Monday, June 20, 2011

Artistic Freedom and the Revolution

Broken handcuffs flew over paintings of liberated minds in the Casa del las Americas museum of art in Havana, Cuba. Prison bars bent into the shape of women lay next to caged birds flying free, as balloons symbolizing independent thoughts escaped their confines to fly free.

Given that Cuba, in relation to the Western liberal democratic model, is a dictatorship, all of this seemed strange. But, in relation to our visit to Cuba, it didn't. The museum was a bright, open place, established four months after the Cuban Revolution of 1959 in order to extend socio-cultural relations throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Artists chatted next to a commemorative exhibition dedicated to the late Uruguayan poet Mario Benedetti, while our group moved through successive rooms dedicated to surrealist and cubist pieces of art by famous Latin American painters.

But, the hall filled with the "liberation" art not only took on a bizarre feeling of propaganda, but symbolized, to me, all the contradictions of modern day Cuba. Artists from all over the world (with a shocking amount from Bosnia-Herzegovina) had submitted art that on the surface was entirely dedicated to the independence of thought and freedom of speech. Those things do not exist in Cuba.

I had to pinch myself all week to remember this. Cuba is a land of Mojitos, Salsa, Rumba, and Cha-Cha-Cha, far from the grey, depressing apartment blocks I had always associated in my mind with communism. An enormous amount of men were wearing mesh tank tops. Young gay people congregated on the Havana waterfront after dark, with no trouble from the seemingly non-existent police.

In 2009 Cuba ranked 173rd out of 178 countries for freedom of the press. A Freedom House survey ranked the country "Not Free," while in 2010 The Economist magazine ranked it 121st out of 167 countries for political freedom. Political parties besides the communist party are illegal, and public dissent may be punished as a criminal act.

So why are those handcuffs flying away? Cubans would prefer that I mentioned Cuba being 33rd in the world for low infant mortality rates, one place ahead of number 34, the United States. But, if you looked at their pre-revolution infant mortality rate, it would tie them for 169th place, with Swaziland. Rights in Cuba are of a social, not a political nature. To those who favor Western liberal democracies, this can feel abhorrent, but it is the way it has been in Cuba for over fifty years.

Cuba is fascinating for many reasons, but it truly stands out as the only country in the world with a socially benevolent dictatorship. This is the key to understanding why Cuba is not Syria: the government does more than oppress. This triumph of an anti-western model is the main reason Cuba still threatens the west, simply because it still exists.

Were the flying handcuffs hypocritical? Absolutely. Did they still represent freedom? Yes.

Daniel Rosenfeld

Oberlin College '12

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