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Artists Arrested for Protesting New Decree Limiting Artistic Freedom in Cuba

Artist Tania Bruguera and Bienal de La Habana organizers Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Yanelys Nuñez Leyva were among those arrested on Monday for planning a sit-in at the Ministry of Culture in Havana in protest of a government decree, which aims to eradicate independent cultural activity, days before it goes into effect. The legislation would essentially give the state the power to censor art at will. Several activists were prevented from participating in the protest. Some were antagonized by the authorities for days before the event, and others were detained in the hours leading up to it. The demonstration was meant to be the latest in a series of actions that have attempted to provoke a response from the federal agency, which has been almost completely silent on the mounting backlash against the decree.

While the ministry passed the Decree 349 in April, the components of the law were not revealed until July when they were published in Cuba’s Official Gazette, which instantly sparked public outrage. Once it is enforced, starting on December 7, the law will touch every facet of Cuba’s cultural sector. The government will be able to target and punish artists, writers, filmmakers, musicians, and performers who create and commercialize art that was not approved by the state, as well as the venues hosting the artists. Those found in violation of the law could face fines, seizure of property, and detainment. Scores of artists and critics of the decree have rallied against it.

“The new laws restrict the creativity of the Cuban people and criminalize independently produced art, limiting the ability to determine who can be an artist to a state institution,” Bruguera; Laritza Diversent, the head of the human rights organization Cubalex; Cuban American artist Coco Fusco; Leyva; and artist Enrique Risco wrote in an open letter addressed to Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel in August. More than 1,350 people have signed the document which states that the decree does not declare how artists can legally create art. The letter also takes issue with the vague language used to describe work that would be considered illicit. “Culture and art can exist without a Ministry, but the Ministry of Culture and the nation cannot exist without the creativity of its citizens,” the letter reads. “Decree 349 is the impoverishment of Cuban culture.”

A ten-point manifesto—the Manifesto de San Isidro, which called for the government to meet with representatives of the Cuban art community—was issued shortly after. The statement calls the government out for abusing its power by infringing on citizens’ right of expression. In an op-ed Leyva wrote for the Havana Times, titled “Back in a Cell Again,” the activist detailed the wearisome campaign being carried out against the decree after she was arrested for participating in a peaceful public meditation with other signees of the manifesto.

While some see the decree as the government’s latest attempt to control all artistic production in the country, others claim that it is trying to protect artists. Edel Morales, director of the Loynaz Center and a member of the literary group Aire de Luz, told the Havana Times that the law will ensure that “artists are paid what they are due and that artists aren’t privately hired by companies (or other institutions of power) outside of the law.” For Alcantara, the movement against the decree is about “an attack against Cuban culture which is being disguised as a struggle against trivial art and bad taste.... They just politicize everything and when somebody opposes a policy they just label them an ‘enemy of the people.’ They want to turn culture into political propaganda,” he said in an interview.

According to the Diario de Cuba, the writer Verónica Vega; her husband, the painter Yasser Castellanos; the poet Javier Morenos; and Iris Ruiz were harassed during the weekend preceding the sit-in. Fusco told Lauren Cavalli of that leaders of the campaign against the decree “have been under siege by state security and police.” Police also allegedly threatened to arrest Luis Trapaga if he left his house, and Nonardo Perea was issued a written warning. For many, the increased arrests are an ominous sign of things to come under the new law.