The Cuban Connection: Art, Intrigue and Human Rights

By Shorris, Earl | The Nation, July 3, 1989 | Go to article overview

The Cuban Connection: Art, Intrigue and Human Rights


Shorris, Earl, The Nation


On May 5, in Miami, U.S. Treasury agents broke down the door of Ramon Cernuda's house and confiscated forty paintings on poster paper by Cuban dissident Nicolas Guillen Landrian.

On February 24, 1988, in Havana, agents of the political police stormed an art show arranged by human rights activists and confiscated paintings by a Cuban dissident: Nicolas Guillen Landrian.

In Havana, the confiscation was business as usual. In Miami, it was one of the few seizures of paintings for political reasons in U.S. history.

How the U.S. government came to replicate the actions of a state it regards as totalitarian is a tale of Cuban exiles' influence and intrigue. Lives, careers, the human rights movement, principles of free expression and even the exiles' anti-Castro movement itself were sacrificed to the hubris and ambition of the right-wing Cuban American National Foundation (C.A.N.F.) and its chair, Jorge Mas Canosa, who has let slip more than once that he expects to be the next president of Cuba.

The government laid out its case in an affidavit in support of the warrant to enter Cernuda's home and office. It said the paintings by Guillen were given to Cernuda by Jerry Scott, public affairs officer at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, who smuggled them into the United States. Cernuda was also accused of buying and selling other Cuban paintings, and he and Scott were said to be part of a conspiracy to sell Cuban art "for personal gain and allegedly to profit members of the Cuban government." According to the affidavit, the conspirators established a market price at auctions in New York City, raising the value of Cuban art so that "the holder of the greater quantity of Cuban art work (the Cuban government) realizes the greatest economic benefit."

Although the case has not yet gone to a grand jury, the U.S. Attorney for the southern district of Florida said Cernuda could be fined $250,000 and sent to prison for ten years for possession of the Guillens and 200 other Cuban paintings. That is the maximum sentence under the 1963 Trading With the Enemy Act, which prohibits people in the United States from engaging in all import or export transactions with Cuba, with certain exceptions, such as the import of films, posters and other informational materials.

The tale begins in Cuba with Guillen and Scott, a 51-year-old veteran of the Foreign Service who now faces possible charges of smuggling, conspiracy and violation of the 1963 Cuban embargo. Scott has been reassigned to a temporary post in Washington, where he awaits the outcome of his case, wondering how what he calls "this living nightmare" happened to him. In Havana, he was point man for the State Department's human rights effort. According to Scott, his wife, Patricia, worked as a refugee coordinator and helped 3,000 people leave Cuba. In her job she went into the Combinado del Este Prison to visit the old plantados (the four men who have remained prisoners for many years rather than accept political re-education). When Jorge Mas Canosa heard of Patricia's visits to the Combinado, he was so moved by her courage and devotion to human rights that he sent her an enormous bouquet of flowers.

Between them, the Scotts knew every human rights activist and dissident on the island. The couple held cocktail parties to introduce them to foreign journalists, visited the dissidents in their homes and attended their functions. The Cuban Ministry of the Exterior (Minrex) attacked Jerry last year in Granma, the official government newspaper. When Ricardo Bofill, a former professor of Marxism, was a leader of the movement in Cuba, the Scotts supported him. After Bofill left for the United States, where he is now on the payroll of the C.A.N.F., Jerry supported those who were left behind, including Elizardo Sanchez, who remained a socialist. Although Sanchez was acceptable to the U.S. government as a human rights activist, his position in favor of reconciliation between exiles, former prisoners and what he hoped would become a more open and democratic Castro government enraged the C. …

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