Academic journal article Cuban Studies

The Politics of Culture and the Gatekeeper State in Cuba

Academic journal article Cuban Studies

The Politics of Culture and the Gatekeeper State in Cuba

Article excerpt

Mi trabajo es empujar los límites de la institución; el de ellos, preservarlos, y en esa "danza," todos sabemos lo que hacemos y que la música se acaba, pero estoy orgullosa de la tolerancia de la institución y de mi exigencia como artista.

Tania Bruguera, Encuentro en la red, April 24, 2009

According to the dominant interpretation of political development and cultural policy in Castro's Cuba, artists and writers now enjoy more autonomy and freedom than ever before and more than any other group in society (Miller 2008; Weppler-Grogan 2010; Geoffray 2015).1 The literature suggests this is due to two factors: the relentless and extraordinary insistence of artists and writers on gaining more "space" to express themselves, and the capacity of La Revolución (i.e., the political leadership) to amend the totalitarian aberration of the past and "reinvent" itself (Brenner 2008). This article proposes a different interpretation. First, it explains how the pendulum between "closing" and "opening" in cultural policy is not new, nor is it a reliable indicator of liberalization. Rather, it is part of the governing strategy of the regime. Second, I propose that artists and writers typically seek recognition by the state and participation "within the revolution" at least as much as they want autonomy or freedom. Actors at the margins (e.g., some theater companies, rappers, performance artists, projects like Estado de Sats, even a few economists) may be pushing harder than mainstream colleagues (Burnett and Neumandec 2014; De los Angeles Torres 2015). Indeed, there are notable exceptions. Yet, the typical relationship between the regime and the "cultural field"2 is essentially one of mutual accommodation (Bruguera's "danza" in the opening quote), based on what Cuban sociologist Haroldo Dilla (2007) aptly called "subordinación negociada."

In an insightful article on economic reforms and the "gatekeeper state" in Cuba, political scientist Javier Corrales (2004) argues that "behind the pretense of market reforms, the Cuban government ended up magnifying the power of the state to decide who can benefit from market activities and by how much" (Corrales 2004, 46; see also Cooper 2002). It deployed a system of "formal and informal controls," alternatively using tactics of "openness and rigidity" to achieve its goals (Corrales 2004, 50–51, quoting Aguirre 2002). This interpretation is useful to explain tactics of openness and rigidity in the cultural field. Here, too, the state decides who can benefit from market activities, and by how much: who can publish, sell, and travel abroad, who can be visible on the island and by how much, who can be pardoned and reintegrated and when. What is more, the Castro regime has often alternated between openness and rigidity to achieve its political goals, and not just in the cultural field; this is well documented and analyzed for the economic field, for instance.

Much of the published material on the public role of artists and writers in general suggests that they are hard-wired to seek freedom from constraints and freedom to express their unique individuality (e.g., Steiner 1998). Since at least Plato it has been assumed that artists and writers tend to be critical of dominant values and institutions, if only because they can imagine a better world. In the same way, the literature on cultural policy in Cuba is almost unanimous in concluding that Cuban artists and writers continuously strive to acquire more space for expression, outsmarting censors with ingenious artistic and discursive strategies (Collmann 1999; Johnson 2003; Howe 2004; Miller 2005; Fernandes 2006; Geoffray 2008; Geoffray 2015). In doing so, they manage to disseminate critical perspectives on politics and society in a country where this is normally not allowed. Thus, Cuban writers and artists finally accomplish the mission that other Latin American "intellectuals" (mostly writers and artists) gave themselves back in the 1960s (while Cubans thought their mission was to support their government), becoming, by default, the voice of the voiceless, the critical conscience of society (Fuentes 1969; Navarro 2002; Mosquera 1999). …

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