Artist Tania Bruguera says Cuba's latest crackdown on the arts is 'the legalization of censorship'

The World
Cuban artist Tania Bruguera stands with her arms in the air, and dozens of people behind her, standing in the same position

Cuban-born performance artist Tania Bruguera has a major exhibit at the Tate Modern in London, but during her visit home to Havana last month, Cuban authorities didn't exactly roll out a red carpet for her.

"The police came and they took me and had me for five hours inside a car. They asked me to put my head down, between my legs and to close my eyes so I didn't see where I was going," explains Bruguera. 

Cuban authorities detained her and three other artists. They and hundreds of their colleagues have been protesting new rules that would ban music performances and artwork not authorized by the state. Amnesty International described the law as "dystopian." 

Bruguera was released after four days.

The World's Marco Werman reached her in Havana on Thursday to talk about how the new rules are part of a broader crackdown on artistic freedom in Cuba.

"Artists have always been punished for what they think or what they do. But there was no law. This is the legalization of censorship," says Bruguera. "With this, now artists are not people trying to express themselves, they're delinquents because there is a law that very clearly punish them legally."

It sounds like your protests, Tania, forced the Cuban government to soften some of the restrictions. They're not quite as strict as originally proposed. Do I have that right? 

Not only mine. I have to say it has been more than 250 artists. This is an unusual moment because this is the first time in 60 years that artists got together. So it's almost 300 artists who are in their own ways always fighting for it. 

And I understand the group also includes like some really old-guard artists like Silvio Rodríguez, the composer-musician. 

Yes ... You have 300 artists, with Silvio Rodríguez, with people who are actors, musicians, dancers, visual artists, writers — all of them are criticizing it. 

As an artist, Tania, you are no slouch. You've got renown. I'm just wondering, is the Cuban government even aware of the value they get from world-class artists like you and so many others there? 

No, they don't. They don't appreciate it. They see me as an enemy of the state. They don't see me as an artist. 

So what is the Cuban government afraid of? 

I think with the recent void of power ... 

You mean with the departure of Fidel

With the departure of Fidel and Raul, there is nobody from the old guard. The new president is new, and he has to earn his own respect. So he's struggling with that. And the result is the wrong result, which is, censor even more. 

So practically, what does this decree mean? Will there be art inspectors from the government entering artist homes or studios seeing if they're in fact, creators, then ask to see your artist's license? 

What it means is that any artist who asked the wrong questions — and I'm saying this literally because three days ago an art historian who worked at the government gallery was expelled from her job because she asked 100 questions — most of them [the artists] were not even confronting the government or the art institutions. And she was fired because she published this online. 

So what are we expecting, if for asking a question you can be fired from your job? One thing they have, at least with visual artists, is we have the ID as creators. They can take that away from you. As soon as you don't have that, you can't exhibit, you can't sell, you are nobody. You are somebody without legal ties. 

So, Tania, what will you do? What can other Cuban artists do to push the door open? 

We are not going to stop. We are on a second wave of protests. I cannot tell you everything we are planning because we want to be a little bit of surprise for the government. But several groups are meeting to decide what is next. And we are going to continue because right now, what we need more than anything, is that international artists are in solidarity with us. That's the only thing the government is afraid of — how they look to the foreigners, in the eyes of the foreigners, how they look in the eyes of the foreign press. That's the only thing they care about. 

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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