systematically applied against the system’s critics.

The sacks of construction materials are just a pretext to “show him the instruments” and to embroil Otero Alcántara in an infinite legal process. What is coming now is a movie we already know well: the trial at full speed, the sentence that allows him to be removed from circulation until after the date scheduled for the independent event and, meanwhile, a “good cop” who will whisper in his ear the advantages of emigrating and avoiding such imbroglios.

The artist will feel every kind of pressure. On the one hand, State Security will say that his call to participate in an independent event is a provocation that will not be allowed, and on the other hand the official artists’ guild will distance itself and its members from his proposals. Some of those who said “yes” to participating in the #Bienal00 will no long respond to the emails or will communicate that they will be unavailable due to an unforeseen trip.

Some will accuse him of wanting to attract attention, others will tell him he could have gone through official channels before throwing himself into organizing a parallel event. There will be those who will reproach him for having crossed the red line between art and activism, or for having dabbled in politics. The most caustic will whisper that now he can include his own face in the next Game of Thrones video he creates about the candidates for the Cuban presidency.

However, solidarity will also rain down upon him from those who, in recent days, have been expecting the imprisonment of the author of ¿Dónde está Mella?, a performance held in the former Manzana de Gómez, in Havana. His case will help show the world that Raúl Castro’s government has a similar modus operandi to attack opponents, artists and journalists.

The ruling party does not care if the “daring” report human rights violations, work with metaphors or investigate information. From up there, anyone who does not follow orders deserves only one word: enemy. Now, for them, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has fallen into that category.

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José Martí from New York, Without a Visa and With Mistakes

The equestrian statue of the Cuban hero José Martí, that has been living in Central Park in New York since 1950, has a replica in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 19 October 2017 – We see him leaning over, a lost look in his eyes. He is mortally wounded and the bronze captures the second that separates him from immortality. The replica of the José Martí statue that has been in New York’s Central Park since 1950, now has a place in Havana. On Thursday afternoon, under an intensely blue sky, we can see his contours sparkling and the pedestal shine. Also noteworthy are the unpardonable mistakes on the commemorative plaque.

On the commemorative plaque of the monument of José Martí there are two spelling mistakes. (14ymedio)

City is spelled ”cuidad”– similar to the word for “care” – instead of “ciudad.” Nacío – an ugly attempt at “he was born” – misplaces the accent and almost flirts with “I was born,” but in fact is not a word at all. These are two of the “pearls” carved into the shining black granite that, as of this week, thousands of Cubans and foreign visitors will read on the monument. The devils of misspelling and lack of grammatical rigor have played a trick on the man who loved words and cultivated them with a venerable passion.

More than fifteen feet high and weighing three tons, the piece has been placed a few steps from the old presidential palace. Its lovely lines are a copy of the work conceived by the sculptor Anna Hyatt Huntington that stands in a small area at the southern end of the New York City park, along with monuments to Simón Bolívar and José de San Martín.

The mistake-plagued inscription on the Havana piece – no one has clarified whether it came with the statue or is a local production – is an insult to the poet of Versos Sencillos, Simple Verses. To write on a piece of paper a phrase that has not been carefully reviewed is one thing, but to sculpt it in stone is to make a monument to improvisation and to display a huge disdain for the language.

Some will say that they are only small details, but a graduate in Philosophy and Literature deserves – at the very least – that a good editor check his lines.

Nor does the equestrian statue come at an easy time. Forged in Philadelphia, it was carried to the Island in the midst of a growing escalation of tensions with the United States. The figure that should represent the confluence between two nations, as Martí did during his life, is now a reminder of a diplomatic meltdown that fell short and of a time that was irretrievably lost.

A man in a United States flag T-shirt gave the finishing touches to the monument in Havana. (14ymedio)

Thus, during its placement there was no lack of jokes from the nearest neighbors about whether the man we Cubans call the “Apostle” had asked for a visa to enter the country. The humor never fails, nor the sad jest that evokes the difficulties that Cubans currently face to travel to their northern neighbor, after the scandal of acoustic attacks about which there are more questions than certainties.

As an irony of life, one of the workers who finished some details around the monument proudly displayed a T-shirt with the banner of stars and stripes. As with the spelling mistakes, no one saw it, no official came to check on what was going on.

Absence Means Forgetting

Even if Castro were to leave for Esmeralda, Punta Alegre, or Corralillo today, he could not escape the doubt that his visit was more fruit of the pressures than of his own desires. (EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 25 September 2017 — Most active politicians like to have their photos taken while greeting children, talking to factory workers, or visiting a disaster area. These images, seen on countless occasions, do not translate into better government performance, or even real concern, but at least they are consistent with a formal and public ritual.

More than two weeks ago, Hurricane Irma devastated countless towns in central Cuba, affected communities near the north coast and left the coastal areas of the city of Havana under water. Since then, Raúl Castro has not been to any of the affected sites and has not been seen near the houses that lost their roofs, the sidewalks filled with the furniture drying in the sun or the places sheltering some who  have no homes to return to.

In the first days of his absence, speculations focused on the octogenarian’s health and a possible indisposition making him unable to travel to the most affected areas. However, Castro had enough physical energy to go and receive Nicolás Maduro at the airport. He has chosen to take a photo with the Venezuelan president rather than with the population battered by the meteoric winds.

The feelings left by this distancing are contradictory. His most ardent supporters speculate that he does not want to add expenses to the national budget with a visit more symbolic than effective. Others say he is letting younger officials take his place before the cameras so that they can gain visibility before 24 February of next year, when he will step down from the presidency of the country.

His critics, however, speak of the weariness that has gripped the General after a sequence of defeats, among them not being able to end the island’s dual currency system, or to reduce corruption, or to offer Cuban workers dignified wages that can become their primary source of economic support, or to attract foreign investment. Exhaustion has taken over the leader of the Communist Party a few months before he leaves power.

Now it is too late for the photo next to the victims. Even if Castro were to leave for Esmeralda, Punta Alegre, or Corralillo today, he could not escape the doubt that his visit was more the fruit of pressures than of his own desires. A snapshot next to an old woman whose house is nothing more than the foundation would seem to be a resounding act of gimmicky populism, but the lack of that image makes him look as distant and indifferent.

If he goes where Irma left a trail of pain he loses; if he stays in his palace he also loses.

Goodbye August, Nobody is Going to Miss You

The August of our irritability. (E. Marrero)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 August 2017 — August is the cruelest month, the poet T.S. Eliot would have written had he been born in Cuba. Because by the end of July, and before the beginning of September, everything becomes much more complicated. To the high temperatures are added the massive vacations of thousands of students and state employees, which make life move slowly, gluey, like a dense and hot liquid.

The telephones in the ministries ring and no one answers them, the functionaries are not at their posts and the secretaries take advantage of heatwave to spend more time painting their nails. Everyone justifies it with summer, everyone puts the blame on this month, as if it were a virus whose only treatment is to wait for it to pass.

Irritability is everywhere. People whine in the long lines, utter an insult at the first opportunity and curse the weather, this lethargy that barely lets them think. September becomes the goal, the longed for month.

However, when August is overcome daily life continues to drag along. Be it the heat, the rain, a hurricane or a political demonstration, in Cuba there is always an excuse for apathy and idleness.

Republican Era Cuba, Patrimony Of The Ruling Party

Cuba’s ruling party appropriates the cultural images of Republican era Cuba. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 24 August 2017 — The gallery near the garden displays the faces of dozens of celebrities who stayed at the Havana’s Hotel Nacional. In one corner we see mobster Meyer Lansky, in another the sensual legs of ballerina Josephine Baker and the broad torso of actor Johnny Weissmüller. All belong to that “cocktail of the past” that gives the foreigners who come to visit an ecstatic rush.

The ruling party has converted the Republican era into its exclusive patrimony. It brings economic benefits to buildings constructed under capitalism, makes the places that served the nightlife of that era profitable, and appropriates the cultural scene of “mediatized Cuba,” as the history books call it.

The first half of the twentieth century has become a commodity, a product sold in tourist packages, souvenirs and through repetitive “canned” music, which appeals to those who want a shot of nostalgia; but it can also spark disgust when the private sector takes advantage of this scenography with its odor of mothballs.

Most of the images disseminated by the Ministry of Tourism exploit the symbolism of the Island during the first half of the 20th century

Cuba’s first vice president Miguel Díaz-Canel expressed his annoyance in a video filmed last February, for what he considers the “eulogy to the Batista era” promoted by many restaurants and cafes through a décor of photos from the era of the Republic. However, in his speech the official conveniently avoided mentioning the use the state itself makes of marketing that country that no longer exists.

Most of the images disseminated by the Ministry of Tourism exploit the symbolism of the island during the first half of the twentieth century, showing the Floridita restaurant/bar, the Bodeguita del Medio or the Tropicana cabaret. The senior officials of Gaviota and other hotel groups collect dollars in exchange for visually exploiting years that they themselves contributed to destroying.

Like all totalitarianism, the Cuban system seeks to control information and silence; the press and rumors; the past and present. Now, it has ended up closing the circle around the memories of Republican Cuba. Only power has the right to evoke that moment and, of course, it does it in its own way.

Parliamentary Karaoke

Cuban members of the National Assembly of People’s Power lodge in the Hotel Tulipán during their regular sessions (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation y, Yoani Sanchez, 14 July 2017 — Wednesday night. The neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado is sliding into the darkness. Catchy music resonates in the Hotel Tulipán where parliamentarians are staying during the current regular session. They dance, drink under the sparkling lights of the disco ball and sing karaoke. They add their voices to a programmed score, the exercise they know how to do best.

With only two sessions a year, the Cuban legislative body gathers to stuff the population full of dates, figures, promises to keep, and critiques of the mismanagement of bureaucrats and administrators. A monotonous clamor, where every speaker tries to show themselves more “revolutionary” than the last, launching proposals with an exhausting generality or a frightening lack of vision.

Those assembled for this eighth legislature, like their colleagues before them, have as little ability to make decisions as does any ordinary Cuban waiting at the bus stop. They can raise their voice and “talk until they’re blue in the face,” and enumerate the inefficiencies that limit development in their respective districts, but from there to concrete solutions is a long stretch.

On this occasion, the National Assembly has turned its back on pressures that, from different sectors, demand new legislation regarding the electoral system, audiovisual productions, management of the press, same sex marriage and religious freedoms, among others. With so many urgent issues, the deputies have only managed to draft the “Terrestrial Waters Bill.”

Does this mean that they need to meet more often to fix the country’s enormous problems? The question is not only one of the frequency or intensity in the exercise of their functions, but also one of freedom and power. A parliament is not a park bench where you go to find catharsis, nor a showcase to demonstrate ideological fidelity. It should represent the diversity of a society, propose solutions and turn them into laws. Without this, it is just a boring social chinwag.

The parliamentarians will arrive on Friday, the final day of their regular session, in front of the microphones in the Palace of Conventions with the same meekness that they approached the karaoke party to repeat previously scripted choruses. They are going to sing to music chosen by others, move their lips to that voice of real power that emerges from their throats.

A Cuban Fight Against The Demons Of Machismo

All these stupid prejudices, which have hardly diminished on this Island, pave the shortest way to deprive us of women’s talents. (14ymedio)

14ymedio, Generation Y, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 1 July 2017 — A man looks over my shoulder because I talk about cables and circuits. He grimaces in disgust when he sees my clumsy nails cut short and is annoyed because I reject his “compliments,” which I should accept with pleasure and gratitude. He does not say it out loud, but to him I’m just a creature who should look “pretty,” care for his home and bear his children.

It is an exhausting battle. Every day, every hour, every minute, Cuban women – and so many women in other parts of the world – have to deal with this accumulation of nonsense. “You can’t, let your husband do it,” is one of the more pleasant phrases we hear from them, although I have found others who insist that “women should only talk when hens piss*,” a coarse way of saying that we should be seen and not heard.

A journalist asks me in front of the camera how I combine being a mother with the task of running a newspaper. Although I try to lead the conversation down a professional path, he insists on referring to my ovaries. A political policeman mocks me because my hair is tangled. Probably my texts bother him more, but he feels a special pleasure in “attacking” my femininity. He is wasting his time.

At the end of the day, I have had to evade a thousand and one attempts to force me into a mold. That box where we must be silent and endure; smile and bear it; laugh with grace at the machistas** and act flattered by their repartee. A twisted mechanism that results in society losing out on our cores and being left only with our shells.

All these stupid prejudices, which have hardly diminished on this Island, pave the shortest way to deprive ourselves of the talents that we possess, not only as women, but – mainly – as human beings.

Translator’s notes:
*This expression derives from the fact that chickens do not urinate (as we know it).
**Male chauvinists.