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

Cuba's independent journalists have been among the most visible victims of repression by Cuban officials. Raul Rivero formed his own news agency in 1995 without permission from the state, which does not recognize such unofficial media organizations. He has frequently been detained after filing reports with foreign media. "There are great limitations in being able to critically address social problems as a journalist," Rivero reports. "It's impossible for a journalist to write a realistic, let alone critical, chronicle of events in Cuba because it will not be published here. Nobody can criticize Cuban society. You have to celebrate it."

Abel Prieto dismisses such complaints, countering that the government's response to a few rogue journalists does not diminish the strength of Cuba's cultural and intellectual life. Rivero himself does not disagree. Artists and intellectuals, he notes, are not subject to the same restrictions as journalists. "There's much more leniency in fiction or poetry," he says. "Here people do publish critical literature or they write critical plays that are performed. I don't think there's any censorship of writing that's considered within revolutionary lines. The problem is that the ones who decide if something is revolutionary or not are the heads of the party."

For Zoe Valdes there is no middle ground. She is not willing to draw a distinguishing line between fiction and nonfiction. As far as she's concerned, restrictions for some are tantamount to no freedom for all. "It's very amusing when they talk about space for different ideas," she says. "That means there's space for those who make a deal with the government and for those who earn dollars. If this so-called attempt at cultural exchange serves to reunify people, I'm all for it. But while they talk about freedom and there are four journalists in prison, I'm not buying it.

"What do the baseball games and concerts really prove? Just because some black guys with drums get onstage, what's that? Does that mean freedom? The Americans can eat that shit if they want to, but not me. I ate it already when I lived in Cuba."

Writer Antonio Jose Ponte says the March trial of the four dissidents dashed his hopes that Cuba was moving in a more liberal direction. Other Cuban artists, however, sense a more moderate climate. Marco Castillo sees a definite change, both in the government and among Cuba's artists. "I think there's been a relaxation on both sides," he says. "The language of artists is less aggressive than it was in the Eighties. There are always socially critical works, but maybe they're more metaphorical. If there's a case of censorship, it's very isolated. And the official who's imposing it, he's just out of step with the times."

For his part Prieto frequently has spoken out against intolerance, even when it has meant facing off against Fidel Castro himself. Last year when Castro criticized Tomas Gutierrez Alea's movie Guantanamera at a UNEAC congress, Prieto, along with film institute head Alfredo Guevara, vigorously argued with party officials in defense of the late film director.

"Perhaps in the Seventies Prieto wouldn't have been able to do that," Ponte observes. "Or maybe if someone else were minister now, he might have done the same. But Prieto has his limits. He is dictated to by a policy that allows him to show a certain flexibility, but he's not the minister who's going to do away with censorship in Cuba. He might have reduced it, but he can't end it."

The endless debate over freedom of expression may have placed Prieto in the cross hairs of Cuba's detractors the world over, but it apparently hasn't spoiled his sense of humor. At the conclusion of his interview with New Times he offered as a memento a copy of Perversiones en el Prado, a new novel by Cuban author Miguel Mejides, published, naturally, by UNEAC. This is how he inscribed it: "From an amateur censor, Abel Prieto."

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