The news was delivered to Spanish-speaking Miami with a stunning but misleading headline in newscasts: President Donald Trump has canceled cultural and educational exchange programs between Cuba and the United States.
It’s simply not true.
If it were, the prohibition would be devastating for a Miami art, music, theatrical, and literary scene that has attracted international attention — and respect — for its inclusiveness during the last two decades. Events like Art Basel wouldn’t be in this town if we returned to being the kind of infamous place where an art dealer is raided by a U.S. attorney to confiscate art made in Cuba, as happened in 1989.
Political censorship in the arts went out of fashion with the 1990s — and let’s hope it stays that way.
However, what the Trump administration has mandated in regard to Cuban culture is no small thing for the twisted message it sends about artistic freedom, a core value in this country.
In a bizarre mix of culture and education in a lengthy list of mandates recorded Monday in the Federal Register that address human trafficking and the Ebola virus, the administration has ordered an end to federal funding of U.S,-Cuba cultural and educational exchanges.
The State Department says the new measure follows other Trump directives to punish Cuba for its support of Venezuela, its human rights abuses, and to downgrade the country’s standing by placing it in the same category as North Korea and Syria.
There’s no doubt that Cuba is a rogue player.
But aren’t we sanctioning Cuba because, among other violations, artists are living under a new constitution that has cemented artistic censorship as operational principle?
If a Cuban government official doesn’t like what he or she perceives as the message in your art, your lyrics, or your theatrical presentation, you can be arrested, prosecuted, and jailed.
And now, here comes the U.S. government punishing Cuban artists, too, by denying funding from institutions like the National Endowment for the Arts for programs that expose Cuban artists to democracy and American artists to the harsh reality of communism (and yes, also to the propaganda; comes with the territory).
In 2016, for example, the NEA committed $100,000 to the Cuba component of a long-standing program that sends American artists to festivals and arts markets abroad and brings artists and groups from Latin America to tour in the United States.
What does the Trump administration gain by overreaching into the arts and prohibiting funding?
Once again in 2020, Cuban-American voters will play a role in delivering purple, divided Florida, where slim margins determine victory. And there’s an activist sector in the community, reliable Republican voters, who don’t support the cultural exchanges and see them as providers of cash to the Cuban regime. They also see artists as opportunists, not as human beings and creators building careers despite their circumstances.
There’s also in this move another factor: the power of history to haunt the living, who end up paying old debts.
I suspected that Trump meddling in matters of Cuban arts and culture was exactly what was going to happen after Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Miami, became enraged in October by a piece of pop art with the image of controversial Cuban Revolution guerrilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara shown in a couple of American museums.
Guevara — iconic hero to the extreme left and as murderous as Adolf Hitler to Cuban Miami, home to his victims and their heirs — was widely featured in paintings and posters during the propagandist socialist realism period in Cuba that coincided with the pop art movement.
Hence, the 1968 portrait featuring Guevara by Cuban artist Elena Serrano was included in the NEA-funded traveling show “Pop América 1965-1975,” which seeks to chronicle a place in time, including the politics of the era. Titled “Days of the Heroic Guerrilla,” the piece is listed in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Its photograph is all over the Internet.
In a scathing letter to NEA chair Mary Anne Carter, co-signed by Republican Sen. Rick Scott, the senators demanded an explanation for why the painting was included and called descriptions of the show “blithely ignorant or deliberately deceptive.”
“It is disturbing that U.S. taxpayer dollars are being misused to fund an exhibition that glorifies an individual who hated the United Stares,” Rubio and Scott wrote. “We urge you to ensure that individuals responsible for war crimes or crimes against humanity are not featured in any NEA funded exhibits without clearly and unambiguously highlighting their heinous crimes and memorializing their victims.”
Knowing Cuba’s history, I too am repulsed by Guevara’s image and astonished by American ignorance of his war crimes.
But this isn’t Cuba, where government officials dictate what can and can’t be included in an art show. Whether we like it or not, the iconic image of Guevara captured by the Cuban photographer Korda, which Serrano reinterprets in her poster, is now part of art history.
Museums will show it and the cause of a democratic Cuba gains nothing by prohibiting Americans from viewing it. We should see such art as an opportunity to enlighten people about the despicable role Guevara played in Cuba leading execution squads.
But now, a month after Rubio’s attempt to censor the NEA, comes the Trump mandate to end federal funding for institutions that show art from Cuba and host Cuban artists. It won’t, however, end private efforts to engage Cuban artists or keep communities across the country from embracing talent from the island.
“We just had an artist visiting from Cuba,” said Michael Curry, associate vice president of advancement at Santa Fe Community College in Gainesville and a frequent traveler to Cuba on privately funded educational trips. “Osmeivy Ortega was commissioned to do a piece for our zoo. He spoke and did a demonstration for our students. The future and the way forward belongs to these kinds of encounters.
“The artists always lead the conversation,” he added. “They are always the way forward when there seems to be no way forward.”
The prohibition of federal funding, Curry said, is “just another ham-handed effort to punish the Cuban government, which is absolutely immune from these attempts to make life miserable for them. The Cuban people, those unaligned with the regime’s infrastructure, are the ones who will suffer. These kinds of ‘punishments’ only serve to legitimize and justify the incompetence of the people in power in Cuba. So sad.”
Censored in Cuba, Cuban artists are now being punished by the U.S. government, too.
And Americans are also stakeholders in this issue.
When the U.S. government acts as art critic — and decides what’s art and what isn’t — American democracy dies a little.