Anti-government protesters march in Havana, Cuba to protest against ongoing food shortages and high prices of foodstuffs

'Obliged to exile': Cuban activist Tania Bruguera on the plight of artist Hamlet Lavastida

After spending time in a maximum security prison in Havana, artist and activist Hamlet Lavastida has been exiled to Poland by Cuba's government. Tania Bruguera, a senior lecturer in media and performance at Harvard University, joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss the plight of Cuban artists.

The World

Anti-government protesters march in Havana, Cuba to protest against ongoing food shortages and high prices of foodstuffs, July 11, 2021.

Ismael Francisco/AP/File photo

In Cuba, jailed artist Hamlet Lavastida, who is a member of the artist-activist group 27N, has been granted a strange sort of freedom — he's been exiled. The visual artist had been held in a maximum security prison in Havana since June on the charge of "instigation to commit a crime."

Cuban officials took Lavastida from the prison directly to the airport on Saturday, and then put him on a plane headed to Poland, along with his partner, Cuban writer Katherine Bisquet.

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Lavastida's artwork often deals with history, ideology and memory, with a focus on Cuban history and the 1959 revolution.

The Cuban government has doubled down on dissent since the massive and unprececented protests across the country in July. Officials have specifically targeted members of 27N, the movement whose name refers to Nov. 27, 2020, the day on which more than 300 artists, activists and journalists convened at Cuba's Ministry of Culture in Havana to demand recognition of their rights to freedom of expression. 

These attacks are part of a broader crackdown on artistic expression in Cuba, based on Decree 349, a 2018 regulation that gives the government full power to restrict cultural activities in the country. 

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Cuban artist and activist Tania Bruguera knows the experience of being detained by Cuban officials. She is now a senior lecturer in media and performance at Harvard University, and she joined The World's host Marco Werman to discuss Lavastida's exile and the plight of Cuban artists today.

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Marco Werman: You know Hamlet Lavastida personally, Tania. Who is he?
Tania Bruguera: Hamlet Lavastida was my student 20 years ago. He is an artist who is interested in the history of Cuba and the history of totalitarian regimes, someone who has studied for the last 15 years the transition process in east Europe and that's where he works in his collages and his illustrations and animations and installations. He has studied the history of repression in Cuba like nobody else.
Can you give us an example of his recent work?
His work has the form of stencils. He takes images of the propaganda logos used in different institutions in Cuba, official institutions, and he makes a stencil out of the compositions. And the beauty of it is that the stencils should be used to spray paint on the walls and on the street. Because it is forbidden in Cuba, what he does is just showing the stencil, like almost the possibility of maybe one day being able to stamp your ideas in the public sphere.
So, Hamlet Lavastida was released from maximum security prison in Cuba and sent to Poland. Why Poland as opposed to another country?
Family reasons. His kid, whose mother is Polish and the kid himself was born in Poland, so that was the reason it could be granted to him.
Can we assume that Hamlet Lavastida was given a choice: continued prison or exile?
He was actually put in that position where he had to choose between remaining in jail indeterminately or leaving the country. So, he was obliged to exile.
So, the charge that Lavastida faced back in June when he was arrested, instigation to commit a crime. Help us understand what that's about.
Well, Cuba has a legal system that, first of all, is selective. So, the laws do not apply to everyone. For example, if you are close to the government or people in power, you can literally still be corrupt and you will not be sentenced or [face] trial in the same way the rest of the Cubans [are]. And if you are a dissident or if you have shown any animosity toward the government, it's judged in a very, very harsh way. For example, if you are in the street with the protest poster, instead of judging you for demonstrating in the street, they will judge you for disrupting peace in the public space.
So, did the charge relate to any of Lavastida status works of art?
Absolutely not. They are related to the fact that he is a member of the 27N movement, a movement that was created last year on the 27th of November, when more than 500 artists from all disciplines demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Culture and demanded the institution to intervene in favor of artists with the government and to defend the rights artists have.
So, those artist demonstrations, as he said, were last November, then this past July, dramatic demonstrations against the Cuban government by citizens of all stripes. Did you take part in those?
I was going to participate. We had a plan with a group of other artists to go in front of the national TV building to demand five minutes of air [time] to explain who we are, why we wanted to do this. I could not join them because I had police in front of my building waiting for me to go out. So, a lot of the activists begged me not to go out, because they wanted me to do some other work than to be beaten by this group of people.
What has become of that protest movement, Tania?
We still have around 800 people in prison. It's not legal, because the people who went out on July 11 had the constitutional right under Article 56 to peacefully demonstrate in the streets. The problem is that the Cuban government is afraid of a new demonstration, which everyone is expecting. We don't know when or how, but everybody is expecting that. And they think that by having that many people in jail, they will stop something that is unavoidable.
So, jailing any dissident shuts them up, jailing an artist dissident also shuts down their platform. Being exiled, for Lavastida, does it effectively accomplish that because their work can't get back to the island?
Yes and no. If you are outside, sometimes, you have a better a condition to tell your story. But what the government does is, once you leave the country, they use that to discredit to you. It almost feels like the only legitimate position is to be physically inside the island. And of course, if you are a dissident physically inside the island, your life will be reduced to nothing or be in jail until they decide it's not useful anymore for them.
So, what does this all mean for you? Will you be able to return to Cuba?
We don't know. This is the power they have. This is the magic of Cuba. The government can do whatever they want.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. AP contributed to this report.