Portrait of the Artist As a Communist Bureaucrat

Cuba's Minister of Culture Abel Prieto faces a daunting challenge: Sell Cuban culture to the world, but don't sell out the revolution

As his duties frequently require, Cuban Minister of Culture Abel Prieto Jimenez was recently called on to preside over a meeting of artists in Havana. The 260 constituents gathered that afternoon in May wore fashionable short dresses or baggy jeans, sneakers, and baseball caps. With hair styled in fades and pulled back in ponytails, the young men looked more like hopefuls at an MTV VJ audition than members of a youth organization in Cuba meeting to debate their relationship with the communist government.

One subject under discussion was the status of Cuba's rock and rap musicians, and the value of their work. According to one hip-hop producer who attended, several rap and rock performers spoke at the assembly, asserting that their music was a positive, even revolutionary, inspiration for Cuban youth, worthy of official recognition and, not insignificantly, better pay.

"The approach of rockers as well as rappers in their music has been very Cuban," Prieto conceded from the dais in the auditorium of the Foreign Trade Ministry, where he sat with a panel of fellow cultural officials. "It's time we nationalize rock and rap." The minister agreed that rock and hip-hop artists should be represented by the same state management agency that oversees popular Cuban bands playing dance music and salsa around the world. This official affiliation allows the musicians to take home a percentage from ticket sales at their concerts in Cuba, and can connect them with foreign promoters and record companies that might offer them contracts in U.S. dollars.

For many years Cuban officials regarded rock music with suspicion and disdain. In the Seventies -- an era Prieto refers to as his country's "black period" -- longhaired musicians or even rock fans who dressed like them routinely were harassed by police and sometimes jailed. But Prieto's recent consecration of rock and rap should come as no surprise. As his idol Bob Dylan would say, the times they are a-changin'. After all, the minister of culture himself is best known for having shoulder-length hair.

"Prieto calculates an image of openness," says Lisandro Perez, director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute, who has spoken with the minister at several academic and cultural conferences in Cuba. "He has long hair, he's a poet, he goes around with a jacket, usually a leather jacket, slung over his shoulders like a cape."

Over the past few years, a new openness -- real, not imagined, and actively promoted by Prieto and others -- has made it possible for the world to experience Cuban culture firsthand. As a result the world has developed an insatiable appetite for all things Cuban, more so than at any time since 1959. The nation's music, dance, art, and folklore hold an exotic appeal for foreign visitors who would rather boogie at a rumba than discuss politics. It is an undisputed fact that arts and entertainment have become a major draw (along with beaches, cigars, and beautiful girls and boys) for the nearly 1.5 million tourists Cuban officials say visited the island this past year.

Recently culture has also played an important role in the contentious relationship between the United States and Cuba. Even as opportunities for diplomacy have narrowed on both sides, the doors to cultural exchange have remained open. In fact they are now open wider than ever.

Since his appointment as minister of culture in February 1997, replacing 67-year-old career bureaucrat Armando Hart Davalos, Prieto has been viewed as a symbol of that apertura, or opening, of Cuba to the Western world after years spent in the chilly embrace of the Soviet bloc. Even at age 49 he serves as an example of governmental rejuvenation, putting a face on the idea of a more modern Cuba. "His appearance makes him the perfect man for the job," comments an exiled Cuban author who requested anonymity. "He allows Fidel to say, 'Look, I'm so liberal I even put a longhaired writer in office.'"

Prieto is most often described as an advocate for artists and intellectuals, a champion of critical thinking who has declared there will be no more aesthetic "witch-hunts" in Cuba. He's an approachable man with a reputation for treating his staff more like colleagues than underlings. He even eats the same box lunches that cultural ministry employees do, and often stops to chat with them in the hallways. "He takes the buddy approach," says Miami-Dade Community College media relations officer Alejandro Rios, who once worked alongside Prieto at a Havana publishing house. "He'll put his arm around your shoulder and say, 'Let's talk.'"

But Prieto also presents himself as a staunch revolutionary who never strays far from the party line. When giving speeches, for instance, he inevitably rails against "U.S. imperialism" and denounces the globalization of culture with rhetoric as pointed as Castro's own.

"Abel Prieto is one of the most enigmatic figures I've met in Cuba," reports FIU's Lisandro Perez. "From our point of view at the university, the fact that he doesn't seem to have any trouble allowing people to accept invitations means he tends to view foreign academic contact favorably. On the other hand, he is a government official in a government that has not been known for its openness."

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