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The State of Detention: Performance, Politics, and the Cuban Public


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The detention of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera and the Cuban government's actions to prevent her performance from taking place in Havana's Revolutionary Plaza have made international news headlines in the past week. Public outrage about the censorship of the performance and concerns about Bruguera's whereabouts have circulated in social media outside Cuba, but little in depth consideration of the context and implications of the performance has been available in English. The treatment of the matter has been dominated by expressions of dismay that an internationally recognized artist would be detained over a performance and that (therefore) "Cuba hasn't changed"—i.e. that two weeks after the announcement diplomatic relations would be restored between Cuba and the US, and the Cuban government still does not allow its citizens to express their political views in public. While the detention of an artist should be cause for concern anywhere, the assumption that a government's policies and practices could be transformed so quickly is politically naïve or disingenuous.

In the aftermath of the December 17 pronouncements by Barack Obama and Raul Castro about a rapprochement between Cuba and the United States, Bruguera published a public letter to the two presidents and the Pope in which she proposed relocating her 2009 performance Tatlin's Whisper #6 to the Plaza of the Revolution, thereby offering an open mic to the Cuban citizenry to express their views about their country's future. According to Bruguera, she was encouraged by friends to carry out her proposal. Calling her project #YoTambienExijo (I Also Demand), she used internet platforms to launch her performance from outside the island and was supported by a number of dissident groups and opposition blogs. Bruguera then travelled to Havana on December 26 and was immediately summoned to a meeting with the director of the National Council of the Fine Arts, Rubén Del Valle, who made it clear that she would not receive authorization or support from official cultural channels. His position was made public in an interview released after the December 27 meeting, as was the Cuban artist and writers' union repudiation of Bruguera's performance. On December 29, Bruguera tried to obtain authorization to use the plaza from the National Revolutionary Police. Her request was denied. She made public her intent to continue with the performance without any official support, and was detained on the morning of December 30. Several dissidents who had expressed solidarity with Bruguera's project were either detained or placed under house arrest at the same time. Among them were Antonio Rodiles and Ailer González of Estado de SATS, blogger Yoani Sanchez and her husband Reinaldo Escobar, activist Eliecer Avila, photographer Claudio Fuentes, and members of the activist group The Ladies in White. Performance artist and poet Amaury Pacheco was also detained near his home in Alamar, though he had not expressed any intention of attending the performance, and artist Luis Trápaga and filmmaker Boris González were arrested at the plaza. As of this writing, Pacheco and González remain in detention, together with a Cuban correspondent for the Madrid-based opposition blog Diario de Cuba and several opposition activists. Bruguera was released on December 31, but her passport was confiscated and, although she has not lived in Cuba for more than five years, she has been ordered to remain on the island for the next two to three months, while law enforcement determines whether or not to charge and try her for disrupting public order and resisting police. Since her first release, Bruguera has been detained two more times: first for calling a press conference and then for protesting the continued detention of some of her supporters (The most detailed and up-to-date reports on the detentions can be found in diariodecuba.com and 14ymedio.com).


The international outcry over of Bruguera's detention does not associate it with the December 24 arrest of another artist, Danilo Maldonado Machadoaka El Sexto, who was apprehended when he was on his way to stage a performance in Havana's Parque Central involving two pigs named Fidel and Raul. El Sexto has not been released and he was not granted an interview with state representatives prior to his arrest. This is probably due to the fact that he is not a member of the Cuban artist and writers' union and does not command the international press attention that would lead to a rash of unfavorable articles such as those generated by the censorship of #Yo Tambien Exijo.

Media coverage of Bruguera's performance in English, including a recent editorial in The New York Times, has expressed disappointment that freedom of expression was not respected and that opponents of the Cuban government continue to be subject to threats, harassment, and detention. For those who follow Cuban politics, this comes as no surprise. First of all, the Cuban government's control over culture, media, and public discourse has been absolute for more than five decades, and vague promises of change are not tantamount to actual modifications in law or policing practices. Second, the recent agreement to swap political prisoners and reopen embassies is not in itself indicative of a political transformation in Cuba—negotiations leading to the release of political prisoners have taken place since 1962—in the immediate aftermath of the Bay of Pigs invasion—and talks leading to restored diplomatic relations have taken place on and off since the 1970s.

Read the full article here.