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."

An author of poetry, essays, and fiction (his new novel will be published in Cuba this fall), Prieto previously held several prominent positions at Cuban cultural institutions. From 1988 to 1997 he was president of the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists (UNEAC), an organization independent of the Ministry of Culture, formed to advance artists' interests and sponsor conferences and cultural events. He was also director of the Art and Literature Printing House, a state-owned book publisher. Married for the second time, he has a teenage daughter.

Prieto's father served as vice minister of education in the early days of the revolution. But according to a former classmate at the University of Havana, as a student the younger Prieto expressed no interest in holding government office. "He was a sensitive young man, passionate about literature," says his school friend, who now lives in Miami and asked that his name not be included in this article. "Like the rest of us, he was always after the new books that came out, curious about new literature from abroad. He had nothing to do with socialist realism or official lines. He wasn't a dissident either. He was a young man trying to find himself."

Today artists still tend to see Prieto as one of them, or at least as someone who is sympathetic to their concerns, a sympathy best demonstrated by his strong support for their petitions to travel abroad. "A minister of culture who's an artist is different from a mere bureaucrat," says Cuban poet and essayist Antonio Jose Ponte. "Prieto is a writer, he's an intelligent essayist, and an intelligent person. He's a receptive man, someone who can listen to what you're saying, someone you can have a dialogue with. He has strengthened the writers' position with government officials."

Cuban independent journalist Raul Rivero has repeatedly clashed with authorities for working outside the official government media and for contributing reports to foreign news outlets, including El Nuevo Herald and the Miami-based Radio Marti. He has been detained for questioning numerous times and complains that he has not been allowed to leave Cuba for more than ten years. Still he believes that in the cultural realm a more liberal environment has emerged under Prieto. "I think policy regarding the arts and literature is much more open," Rivero says from Havana. "The cultural sector has become more tolerant, and I think that's due to Abel himself. He's not just a government official, he's an artist and writer, and it's because of him and other cultural functionaries like him, that the relationship between the government and artists and writers has improved."

But others who know Prieto reject the notion that he is as open-minded as he appears. "He's a bluff," says Jesus Vega, a writer and translator now living in Miami who worked at UNEAC during Prieto's tenure there. Vega recalls that when Prieto arrived at UNEAC, he did seem very liberal. "He was put in the position to try and give the administration a new image, with his long hair and everything," Vega recalls, adding that he and other members of the writers and artists union were soon disappointed. "We realized it was a maneuver to actually impose stronger controls on intellectuals," he contends. "Whatever Fidel says, he does, and any behavior to the contrary is just a performance. Abel is the voice of the [Communist] Party."

On a sunny Monday morning in May, Prieto sat in a rocking chair at a large round table in his spacious office at the Ministry of Culture, a bright, spotless, marble-floor mansion in Havana's Vedado neighborhood. He was preparing to catch a flight to London, where he would attend the opening ceremonies of a festival of Cuban film and music. Prieto had agreed to meet with New Times for a rare interview, and his press attache and a protocol officer sat with him at the table, taking notes.

The table and a desk behind it were cluttered with stacks of papers and new books by Cuban authors published inside and outside Cuba. Strikingly expressive paintings by Cuban artists hung on the walls. The minister's celebrated hair was black and curly, long in back and shorter on top. Owlish glasses rested atop his button nose, incongruously small for his stature -- well over six feet tall.

Dressed casually in khaki pants and a white shirt open at the collar, Prieto proved to be a convivial host. He cracked jokes and rocked in his chair as he spoke, his demeanor less that of a high government official than a graduate student surprised to find himself in such a position. "I was with UNEAC for nine years. I've been in this post just two years," he ventured. "Which is to say I was a member of the opposition. It's like the drunk who jumps over the bar and becomes the bartender. That's the sensation I have -- that of a person who's been doing the complaining and all of a sudden has to give all the answers."

Indeed many perplexing questions await answers in a rapidly changing society awash in contradictions. Over the past two years, Prieto has presided over a cultural explosion that both feeds and is fed by a burgeoning dollar economy, which in turn is creating a rift between haves and have-nots. And while Cuba's artists have served as goodwill ambassadors, exemplifying the nation's progressiveness abroad, at home there have been repressive crackdowns, codified in harsh new laws that limit freedom of expression. Prieto touts liberalism while defending the socialist cause, extols international exchange while decrying globalism, and gamely tries to encourage free-market savvy while respecting revolutionary dogma.

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.

Musicians such as Cortes, as well as leading writers and visual artists, live well in Cuba because the money they earn abroad can buy much more at home than in Europe or the United States. In addition favored artists are awarded first-class housing by the state, and their lifestyles, though not exceptional by world standards, are luxurious compared with those of other Cuban citizens. "I have enough offers that I could go live in Italy or Spain or Sweden right now," says the 48-year-old Cortes, "but why would I want to?" Considering his living situation, Cortes's sentiment is understandable. His commodious home includes a well-equipped recording studio, and he's able to rehearse his band on his rooftop terrace, which boasts a breathtaking view of Havana.

For 27-year-old artist Marco Castillo, living anywhere but in Cuba would be out of the question at this point in his career. Castillo is a member of Los Carpinteros, a three-man visual-arts collective whose work has been enthusiastically received by the international art world. The group's conceptual sculpture, paintings, and installations were included in seventeen exhibitions in the United States and Europe last year, and the artists attended the openings of almost all those shows.

The Carpinteros graduated from the state Instituto Superior de Arte in 1994, just when international interest in Cuban art was reaching a crescendo. Since then foreign curators and collectors have made regular visits to Castillo's home studio in Havana to buy work and invite the group to participate in shows as far away as South Africa.

Castillo feels no conflict between his life in Cuba and his successful ventures abroad, noting only that he has access to better materials when he creates work while in foreign cities. "I think today's young artists are much better prepared than previous generations in Cuba for the life of an international artist," he says, acknowledging that artists a decade older than he, many of whom defected in the early Nineties and now live in Miami, suffered more severe ideological and economic constraints.

"I've never felt like we've been missing anything in Cuba," he continues. "There's a reality now, and it's called consumption of Cuban art. And where people come to look for it is here, in Cuba. They don't want to look for Cuban art in Miami. It hurts me to say that because there are good artists in Miami. But it's true. Miami is not the capital of Cuba. Havana is the capital of Cuba, and Cuba is what's hot. We just happen to be in the right place at the right time.

"I feel perfectly at home when I'm in New York or anywhere else I may go," he adds. "I'm like any international artist with a certain amount of success whose career requires travel." Castillo plans to spend a quiet summer in Havana before heading to California in September, when Los Carpinteros will lead a workshop for students at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Over the past couple of years, Cuban artists have with increasing frequency been traveling outside the country and returning to Cuba. Are you concerned about how this will affect the arts on the island? How do you preserve a national culture when so many are going abroad?

I think Cuban culture is not weakened by all that movement. Cuban culture is one that has a very strong national essence but a very intense relationship with the world. It's a culture that's very open to international influences.

And Cuban culture is very much opposed to [cultural] chauvinism, to being closed off, to the idea of being an isolated culture. It's always been that way. That comes from Jose Marti. Cuban culture has always had that universal mission. Music, for example, feeds off many influences and at the same time the core of it remains unchanged. It seems to me this international movement of Cuban artists nourishes Cuban culture. Wherever a Cuban artist may live, he keeps producing Cuban art. He continues to convey a message that has to do with this universal mission.

But now it also seems that the people return; the tendency is to return to Cuba. More than 10,000 artists live in Havana; they go and they come back. Some stay abroad for a while.

Then there are the emigrants who live in Miami and have a different kind of relationship [with Cuba]. But certainly the emigrant artist who lives in Miami continues creating Cuban culture. For me it's striking that some artists who are Cuban nevertheless would like Cuba [to become part of the United States]. They've lived a terrible trauma. I call it cultural schizophrenia. On the one hand, in their art they're very Cuban, and on the other they experience a kind of dichotomy that sometimes is dramatic.

We maintain a very mature attitude toward the culture or art that Cubans outside Cuba are making. We're constantly seeking exchanges with that culture of emigration. That's our position.

What, in your opinion, could the exiles do to cure that cultural schizophrenia you speak of? Are you saying they should return? Are you suggesting they be open to exchange?

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.

Up to a certain point. [But] I'd say the opposite is true. The lack of censorship and the excess of freedom of expression are hurting our literature to an extent. There's clearly an excess of characters like prostitutes, the corrupt official, the person who sells medicine on the black market. The literature could reach higher, obtain a much higher poetic level. [But] you have to judge by reading the books and magazines. For being a blockaded country, we have an impressive space for cultural discussion and debate.

In these past ten years that have been so terrible, so hard, so complicated, intellectuals have not been robbed of their authenticity. They still have doubts. It's the nature of their work to question the world, the prevailing order -- so the fact that no one has been able to introduce a "fifth column" among Cuban intellectuals is impressive. And that doesn't result from repression. That can only be achieved with an enormously open system.

We don't have the conflict other socialist countries have had. They did engender internal dissidence and heretical intellectual thought. [But] here there's been an officially promoted discussion, an artistic heresy. That has not occurred in any other socialist country. It's an original and absolutely unrepeatable characteristic of this revolution.

Titon [filmmaker Tomas Gutierrez Alea] was a revolutionary, a revolutionary with contradictions and worries. [His 1968 film] Memories of Underdevelopment deals with doubts about what role the principal character [will have in the revolution]. Finally he emigrates, but nevertheless the film is not counterrevolutionary. Many people have emigrated without any political motivation. Memories asks tremendous questions about the revolution's development amid American attacks, in the middle of the worst crisis.

It's interesting that in this country a revolutionary and critical art has flourished. Heretical and positive at the same time, an art that has combined heresy with this Cuban revolutionary affirmation. That's very remarkable.

And if the art is critical of the revolution?
"Against the revolution nothing, within the revolution everything." [Laughs] I think that [Castro axiom] remains true, but there's a lot of room to move. I believe there are some principles we have to hold to any way we can. It would be suicide to encourage an attack against those principles. It would be demagogic. But at the same time I think those principles are not on the agenda of critical art. From the point of view of someone who's committed to [the revolution], everything is within. You can touch on any issue, and in fact artists are touching upon them. What happened was that at other times there was confusion about the expression "against the revolution nothing." Some thought that all critical art could be or was counterrevolutionary, and that to be revolutionary, art had to praise, to extol.

In the United States art is assumed, at least ideally, to be spontaneous and individual by definition. From our point of view, the very idea of a minister of culture, a government official who administers and oversees culture, is incongruous and by its very nature repressive.

Art is spontaneous? You believe that? [Laughs] In the United States you have a regulated market that's much stronger than any ministry of culture. The mechanism of censorship that exists in the United States is striking. Every American knows who Sylvester Stallone is. Or they saw Forrest Gump, which is an offensive film with the most right-wing and reactionary ideas possible, and it won all the Oscars. In Cuba people loved it, and it's well done, but it's terribly manipulative. The film's thesis has a tremendous pretense: that intelligence is an obstacle to happiness and that to be integrated [within society] you have to be an idiot.

That's a chilling thesis. If that thesis dominated the cultural world, it would be terrible. Then a man like [linguist and political activist] Noam Chomsky would be totally restricted to intellectual circles. I'm sure that the great mass of people in the United States don't have any idea who Noam Chomsky is, but they nevertheless embrace Madonna and Stallone and Michael Jackson as great fetishes. You're not going to publish this [laughs], but it's an implacable censorship operation. I don't think we have anything similar to that.

In the United States [Russian author Aleksandr] Solzhenitsyn would have a huge swimming pool and The Gulag Archipelago would be Dallas. It would be a television show, that's what you would do to Solzhenitsyn. You wouldn't have sent him to Siberia -- forget that -- you'd have either bought him out or totally wiped him off the map. He'd be publishing some little book with an obscure university press or he'd have to write Dallas in order to become known.

This mechanism is really admirable. I always study it. It's true there are cracks in the [U.S.] system. There are films produced that are truly critical, and successful books that form part of a true alternative thought. I'm not simplifying it, nor do I believe there's a big brain behind it or a team of guys with a computer controlling a blacklist. After McCarthyism it evolved into a much more subtle, much better conceived mechanism of censorship.

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.

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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