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

There's a trap. The Cubans in Miami are in a trap that is not only a political trap, it's a cultural trap that even affects their ability to make art.

I believe that among young people there's a different attitude. There's a generation of Cuban Americans with a totally different attitude. Cristina Garcia, the author of Dreaming in Cuban, has been in Cuba several times. She has a very interesting attitude. For her Cuba is a very serious reference point. Achy Ovejas, the writer from Chicago, has been in Cuba several times. Oscar Hijuelos wants to come. They're Cuban-American writers who write in English or who left very young, and Cuba is a kind of mythic reference point for them. With those people there's a very easy relationship, and I think in the future that's what it's going to be like. This is the kind of relationship we're going to have with Cubans who are outside Cuba.

Acclaimed Cuban painter Jose Bedia, who came to Miami in 1993, says he would like to exhibit in Cuba but is certain that despite what Abel Prieto says, officials would not allow his work to be shown there. "I don't think they're interested in serious exchange. They'll only accept artists who play their game," he says, explaining that his metaphorical paintings could be interpreted as being critical of the government and therefore unacceptable. "I do believe there is just one Cuban culture," continues Bedia, whose work since leaving the island has been displayed in the most prestigious museums in the United States. "But they think that Cuban culture is only what's made in Cuba. They think they're the only ones with the rights to Cuban culture. Prieto says what's made outside Cuba is a hybrid; it's somehow strange. He tries to say, 'You left and that's the end for your art.' It's not like that."

Members of Miami's exile community have frequently argued that the arts do not exist at all under Castro's rule, a myth that has been undermined recently by increased media coverage of Cuba and performances by Cuban bands in Miami over the past year. Yet artists on the island are often dismissed by Cuban emigrants around the world, who have nurtured their own culture of exile.

"Since the last century, the best Cuban literature has been written in exile," says prize-winning novelist and poet Zoe Valdes, who has lived in France since 1995. Known for her sardonic descriptions of life in contemporary Cuba, she is an outspoken opponent of the Castro government. "Jose Marti, Felix Varela, there were many great writers and thinkers who had to go into exile," she recounts from her home in Paris. "We are not an isolated case. The same thing happened with the Spaniards during Franco. They kept writing about the Spanish Civil War. Like them we continue to write about the themes that are part of us."

Before her defection Valdes, who is 40 years old, worked in the Cuban embassy in Paris, was a member of the Cuban cultural delegation to UNESCO, and was a scriptwriter at the Cuban film institute in Havana. She asserts that Prieto is a phony who has nothing legitimate to say, and though she agrees with his concept of a universal Cuban culture, her definition of that culture includes only that which exists outside the island's bureaucratic, institutional structure.

"There are more authentic examples of Cuban culture in Miami than in Cuba today," she says. "That's because Cuban culture isn't filth, or cheap ideology, or prostitution, or anything else they've attempted to put in place there. How can you talk about culture when all the painters are in exile? When there's one official ballet company and no opportunities for others? When the ballerinas have to buy their toe shoes in dollars?

"That country is not dependent on a so-called cultural liberalization," she adds. "Cuban culture [within Cuba] is like a sleeping beauty waiting to be reawakened. The problem is the tyranny, the lack of freedom, and the economy."

You've suggested that cultural politics in Cuba are democratic.
Cultural politics in Cuba are totally democratic. Absolutely democratic. The most pluralistic imaginable. This is policy that is not made by bureaucrats. Here the artists talk it out. It's policy that's being made by the artists. And the officials who don't understand that will have to leave their posts.

You describe the current time as a very liberal one compared with other periods in the past 40 years. So how do you explain the many reports of censorship in Cuba?

Read the work of our writers. I think contemporary Cuban literature covers every subject, all the issues. Everything that happens in Cuba is described in our literature. There is no censorship here. Here there's great creative freedom.

Despite what you say, a 1996 report by the writers' organization International PEN stated: "Cuba has perfected the art of censorship: Its writers can criticize the regime within certain shifting and arbitrarily set parameters, but with little chance of their voices being heard or heeded." Essentially, even if there is not overt government censorship, the system fosters self-censorship.

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