I had the opportunity to travel to Cuba from March 15 to March 23, 2019. The trip included stops in Havana and Cienfuegos. Art is one of the most salient features of the Cuban landscape. Not only are there largely recognized art installments, such as Fábrica de Arte Cubano and Fusterlandia, but vibrant and diverse independent street art and graffiti that adorn the city's walls. In a country infamous for government censorship that has historically caused the erasure of individual expression and identity, Cubans have and continue to find creative ways to adapt to the severity of that censorship. Cuban street art is redefining revolution and rebuilding Cuban identity directly on top of its existing landscape, allowing artists to "speak while staying hidden" and reducing the risks associated with political dissent.
Rather than through anonymity, Cuban street artists typically mark their work with a recognizable tag and approach the transformation of Cuba's landscape by producing highly visible and large-scale public art that plays with abstract and enigmatic styles. These styles create space for layers of interpretation—for double or hidden meanings—and therefore decrease the likelihood of artists' censure should their work attract government attention or face accusation and investigation for political dissent. Their art presents a stark contrast to the pro-revolution propaganda that has typically characterized Cuban city walls.
This new landscape offers the opportunity to examine both the personal and cultural histories of Cubans as well as prompt Cubans who consume the art to face and heal from their historical trauma, reinstitute their identity, and potentially start a new revolution.
I explore the new revolutionary landscape in Cuba that street artists are building with their work by showcasing their politically dissident art and discussing the government's past and current pushback on individual expression. I consider the significance of this landscape in redefining a people and what "revolution" means for them and suggest that the trauma of a history that has intentionally caused the dissolution of the self teases out the necessity for Cuban people to recreate and face these traumatic experiences and absence of identity through the creation of this new landscape.
Freedom of Expression
C. is a college undergraduate student, a Cuban citizen, and a friend of mine. I always thought that rumors of Big Brother or constant surveillance in Cuba were exaggerated; however, C. told me a story of his most recent trip to his home country that confirms the intensity of the "see something, say something" culture in Cuba. Last year, he and his non-Cuban stepfather and non-Cuban uncle visited Cuba together. He informed me that his uncle, drunk at the hotel bar, loudly expressed to the bartender his impression of Cuba as a "dictatorship." C. reports that the bartender was reluctant to continue the conversation with his uncle and that C. and his stepfather promptly removed his uncle from the hotel bar. The next morning, the three men took a trip to the beach. Cuban government "agents," as C. referred to them, somehow located the three of them on the beach and detained them for investigation. They were interrogated and—when they were finally released to return to their hotel—their room had been rummaged through and their belongings were left in disorder.
Non-Cuban visitors tend to have a little more privilege and freedom of expression in Cuba but that doesn't mean that they should voice their opinions of the Cuban government at full volume or push the locals to divulge any resentment of the state. Even though C.'s uncle wasn't a Cuban citizen, the government was still watching, listening. As a matter of fact, C. mentioned that hotels in particular are one of the hottest spots for government surveillance. Cuban employees of hotels and other tourist-accommodating establishments interact more often with tourists than other Cuban citizens; therefore, of all those the government keeps tabs on, hotel employees are of higher interest.
In Cuba, I observed that both U.S. citizens and Cuban citizens were more inclined to and felt freer to express their disdain for U.S. President Trump than for the Castro regime. In Cuba, I've had conversations with U.S. tourists who openly vocalized their frustrations with the U.S. president, government, rules, and limitations with no hesitation and with no fear of retaliation. Similarly, Cuban citizens held nothing back when badmouthing The Donald.
Expression in the arts
Cuban culture has been vibrantly colored by the arts since dawn of the twentieth century. From 1900 to the onset of the Revolution in 1959, Cuban art was internationally recognized and celebrated. One of the first acts of the new government was the introduction of programs that were designed to enhance artistic expression but that, in effect, compromised artists' freedom of expression. Fidel Castro's policy for intellectuals and artists alike was:
"Within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing."
Although state sponsorship opened the door of opportunity for many intellectuals and artists, they are only permitted to produce work that adheres to Castro's totalitarian policy. Essentially, pieces that react positively to or promoted the revolution were encouraged and pieces that criticized the new government were prohibited (and their creators paid the price). This is still the case today. Liberal artists have been silenced via social persecution as "anti-social elitists" or homosexuals. Often, those that don't successfully acquire asylum are sent to labor camps or prison or even executed. According to the Anti-Castro Archivo, an estimated 4,000 people were executed in Cuba between 1959 and 2016 and the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation reports 9,940 arbitrary detentions in 2016 and 5,155 in 2017.
The Revolutionary Landscape
With Cuban art and expression controlled by government policies, "revolution" is constantly defined by the landscape the Castro regime has built and reinforced by the protectors of that landscape. The Comités de Defensa de la Revolución, or the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), are a network of organizations across Cuba that act as "the eyes and ears of the Revolution." They quell counterrevolutionary activity and comprise an overwhelming majority of the country's citizens (over 80 percent) (Sanchez). The CDR is organized into levels, which include "Block" and "Neighborhood." According to Richard Fagen in his book The Transformation of Political Culture in Cuba, Fidel Castro claimed that, with the implementation of the CDR, the counterrevolutionaries that "think they can stand up to the people" are "going to be tremendously disappointed" because:
we’ll confront them with a committee of revolutionary vigilance on every block.
Not only does the CDR's structure in turn break down and organize the Cuban landscape into sections, it designs and controls its appearance, even its soundscapes. For example, they're responsible for maintaining neighborhoods, schools, and other social places, including the clean-up and rebuilding efforts after natural and other disasters. They issue citations at the sound of foreign music playing. The CDR is the landscape. Even though it is run by the country's citizens, the choices the CDR makes and the actions they take are completely determined by the blueprint the Castro regime envisioned, designed, and enforces for Cuba's revolutionary landscape. CDR emblems and other pro-revolution "street art" are plastered on every neighborhood's walls.
[YULIER'S] CHARACTERS APPEAR AS THOUGH THROUGH A FILTER THAT REVEALS THEIR RAW EMOTION—HAIRLESS FIGURES OFTEN LUNAR IN THEIR PALLOR AND STARKNESS. ONE IS GAGGED AND SHACKLED. SOME SCREAM. OTHERS HAVE NO MOUTHS IN THEIR FACES, ONLY IN THEIR STOMACHS: ROBBED OF LANGUAGE WHILE THEIR HUNGER SPEAKS." (BÉCHARD)
When asked how he chooses where to paint his street art, Yulier says he "always chooses places that are in poor condition, that are uninteresting and gray" (Llano). He believes he is not only improving Havana's image but also "stimulating debate about the future Cubans want" (Llano). Yulier is careful not to identify as a dissident artist. He claims his art is social and not a direct attack on the system (key phrase: "not a direct attack"); rather, he claims his art creates spaces for people to think (Llano). Yulier was arrested in August 2017 after months of harassment, detained for 48 hours, and released on the condition that he paint over every one of his murals (Llano). Yulier has painted over 100 murals in the city of Havana and refuses to censor himself. This is not the only time Yulier is arrested for his crimes.
Fabián, whose tag is 2+2=5, strikes a balance between Yulier's more passive approach and El Sexto's aggressive approach. He works out of Yulier's studio but his art is slightly more politically-driven in its design and delivery. It features a signature balaclava-clad male, which Fabián began painting in 2016 and has now painted more than 100 times (Béchard). He calls the figure "Supermalo" or "Super bad." Sometimes this figure is depicted in prayer, as Jesus Christ, as a superhero; other times he has his back to the viewer; other times he is homeless sleeping on the ground with no bed. Similar to the purpose of Yulier's alien-like figures, Fabián's Supermalo represents the conditions of the Cuban people from all points on the spectrum.
Image: Fabián standing next to his depiction of Supermalo on the Cuban flag (Mills).
Although, historically, it has been used for soldiers as a means of protection from the cold, the balaclava has become known as a means for or symbol of identity concealment. It conceals not only the wearer's facial features but facial expressions and prevents both positive identification and clear perception of expression/feelings. Fabián tells Deni Ellis Béchard of Pacific Standard:
Everyone has a mask.