Iván García, 7 December 2018 — Luis Manuel Otero, an independent artist, the day before his 31st birthday, walks hand in hand with his wife Yanelys Núñez, an art historian, aged 29, along a dark narrow street going to an art gallery in an old cinema which showed porn movies in the Chinese district in Havana.
For about twenty minutes they look at the exhibition and talked to various artists. Then they return to Yanelys’ home at Monte and Ángeles. The couple live in a jerry-built Soviet style building, put up to alleviate the acute housing problem in the capital.
In their fourth floor apartment, Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelys Núñez get the Diario Las Americas newspaper. Their main interest is discussing the demo being planned by 50 independent artists starting on Monday December 3rd opposite the head office of the Ministry of Culture in Second Street between 11th and 13th, Vedado.
The living/dining room is furnished with a sofa, two armchairs and a metal table. Up against the wall, is a bookcase which could collapse at any moment from the weight of all its books and documents. In a wooden multipurpose piece of furniture there is an old Chinese cathode ray tube tv.
At the side of the sofa is a little table with candles, photos and a glass of water with a metal cross. On the floor, a couple of bottles of moonshine. It is Yanelys’ mother’s altar. In Cuba, the Afro-Cuban religion protects people who are in danger or in need of good luck.
And the group of independent artists who are defying the government of President designate Miguel Díaz-Canel are going to need to have a lot of luck.
Forty-eight hours before the protest starts, Luis Manuel and Yanelys look calm, thinking about the procession. They don’t know what will happen Monday. Amaury Pacheco, Iris Ruiz, Michel Matos and Raz Sandino get together with Luis Manuel and Yanelys to analyse different possibilities.
“These people (the State Security) are unpredictable. They will lock us up, like El Sexto (graffiti artist), or keep us in the Vivac (prison in South Havana) until after the 7th. Anything can happen. They will obviously detain us. But we have no choice. If we accept Decree 349 we are signing our death warrant as artists. This legal monster is a bullet straight to my head. So, we are going to fight. I am a hero” indicates Amaury Pacheco, the oldest of the group and father of six children.
Decree 349 tried to tiptoe by. The same day that the autocrat Raúl Castro anointed his successor, Díaz-Canel’s first act as leader was to sign the retrograde law, which without any doubt threatens the autonomy of the artistic and intellectual sector in Cuba.
“Although it was signed on April 20th, it appeared in the Official Gazette on July 10th. Most of us independent artists didn’t appreciate the small print of the regulation. We were alerted to it by a call from a journalist on Radio Martí . When Luis Manuel was able to calmly read the decree, he understood that its intention was to eliminate artistic freedom. So we decided to organise a campaign against it using all the tools at our disposal, from social media to the independent overseas press on the island”, explains Yanelys, and adds:
“We always try to act within the law and act in a peaceful manner. On August 1st and 2nd we organised a public debate in the MAPI gallery (Museum of Politically Uncomfortable Art) where nearly 100 people turned up. Before that, on June 26th, we delivered a letter to the Sainz Brothers Association, the Ministry of Culture, UNEAC, and the Plastic Arts Council, denouncing the danger posed to artistic freedom by that decree. As we had no response from the official agencies, we decided to set off on the road of civil protest”.
On July 21st, opposite the Capitolio in Havana, by way of protest, Yanelys smeared her body with faeces. Various artists, including Luis Manuel Otero and Amaury Pacheco, were detained by the police.
This independent group, brought into being by Decree 349, is a caleidoscope of intellectuals, playwrights, theatrical artists, producers, writers, art critics, photographers, musicians and plastic artists, among others.
Yanelis emphasised that there were other usually less anti-establishment groups of artists in Cuba who had, in one way or another, joined in the condemnation of Decree 349. “José Ángel Toirac, National Plastic Arts Prizewinner, is one of the signatories to a letter condemning 349.
Most people in the cultural sector are against this regulation, because with this legal instrument the state can limit and censure any artistic work. Independent artists are pretty well put out of business. I have to point out that we have received the inestimable support of lawyers inside and outside the country, especially from Laritza Diversent, an exiled dissident Cuban lawyer in the United States”
If finally on December 7th they implement Decree 349, self-taught musicians of the calibre of Benny Moré, Compay Segundo and Polo Montañez would not have a look in.
Luis Manuel Otero recognises the danger posed by the regulation: “All the world knows we live in a dictatorship. I”m not under any illusion. We are fighting a state which has all the resources it needs to shut us up. But our group is determined to confront these and other injustices”.
The special services are trying by whatever way possible to force free artists into obedience. Iris Ruiz comments that “MININT officials who run children’s services went to my office to get signatures from neighbours to take my children from me. Nobody signed. The Security also put pressure on other artists via their families. They are trying to demotivate and divide us”.
Amaury Pacheco says that “right now a rapper known in the arts world as Maikel el Osorbo is locked up, and they are trying to accuse him of a common crime. The kid had sewn up his mouth in protest against state abuse and Decree 349. We are not supermen. We just want to live and create a free society”.
Cuban independent artists know that all sorts of things can happen in the coming days. Nothing positive. But fear also has its limit.
Translated by GH