And Now, the Commodification of Cuban Music

“They achieved the miracle of turning Nicolás Guillén into another person,” an Internet user said echoing many others who claim the newly inaugurated sculpture looks nothing like the man.  (Art for Excellencies)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Elías Amor Bravo, Economist, 30 March 2023 — The Ministry of Culture (MINCULT) says that it is being “improved,” but don’t believe it. What it really wants is to be an agent for artists and musicians. Late post-castrism has hung the “For Sale” sign on the entire productive and obsolete apparatus of the Marxist-Leninist economy built over six decades. It is not a real and effective privatization, as perhaps would be desirable, but something worse and more opportunistic.

They have already started with the commodification of universities, which I discussed in my previous post, and now they continue with culture and music. And if in the first case the Ministry of Higher Education was the architect of stepping on the accelerator, now it is the turn of MINCULT, which, according to the state press, is “currently involved in the complex task of improving the business system of music, a process necessary to articulate the promotion and development of musical talents throughout the country.”

They say this “process” is necessary, but it has been non-existent for six decades, when Cuban musicians and performers were forced to live a miserable existence on the Island, seeing that their works reached value mainly abroad, where popularity led them, in many cases, to flee the country with the punishments that the regime later applied for deserting. And now, when the economy is in danger, the Castro leaders remember Santa Barbara, the saint of protection. They have to get money any way they can. What they get from doctors hired out to other countries and tourism, it’s not enough to reach the end of the month. That’s where the musicians come in.

This controlled peddling by the state experienced a significant acceleration in 2022, as recorded in MINCULT’s annual balance sheet meeting. After the pandemic, with the return to normality and in-person meetings, cultural activities increased. Not surprisingly, they served the regime to balance the figures of the economic growth of 2022, along with other state programs.

In this sense, according to MINCULT, celebrations such as the 120th anniversary of the birth of Nicolás Guillén and Wifredo Lam and the centennials of Haydee Santamaría, Carilda Oliver, Jesús Orta Ruiz and César Portillo de la Luz were accompanied by traditional events such as the Havana International Book Fair and the Jazz Plaza Festival, which reached high levels of participation thanks to a growing presence on social networks and digital platforms.

At the balance sheet meeting, more than 900,000 cultural activities were reported in the country, aimed at eight million spectators, including the plastic arts exhibitions that toured the Island, more than 300 record productions and dozens of concerts. Likewise, it was a year of intense exchange with international personalities and officials who visited the Island, from Mexico, Venezuela, Paraguay, Serbia, Benin, the United Arab Emirates, South Africa, Spain and France.

And of course, this deployment of activities that doesn’t seem to skimp on expenses that have to be paid has left a worrying mismatch in the accounts, recognized by the Ministry itself, and they point out that the territorial budget has been insufficient to design the cultural programming. They also complain about the lack of coordination with the Ministry of Education to make schools reference cultural centers in the community, and the poor conditions of houses of culture, cinemas and theaters have also appeared among the main problems.

All this causes a lack of money and, as a result, insufficient management of cultural heritage and historical memory. Despite the deployment of expenses and activities, 62 museums remain closed, and 77 monuments are threatened with deterioration. Local governments did not advance during the year in the search for funding and equipment to increase the number of interactive museums; technological deficiencies affected the digitization of documentary heritage; and inputs for the conservation and restoration of heritage assets were not enough. The panorama is not flattering.

Therefore, at the balance sheet meeting, it was considered urgent to solve these pending problems by increasing the necessary funds with the promotion of artistic creation and the culture-tourism relationship, which is considered important for the economy. In addition, actions were announced to promote cinematographic and audiovisual creation, a protocol to improve the conditions of conservation of documentary heritage, an increase in the realization of tours of groups and shows, and work to make film presentations in the communities. More spending, more money needs. Where are the funds going to come from?

It was then that the key moment arrived, when the Ministry of Culture announced that it is immersed in the complex task of improving the business system of music. What is this? Well, basically make money by selling Cuba’s musical talent. And for this, the Ministry, as if it were an agent of artists, will be tasked with the promotion and development of musicians throughout the country. State business is in sight.

Cuban music has a great international acceptance. Styles are changing and modernizing, but the ability of Cuban artists to reach mass audiences has always been there. There are great prospects of obtaining income that, applying the “improvements” by MINCULT, can end up in the state coffers but not fully benefit artists and performers. The regime’s decision has caused surprise, but not so much.

Those who include in their agenda such state issues as the strengthening of the National Program against Racism and Racial Discrimination have set as a priority for the Ministry in 2023 to increase foreign exchange income through the export of goods and services (the sale of artists and their productions) in the same way that has been done with other professionals, such as doctors, security agents and certain athletes.

MINCULT’s “improvement” or commodification of Cuban music by the state also involves promoting alliances with new economic actors and, in addition, encouraging foreign investment aimed at the substitution of imports and the expansion of markets, applying strategies that allow the self-financing of events. More doubtful is what can be achieved in this area, but the bet is made. That said, the Ministry of Culture has become an agent of artists and wants to earn money at any price.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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