August 31, 2020
Carlos Lechuga

A Cuban Fight Against Independent Demons

In 2016, I premiered my second film “Santa y Andrés”, a love story between a homosexual artist and a peasant woman who is sent to watch over him, at the Toronto International Film Festival. The work, in addition to containing a message of political protest, was an attempt to bring two people with very different ideas to have a dialogue at the same table. It motivated me to bring to light old wounds from the island’s past and try to find a way heal them.

Life later showed me that the wounds weren’t that old and that a lot of people weren’t interested in having a young, independent filmmaker feature them on screen.

“Santa y Andrés”, apart from the joys it brought me, immersed me in a multi-year process during which I experienced censorship (on the Island and at a film festival in New York), received a visit from state security, and had to go through a dozen endless meetings with state ministers and institutions.

That is why I find it funny to be sitting in front of my computer now writing about this topic, because I do not want to talk only about my experience, nor do I want to sound resentful. From what I know, I will try to be as objective as possible, knowing that some subjectivity will escape me.

Since 1961, with the release of Orlando Jiménez Leal and Saba Cabrera Infante’s “PM” and Fidel Castro’s “Words to the Intellectuals” speech, the men who oversee the direction of Cuban culture have used what Fidel said as their prime directive –”Within the Revolution, everything. Against the Revolution, nothing”— to determine and make clear what can be exhibited or presented on the Island.

Yet over the past few years and especially due to changing times, new technologies and the internet, there has been a boom of independent art in Cuba. The freedom provided by the democratization of social media has changed Cuban society.

It seems surreal, because it is very difficult to determine with any sense of objectivity which artistic works fall within the Revolution and which remain outside. This without contemplating what an aberration it is to try to put brakes on artistic expression. But it became standard practice for many cultural officials during these years to doubt and mistrust the motives behind speeches and artistic proposals by the island’s creators.

As many of us know, many artists left Cuba and those of us who stayed, in one way or another, with different intensity, have had to collide with that wall of censorship, self-censorship and what can and cannot be talked about. It is not clear to me when the term “independent artist” took hold. As an old friend joked: Independent of what?

In fact, in recent years, some retired military officials and old censors have tried to demonize independent art via social networks (Check the posts by the pseudonymous Arthur Gonzalez against Juan Carlos Cremata or against “Santa y Andrés.” Those posts contain inappropriate images like a cartoon of a snake made of celluloid, in order to portray Cuba’s emergent independent cinema).

Yet over the past few years and especially due to changing times, new technologies and the internet, there has been a boom of independent art in Cuba. The freedom provided by the democratization of social media has changed Cuban society. At some point someone should analyze how Cuba has changed since the moment its leaders allowed Cubans to connect en masse onto social networks.

For those of us who know Cuba, we know that its rulers relate to its citizens in a centralized way. Being a socialist system where the State governs almost everything and owns the television, the press, galleries, printing presses and cinemas, for independent artists today, it is difficult for us to exhibit and distribute our work.

And I’m talking about the independent artists of today, because I don’t know how an artist from the 1970’s, 80’s or 90’s could work from the Island without being linked to any state-run organization. It is not clear to me if it was even a concept at that time. In 2020 it is easy for a musician to record in a home studio. Studios are made with consoles and microphones brought from abroad and built in soundproofed rooms inside private homes.

These songs can then be shared through social networks and thus manage to be heard inside and outside the Island. In my opinion, musicians who are not affiliated with any state institution have a more discernible freedom compared to independent filmmakers, for example, who need cinemas to show their work. A musician loads his song on the internet and is not dependent on national media outlets.

Though not everything is rosy for them since often the State, wanting to “look after the tastes of the population”, tries to impose certain types of rules on bars, restaurants, and the radio. And they look to ban what the population hears. Reggaetoneros like Chocolate MC or Wildey, for example, have faced an impossible fight, since they are frequently followed. Yet in the end people will always listen to what they want.

Another artist friend once told me: “Who are they (the State) to look after the tastes of the population? What do they know about music, about cinema if the majority are bureaucrats? They are not artists. They are civil servants.” Joking aside, this kind of attempt to discern what is and what is not art seems naive in the 21st century.

Since “Aglutinador” and Sandra Ceballos, “independent” visual artists have had a little more freedom when creating and exhibiting their works. I remember several slogans that emerged from their ranks: “Neither for nor against, quite the opposite” (An exhibition) or “Each house a gallery”, speaks of the attempt to get the entire system of your back and the role of intermediaries in governmental artistic centers and national museums. After all, the work of a plastic artist can be done alone from the same house. The problem, as for everyone, comes at the time of exhibition.

The point came when the ministry of culture realized it is lagging behind the times and that in order to regain control it must create a decree: the infamous decree 349 that supposedly does not function against independent art, but was created to regulate and organize what is in good or bad taste. According to them, it is a way of protecting the population by defining who is and who is not artist (I am paraphrasing here). Sadly, the decree has great implications for freedom of artistic expression and affects the entire community of Cuban artists from various aspects.

With the growth of Internet access on the island, many writers, poets and essayists who used to struggle with publishing their work, have managed to create spaces in digital publications, literary magazines and blogs.

It is not always censorship that prevents publication. Recall that since we live in a centralized state, there are times when the government needs to use paper for some matter, and the printing presses (all state-owned) have to stop production and place themselves at the service of the “bigger task”.

Most of these sites are easy to access from the island, though a few are blocked so that Cubans cannot read them. But anyone interested in reading them can download a VPN and circumvent the censors to access the sites.

I never decided to become an independent film director. I studied in two film schools in Cuba, one of them with tremendous international prestige, and in both cases my education didn’t cost me a penny. When I graduated and had to start looking for a job, without having any friends or contacts at ICAIC, the institution that governs cinema in Cuba, I knew that it would be difficult for me to make a film through the established system. Some friends had created an independent creative group for the development and production of film projects, and I joined.

My first film, “Molasses”, presented a vision of the country too sad for the liking of the vice presidents at the film institute and they would not let me release it in the theaters, we could only show it within the framework of the Havana Film Festival, and after a scolding. But it was not prohibited. After this experience I began investigating censorship in Cuba and from there came my second film, the aforementioned “Santa y Andrés”; which was banned and for which we were punished and censored.

For both my first and latest films, the institute did help with filming permits, equipment import permits, and supported the filmmaking process prior to completion of the works. But once they saw the final product, they decided to retaliate; making it once again clear that the problem is not so much in the production of films, as in their distribution and promotion, which is very difficult. Again, independent art, in a country like Cuba, is not completely independent.

At the same time, independent art suffers from another serious challenge in the eyes of the state institution: its content and sources of funding. In my films, knowing in advance that they were very critical of the Cuban reality, we made sure that our financing sources (always foreign) had nothing to do with the United States, so that no one could not tell us the money came from the CIA or U.S. Department of State. After 60 years of a cruel blockade against the island and many other “regime change” schemes by the U.S. government, for the leaders of the island, everything that comes from their “northern neighbor” is seen with suspicion. It is the “fortress under siege” syndrome. Our production company only applies to European funds with an established history and prestige. We never work with the United States.

With the growth of Internet access on the island, many writers, poets and essayists who used to struggle with publishing their work, have managed to create spaces in digital publications, literary magazines and blogs.

But in Cuba, when I needed money for a film, there was no film promotion fund to provide it. Instead state funds for film marketing were granted to committed filmmakers with a recognized film career. It remains very difficult for young people to make a feature film.

It’s the old case of the snake biting its tail: the government is not able to provide everyone with solutions to their needs and at the same time gets upset when the individuals try to make it on their own. I hope that now with the new Fund for the Promotion of Cuban Cinema, everything improves. Time will tell.

In the past, when it comes to my work, I have been treated as a stateless person, although I live on the island and I am interested in the welfare of my country. For the mere fact of wanting to show a truth, I have been punished. I have been insulted in social networks, the police have summoned me to strange places, I have been followed to international festivals and they have erased me from the state media. Today I work from home and remain independent. I am just one more. Due to the mistrust established in revolutionary discourse and suspicion toward what is not part of the State –towards the independent– few times do state promotion networks gives voice to someone who is not clearly associated with any state organization. This has claimed the careers of several talents who, out of pain, have decided to leave the country or continue inside, making their art privately.

Without being pessimistic, I summarize the relationship of the state with independent art as the relationship of a paternalistic father who does not trust a son who can embarrass him, criticize him, or get him into trouble. The scolding almost always begins with a wake-up call from an institution, then some kind of threat, and in the end the whole case is handed over to the state security.

I think Cuban society is eager to open up to the world. To know stories and topics that were previously forbidden or forgotten. I honestly don’t believe that the ordinary Cuban on the island has a problem with independent artists. In fact, I think they seek and hunt for all the music, artwork, photography and films that have been made outside of the institution. It is a way of staying aware of the changes that are happening little by little on the Island. It is a way of “being part” of something new. To be informed and to be able to see what everyone wants to see. Consume what you want, without needing a permit or national filter.

My modest opinion is that with the amount of problems we have as a country, it is crazy for cultural institutions to demonize independent artists who show or speak of some social aspect of Cuba that can be critical or difficult to digest. As there is always an exception to the rule, I think there are some independent artists who avoid politics and who may have been able to make their careers without many incidents.

At present, on the Island, there are creative groups, artist studios, small scale publishing houses, and music studios that are independent and that help to nurture Cuban culture. I hope that as the years go by, the state no longer sees us as a threat. We’re not asking for help, just to be left alone.

Finally, on an emotional level, I believe that the term “independent artist” will gradually disappear. On the street, in the neighborhoods, most young people have in their possession a very powerful weapon: a smartphone with a camera. For years, the most interesting videos — whether journalistic reports, or those that simply show a different face of the country— have been made by amateurs. The power of images, of the “here” and “now”, of the immediacy of filming and posting the material on the internet in two minutes, is changing the country’s narrative. Today we are more independent than integrated. The institutions, the authorities —the government, in short— is more and more losing control over visual mediums.

Carlos Lechuga studied at Cuba’s High Institute of Art and graduated from its International School of Film and Television. He has worked as a director, screenwriter, script doctor, and ghostwriter. His two feature films Melaza and Santa Andrés premiered at the Toronto and San Sebastián film festivals, and toured more than 70 countries. His short films have been presented in art biennials and in museums such as the Reina Sofía and MoMA. Currently, he is in pre-production of his new film Vicenta B. and writes for various cultural magazines. En brazos de la mujer casada is his first book. He was born in Havana in 1983.