‘Gagging’ law protecting Cuban culture draws artistes’ ire

HAVANA (AFP) – A law obliging Cuban artistes to register with the Ministry of Culture has created controversy on the Caribbean island known for its spontaneous musical tradition.

In the historic old town of Havana, tourists amble through the colourful cobbled streets serenaded by rumba and the sounds of soperos – amateur singers and musicians who can be found on almost every corner.

These are the main targets of Decree 349 which bans artistes from performing without official authorisation, while also providing sanctions for sexist and vulgar language.

The ruling socialist regime said this is to “protect culture”.

The decree was signed by President Miguel Diaz-Canel on April 20 last year, one day after he replaced Raul Castro as the country’s leader, but faced with the uproar it has caused he’s since admitted the subject “should have been discussed more and better explained”.

Cuban film-maker and producer Joseph Ros speaks during an interview with AFP in Havana on January 20. – AFP

Yet that didn’t stop it being signed into law in early December last year.

Ten days away from a referendum on the new constitution, which includes a clause recognising that artistic creation should be “free”, some artistes have hit out at this “gagging decree”, while many more have criticised its lack of clarity.

“It’s not right to have a decree with gaps, that leaves room for doubt and lacks clarity or creates uncertainty,” popular singer Tony Avila told AFP.

The 47-year-old’s recent song Mi casa.cu created waves in Cuba. It’s about refurbishments needed in his house but many Cubans interpreted it as an ode to fixing what’s wrong in the socialist country, which finds itself at a crossroads as it prepares to recognise the role of private enterprise.

“We’re going to apply it steadily until we reach a consensus,” said Culture Minister Alpidio Alonso on December 6 last year, a day before the decree was signed into law.

While the decree has an impact on all artistes, it is widely expected to most affect musicians and music video producers.

It will punish those who exceed “sound and noise” limits, use national symbols in a disrespectful manner or “violate current norms and regulations in matters of cultural policy”.

The question of cultural policy is an ominous one. Socialist revolutionary and late leader Fidel Castro defined it as such: “With the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing.”

Like much of Latin America, in particular with the wave of reggaeton sweeping the region, Cuban music videos can contain offensive lyrics.

“I think it’s a good idea to try to go back to civility,” said Avila, although he said the decree was “a little incomplete”.

Surrounded by 40-odd Lucas trophies – Cuba’s highest honour for music videos – producer Joseph Ros is another skeptic.

“When you talk about such subjective issues, it’s very difficult and I think it’s pretentious translating them into law,” said the 29-year-old.

“It’s a decree that claims something that is very difficult to control and depends a lot on human resources, on the person who at the end implements these measures.”

The decree states that the diffusion and commercialisation of artistic works must be approved and controlled “by the corresponding cultural institution”.

“The role of institutions is central in the revolution’s cultural programme,” said Alonso who insisted that any private space – such as restaurants or galleries – organising concerts would have to be “affiliated to the institutions”.

“If you go around the whole island you’ll see that the majority of musicians are self-taught,” said Avila.

Both he and Ros pointed to the great Cuban singer Benny More, whom they say would have struggled to thrive in the new system.

“Turning your back on this self-made talent doesn’t make sense,” said Ros.

“There are many examples of artistes who began their careers independently, outside the (official) institutions and achieved great success both in music and cinema.”