Cuba and the Art of "Trading with the Enemy"

By Gelburd, Gail | Art Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Cuba and the Art of "Trading with the Enemy"


Gelburd, Gail, Art Journal


In 1967 the Cuban artist Wifredo Lam, then living in Europe, invited more than one hundred friends, artists, and writers, including Karel Appel, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, Asger Jörn, René Magritte, HansArp, Roberto Matta, Antoni Tàpies, Victor Vasarely, Pierre Soulages, and many others, to Havana to par- ticipate in an event of solidarity with the Cuban Revolution. On the night of July 17, 1967, the artists created Salón de Mayo Mural, a mural rarely seen since its incep- tion. At Lam's suggestion, canvases were attached to a wood- en grid, a spiral was drawn on the surface, and the form was divided into approximately one hundred areas for painting. The center space was saved for Lam, and field 26 (in honor of July 26 - a historic date for the Cuban Revolution) was saved for Fidel Castro. The participating artists, writers, and poets created symbols, images, and cartoons, wrote poems, or simply proclaimed in bold colors, "Viva La Revolución."

The glory days of the Cuban Revolution were short-lived, however, and Cubans often refer to the ensuing decade of the 1970s as their dark days. In particular, they call the years 1971-76 the "Quinquenio Gris" (Five Gray Years), in light of the suppression of free speech during the period. As revised in 1976, the Cuban Constitution emphasized Marxist-Leninist ideals and stated that it "deems that artistic creation is free as long as artistic content does not express views contrary to the Revolution." ' Exhibitions were closed, art was censored, and artists lost teaching jobs because of their artwork at various times during the next thirty years. The very same intellectuals who had supported Lam's mural now came to condemn the Cuban government for its censorship of artists, believing that all forms of censorship are unacceptable.

The US reactions to Cuba have at times seemed counterintuitive, and since the revolution in 1959, relations between Cuba and the United States have been at best wary; policies have vacillated from prohibitive to encouraging. The United States broke diplomatic relations with its island neighbor soon after the revolution, declaring that travel by American citizens was against the national security interests of the United States. On September 4, 1961 , Congress enacted the Foreign Assistance Act, authorizing a total embargo on all trade between the two countries, and imposed strict travel restrictions on Cuba, even for scholarly purposes.2 By the time of Lam's mural, Cuba had begun to seem less of a hemispheric threat, and the US government moved toward normalizing relations between the two countries. US senators visited Cuba secredy, and during the Nixon administration (1969-74) the treasury department issued specific licenses for financial transactions involving the importation of Cuban publications, posters, recordings, and visual media by universities and libraries for research purposes.3 In 1977 President Jimmy Carter allowed the passport travel restrictions to lapse, and the treasury department began to issue general licenses that enabled some individuals to travel and trade relatively freely. The US and Cuban governments exchanged interests sections, and Congress passed an amendment to no longer exclude individuals from getting US visas because of their political ideologies. Some twenty years after the embargo began, it seemed as if things would begin to take a natural course of dissolution - and that Americans might directly bear witness to any continuing censorship of the arts in Cuba.

But in April 1982 President Ronald Reagan reinstated a general prohibition on expenditures for travel in Cuba, which for all intents and purposes restricted American travel to and in Cuba. The Reagan administration established categories for a general license for those gathering news or making documentary films, engaged in professional research, or visiting relatives. In July 1982 participants were limited to those who were full-time researchers engaged in topics specifically related to Cuba. …

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