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

Don't you think that will happen here in Cuba? With the foreign businesses coming in, the revitalization of the tourist industry, the advertising you can already see in the streets of Havana for new hotels, for cellular phones, luxury dollar department stores.

So-called globalization is a true danger. I believe we have to do everything in our power to save intelligence. Intelligence is in danger in Cuba. It's not only the principles of equality or justice, the principles of socialism. It's intelligence. There's a growing tendency toward frivolity, an increase in mediocrity as well. People here saw Forrest Gump -- and not only Forrest Gump, there was a sort of making, what do you call it, a making-of-Forrest Gump film. It was really inexplicable that they'd put this on TV, with someone pontificating about the significance of the feather that sticks to the guy's shoe at the end. It's incredible! I was so indignant I was moved to write an article about film for the first time in my life.

Can the minister of culture prevent things like that from being shown?
Prohibit it? No. There's a lot more pluralism here than that. [Laughs] For us repression cannot be the way. I believe we should put it on. We can't have young people watching Forrest Gump in a clandestine way. The way to go has to be to let them see Forrest Gump and encourage a discussion about it so that people won't fall in awe at the feet of Forrest Gump.

Let them be able to enjoy what you can enjoy about Forrest Gump but reject what you have to reject about it. Even Bob Dylan -- who's one of my idols -- is ridiculed in the movie. A naked woman with a guitar does a totally decadent version of "Blowin' in the Wind." It's an anti-Sixties film. The thesis of the movie pertaining to AIDS is that the Sixties generation got AIDS because of their promiscuity and because of the number of homosexuals in the hippie community. A terrible thing. I've never seen something so reactionary. And of course it won all the Oscars.

Here we make movies like Strawberry and Chocolate, movies that make us think about ourselves. Art also has that function. Every time we feel comfortable, it has that disquieting function. And here it exists in theater, literature, art, and contemporary dance. It's a continual wake-up call so that Cubans don't slip into lethargy, a lethargy that could mark a surrender to the fetishes of consumerism.

International PEN has not published a complete report on freedom of expression in Cuba since 1996, but Diana Ayton-Schenker, coordinator of the Freedom to Write program at the PEN American Center in New York, detects no signs of liberalization on the island. "I don't see any real evidence to show the situation has changed," she says.

Others, however, find some validity in Prieto's view. "Censorship in Cuba continues," candidly affirms 35-year-old Cuban poet and essayist Antonio Jose Ponte, "but it's not like censorship in the Seventies -- raw censorship. It's more subtle." Ponte, temporarily residing in Portugal and living on money from a writing fellowship, describes instances of books announced by Cuban publishing houses that mysteriously never make it to print. And he lists banned authors such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante, Reinaldo Arenas, and Zoe Valdes, Cubans whose work is not published or distributed on the island.

"There are forbidden writers and forbidden books and forbidden activities," he continues. "But writers do have the possibility of publishing texts they can't get printed in Cuba with foreign publishing houses and in foreign magazines." (Ponte himself will soon have a book of short stories published by Miami's Editions Deleatur, and a distinguished Spanish publishing house is about to debut his first novel.)

Artist Jose Bedia remembers his experience with such subtle censorship when in 1991 he showed his work in Cuba for the last time. He was living in Mexico and returned to Havana for a museum exhibition of his paintings, some of which dealt with themes of exile and other potentially controversial issues. He says the show had been up for just five days when a cultural official arrived with a team of painters, announcing that the walls of the museum had to be painted at once. "The painting brigade was there and they insisted they had to do it right then," Bedia recalls. "My works had to come down."

Such surreal incidents still occur, and have become an integral part of artistic lore in communist Cuba. With the eyes of the world upon them, however, government officials are generally quick to assert that free artistic discourse is the rule, not the exception. But that liberal image, promoted to the outside world, is seemingly at odds with authoritarian measures taken at home.

That was made clear early this year when the Cuban government implemented the Law of the Protection of the National Independence and Economy of Cuba, aimed primarily at political dissidents and independent journalists. It imposes severe punishment for crimes that include providing foreign media with derogatory reports about Cuba or circulating "subversive" literature. Shortly after the law was passed, four well-known dissidents were tried and jailed.

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