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

Artists in Cuba have become more aware of the commercial market for their work because they need dollars to survive. Can you discourage them from making concessions to that market by, for example, creating consciously commercial music?

That's the most dangerous thing for us: the marketplace. The danger is that it begins to function in certain areas that have to do with artistic creation, and it starts affecting [artists'] capacity to create, to experiment, to investigate. And people start repeating certain formulas they know will work commercially, that they know will be successful in the marketplace.... Concessions to the market can't be officially prohibited; the Ministry of Culture can't resolve this problem. What the ministry can do is try to create forums for discussion.

Conversely it must be said that the international artistic marketplace has helped Cuban culture become better known now than at any other time. I can't remember any time in the history of the revolution, in these 40 years, that Cuban music, for example, has been so widely known. What we have to do is learn to use the marketplace without letting it dictate [cultural] policy.

Does the fact that artists are now allowed to earn money abroad as independent workers, and that they're earning dollars, create a conflict between economy and ideology?

Today you can say that the Cuban artists working in Cuba have a certain political conscience, a patriotic conscience because of the fact that they live in Cuba. They are not in Cuba for the money they're making. In that area we're always going to see a substantial disadvantage. I think that in material terms, in terms of material compensation, a Cuban is always going to earn more outside Cuba than in Cuba. For that reason the [laws] that allow them to earn money must be accompanied by a climate that favors the commitment of an artist to this country, one that favors the artist's commitment to the cultural plan of the Cuban revolution, so he feels like he has a leading role in this plan.

One thing about which I'm very pleased is that the political conscience of Cuban intellectuals has not been damaged in these past ten years, even though we're living in this modernized world, and in spite of the complicated process we're living through in Cuba. In spite of the presence of the market. I'd even say that some people have become more radical. Granted that others have not. There are people who have become more removed [from revolutionary ideology], people who are somewhat seduced by this consumer culture. But I'd say there's an interesting little group of people in Cuba who've become radicalized.

Obviously artists would not have to pander to the international marketplace if they could make a living here in Cuba.

It's been very important that artists also are able to legally earn money in dollars within the country, although they still make a lot more abroad than here. All of these new measures have been taken precisely so that, for example, our musicians don't have to go to Cancun and accept second-rate engagements to make a little money. They can make money here.

A thin, mustachioed man in ill-fitting jeans stands on a street corner in Havana, peering alternately at his watch and at oncoming traffic. Two older companions are behind him, holding instrument cases. They are a trio of musicians who play traditional acoustic Cuban music, and the man with the mustache explains that they are waiting for a camera crew from German television. The foreigners heard them serenading diners in a hotel restaurant and said they wanted to feature the group in a documentary. They promised to pick up the Cubans for a 9:00 a.m. shoot. It is now nearly noon. "And they say Germans are so prompt," gripes one musician, his hopes for a chance at stardom evaporating in the midday heat.

For every musician driving a Mercedes around Havana and posing for publicity shots in designer clothes flown in by multinational record companies, there are many struggling bands dreaming that some foreigner will transform them into the next Buena Vista Social Club, or at least help them earn enough dollars to live comfortably in Cuba.

Jose Luis Cortes, leader of the internationally renowned dance band NG La Banda, describes contemporary Cuba as "neo-socialist." Others have dubbed the current system, in which Cubans hustle for U.S. dollars to buy food and other necessities, capisol, a tropical hybrid of capitalism and socialism.

Like other successful artists, Cortes works independently, living off earnings from performances, royalties, and recording contracts. He sees his situation today as a mixed blessing. "Before, we had financial guarantees whether we were working or not. We had money to support ourselves while we were creating," he says, referring to the days of extravagant Soviet subsidies, when a musician's state salary amounted to a living wage. "Now we have to go out and look for support for our projects. We can make a million dollars, but we have to find it ourselves." Consequently these days he spends a lot of time exchanging faxes with foreign promoters who want to book his band.

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