Welcome to the Bureaucracy:
On June 30, 1961, Fidel Castro uttered these words: "Within the revolution everything, against the revolution nothing."
Seldom quoted in its full context, the phrase was part of a speech Castro made to Cuban intellectuals at a meeting of the young government's Cultural Council, convened to discuss the limits of artistic expression in revolutionary Cuba. "In that the revolution constitutes the interests of the people, in that the revolution signifies the interests of the entire nation," Castro elaborated, "no one can rightfully make claims against it."
Delivered at the conclusion of a showdown between artists and government officials over a controversial documentary film, PM, created by Saba Cabrera Infante and Orlando Jimenez-Leal, Castro's speech became the cornerstone of his regime's cultural policy. In the years since, the immortal "within the revolution everything" has been the subject of continual debate both inside and outside Cuba, analyzed and critiqued according to the political climate of the day.
"It's been interpreted all kinds of ways," notes Pamela Smorkaloff, a New York University professor and author of an extensively researched book on Cuban revolutionary writers. "Some have taken it to mean there was an iron hand over cultural expression in Cuba. Others have said it was very flexible and meant you were allowed to do anything within the revolution."
The cultural policy was laid out in more detail during subsequent Communist Party congresses, as well as in Cuba's 1976 constitution. These tenets, as expressed in official declarations, denounced the proliferation of "false intellectuals, snobbism, extravagance, homosexuality, and other social aberrations." Art was to be used as a tool to perpetrate revolutionary values, to promote Latin American culture. The "best" of international culture could be assimilated, but without it being imposed upon the Cuban people. Among other things art was to be a weapon in the fight against Yankee imperialism.
"Capitalism leads to alienation," warned one Communist Party document. "It keeps art from realizing its beautiful destiny of contributing to the elevation of man and [it leads to] the downfall of a just society."
One goal of the revolution was to bring uplifting art and literature to everyone, regardless of race or class. Officials set up a network of cultural institutions to administer the creation of visual and performing art, music, literature, and film. State publishing houses were created to ensure that books would be plentiful and inexpensive, an effort aided by Castro's 1967 decision to suspend the principle of international copyright.
Children who showed promise of artistic talent were to be trained from an early age in specialized schools. Artists graduating from those schools would be awarded professional status and earn a state salary to subsidize their creative work.
Jose Luis Cortes, a virtuoso flautist and composer, and founder of the popular band NG La Banda, says he would have been "just another poor black guy" if not for his free musical education. Buena Vista Social Club guitarist Eliades Ochoa, who as a young man supported himself by shining shoes and playing his guitar in bordellos, clearly recalls the changes fostered by the revolution. "I started to feel like an artist," he recounts. "They paid me a salary. Then they asked me to be on another show and they paid me more. I was finished with playing on the street. I felt good."
Cuba's cultural infrastructure developed around Soviet models. As in Eastern bloc countries, artists working in the revolutionary system were judged on ideological as well as artistic merit. In the Seventies the Cuban film institute produced flattering portraits of the nation's agricultural industry and health system. Singers of the nueva trova folk movement wrote ballads about oppression in Latin America. And while the revolution gave Cuba's lower classes increased access to the arts, it also created a new elite of officially endorsed artists and cultural bureaucrats who were part of the so-called red bourgeoisie. The state awarded them cars, houses, and opportunities to travel abroad, mostly to Eastern Europe.
Those artists whom officials judged to be counterrevolutionary or otherwise unworthy were marginalized, censored, and denied the professional status that would provide them with salaries. They were also ostracized by their fellow artists, who feared that contact with them would result in their own persecution. Students were kicked out of the university for perceived improper conduct and assigned to menial jobs in the provinces. Homosexual artists and writers were shipped off to work camps.
By the Eighties Cuban officials, including Castro, conceded that the repressive measures applied to artists and intellectuals in the previous decade had been too harsh. The Ministry of Culture had been created in 1976 to centralize the administration of the state's cultural institutions, and its first leader, Armando Hart Davalos, a former minister of education, was credited with decreasing Soviet influence and creating a more lenient environment for artists.
But tensions between the intelligentsia and government officials continued during Hart's tenure. By the late Eighties, a generation of highly educated visual artists, musicians, and writers were using their prodigious talents and analytical skills to make art that questioned the system. In the early Nineties, to ease the growing strain, Hart advocated for regulations that would allow them to travel abroad more often.
Many artists chose what became known as the "third option": living in Mexico or other approved countries without breaking ties to the homeland. But the government plan to appease the artists backfired when scores defected during the "special period" of severe economic crisis following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the loss of billions in subsidies. Many of the defectors came to Miami.
In an effort to halt the exodus, which peaked in the mid-Nineties, officials instituted a new system of incentives designed to encourage artists to remain in Cuba. Previously artists who earned money abroad were required to turn over to the government more than 70 percent of that income; they received the balance in the form of supplies -- musical instruments, band uniforms, and so on. "It was like being paid in spices," says NG La Banda's Cortes. "You never saw any money."
Possession of U.S. dollars was legalized in Cuba in 1993, the same year that artists, like other freshly minted Cuban entrepreneurs, were granted a new status: independent workers. Musicians were allowed to keep dollars earned while touring abroad, though they still were required to pay a percentage to the government upon their return.
In 1996 new regulations stipulated that musicians and composers could receive money from foreign recording contracts and royalties directly, avoiding government intermediaries. Similarly writers could make their own foreign publishing deals, and artists could negotiate the sale of their work through foreign galleries. By 1997 artists were allowed to keep all their foreign earnings. In return they were expected to pay an annual income tax on money earned at home or abroad. (Tax rates are determined by income level.)
Cortes says the current status of Cuba's musicians is "almost independent," explaining that this past year the government stopped providing state salaries. Now, like their counterparts around the globe, musicians must perform in order to support themselves. But they are not completely free of the state; they must pay twenty percent of their performance fees to a government artists' management agency. These agencies, specializing in dance music, traditional music, singer/songwriters, and classical music, are supposedly responsible for promoting the bands. But Cortes says the musicians themselves actually find most of their own work. "We used to be subsidized by the state," he shrugs. "Now we're the ones who pay."
Foreign record deals and concert tours have generated considerable income for some Cuban musicians. The principal members of the Buena Vista Social Club, for example, each netted roughly $100,000 this past year, according to Cuban producer Juan de Marcos Gonzalez. In fact popular musicians have become Cuba's new moneyed elite, the people who possess the new cars, electronic equipment, and satellite dishes their fellow countrymen can only dream of obtaining.
To travel abroad an artist or academic must seek approval from the sprawling bureaucracy directed by the Ministry of Culture. (In Havana alone the ministry oversees about a hundred theaters, museums, foundations, promotional agencies, and institutes.) The administrative hierarchy surrounding the arts is so densely layered that artists often refer to the ministry as the "mystery of culture."
Those seeking permission to travel must have a letter confirming they have been booked for a concert tour, exhibition, lecture, or other artistic or academic engagement. The artist presents the letter and other documents to the institution with which he or she is affiliated, which then channels it to the Ministry of Culture's foreign-relations department.
Artists not affiliated with an institution can apply through the writers and artists union (known by its acronym, UNEAC), which admits members by vote of an artists committee. In the rare case that an artist has no institutional affiliation, he or she may appeal to the foreign ministry's immigration department, but without the backing of a cultural organization, obtaining a travel permit is more difficult.
Today artists with professional connections are rarely turned down for visas, though travel is still considered a privilege, not a right. In 1997, for example, the popular band La Charanga Habanera was sanctioned for making lewd gestures during a television appearance. Their punishment: a six-month prohibition on travel abroad.
Minister of Culture Abel Prieto insists some disciplines, such as classical music and experimental theater, as well as libraries and museums, must be wholly funded by the state. And to keep those nonprofits going, Prieto says, arts institutions that do make money must share their wealth. He lauds the creation, in the mid-Nineties, of the Foundation for Cultural Development, "a new socialist mechanism." Cuban record labels, galleries, and other profit-making entities must contribute to the foundation, which provides money to nonprofit groups.
"The ministry must adapt to new circumstances in Cuba," Prieto says. "We have to search for ways to function within the market, which was a dirty word a few years ago. Today our impresarios have to learn what the market is about."
Prieto stresses a semantic distinction: This new approach to the arts constitutes commercialism, not capitalism. Cuba's dollar economy is merely a sign of "complicated" times, not political upheaval. "Every cultural policy decision I make today has its economic repercussions," he adds. "We have to learn how to get money for culture in a dignified way."
-- By Judy Cantor
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Miami, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.