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Activists protesting Decree 349.

Cuban Artists Urge Havana Biennial Participants to Stand Against Decree 349

As the opening of the Thirteenth Havana Biennial approaches, a number of Cuban artists and activists have banded together to ask the participants in the exhibition to support the movement against the country’s infamous Decree 349, which criminalizes independent cultural activity.

First passed by President Miguel Díaz-Canel in April 2018, the censorship law was expected to go into effect in December, but after major pushback from the local arts community, it has yet to be enforced. The Cuban government has since told the media that it won’t go into effect until more detailed regulations are finalized.

While officials blamed the backlash sparked by the law on the government’s failure to adequately explain the decree, artists remain fearful that the legislation will allow the country to launch a systematic crackdown on the arts by requiring that all cultural producers have licenses in order to create work and stage exhibitions and other events. Those working without government approval can receive fines and other sanctions.

Among those fighting the decree are artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, the organizers of Havana’s alternative #00Bienal, which was held last year. The inaugural edition was set in motion after the government canceled the official state-backed biennial, citing a lack of resources after the island was hit by Hurricane Irma in 2016, and was targeted by the Cuban authorities. Some artists slated to participate in the event were prevented from entering the country, and others were threatened with detainment.

Artist Tania Bruguera has also been committed to opposing the decree. In recent months, all three artists have been arrested on multiple occasions as they carried out actions in protest of the law, which has been described by Amnesty International as “dystopian.” “Instead of consolidating their control over artists perceived to overstep state-sanctioned criticism, the Cuban authorities should be making progressive changes to protect human rights,” the organization said in a statement.

An open letter signed by Alcántara, Leyva, Bruguera, and twenty others—including Italo Expósito, Amaury Pacheco, Iris Ruiz, Michel Matos, and Nonardo Perea—has been sent to all of the artists invited to participate in the state-backed exhibition, which will take place between April 12 and May 12.

It reads: “It goes without saying that the government has not been pleased about our protests and has gone to great lengths to characterize us in Cuban media as counter-revolutionaries and troublemakers who are not worthy of recognition as artists. Nonetheless, [it] is the first time in almost sixty years that artists from all disciplines, ages, and political views have united against a government decree. We are writing to you to ask for your solidarity and support at a challenging time for Cuban artists. A small gesture of solidarity goes very far in Cuba, particularly in the arts.”

The letter continues by asking artists to express their solidarity in any way they feel comfortable. It also provides examples of ways in which they can do so, such as by wearing T-shirts that read “No to Decree 349,” inviting marginalized artists to contribute to their presentation in the biennial; and by visiting the studios of artists excluded from the event.

“As members of a global art community we are all interconnected,” the document reads. “Cuban artists have shown their support of other artists in the world when ethically dubious things happen to them. Now we ask for artists to be in solidarity with us, to make Cuba a place in which all cultural expression can thrive.”

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