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Art under pressure: Decree 349 restricts creative freedom in Cuba

Cuban artist Tania Bruguera poses in her home in Old Havana which she is remodeling to create an artist space, 14 June 2015
Cuban artist Tania Bruguera poses in her home in Old Havana which she is remodeling to create an artist space, 14 June 2015

Noah Friedman-Rudovsky for The Washington Post via Getty Images

This statement was originally published on on 4 March 2019.

Sounding the alarm on the Cuban government's grave new policy with potentially catastrophic effects for independent artists, PEN America's Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) issued Art Under Pressure: Decree 349 Restricts Creative Freedom in Cuba today. Released in the wake of Cuba's February 24 referendum that recognized private property, but enshrined one-party rule, and a month before the Havana Biennial Art Exhibition, Art Under Pressure examines the government's efforts to institutionalize and expand limits on creative expression by criminalizing unregistered artistic labor, authorizing censorship, and empowering a new class of state inspectors to regulate creative expression.

Building on an existing body of laws and regulations that apply to artists officially recognized by the Cuban government, Decree 349 is the most significant attempt by officials to regulate the cultural sector and control a rising generation of independent and globally connected artists. The decree comes at a pivotal time when loosening restrictions on private businesses and expanding access to Wi-Fi have invigorated Cuba's alternative art scene, creating opportunities for independent artists seeking to make a living from their work.

While government harassment, intimidation, and persecution are not new for Cuban artists, journalists, human rights defenders, and activists, ARC, in collaboration with Cubalex, a nonprofit organization that focuses on legal issues in Cuba, have documented an increased number of artists now being harassed, especially those who have openly protested Decree 349. The decree codifies, formalizes, and widens the scope of artistic censorship and puts independent artists - those who work outside Cuba's official state-sanctioned cultural organizations - in the crosshairs.

Highlights from this new analysis include:

. First-hand accounts from leading independent artists sharing their experiences of Decree 349's threat to their livelihoods and communities

. Analysis of the most troubling aspects and requirements of Decree 349, including state registration and evaluation of those providing "artistic services," the promulgation of broad categories of "impermissible content" for audiovisual works, and the creation of a new class of inspectors with the unilateral authority to deem art "legal"

. A historical overview of artistic censorship since the Cuban Revolution, and the evolution of artistic dissent

. Recommendations to the Cuban government to significantly revise or rescind Decree 349, which stands in direct conflict with the country's international treaty commitments and obligations towards freedom of expression and artistic freedom

Since Decree 349 was first announced in July 2018, independent artists have spearheaded a global campaign to repeal the regulation, amplified by some state-recognized artists, as well as academics, and exiled Cuban activists including Tania Bruguera and Coco Fusco. Opponents have issued a manifesto in Havana denouncing government censorship, organized a series of protests and public performances, and gathered signatures for an open letter to Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel and Cuban Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso.

As a program seeking to raise awareness about threatened artists and the importance of protecting artistic freedom, ARC felt it was crucial to highlight this measure and its potential effects. The enactment of Decree 349 is another example of a concerning global trend of governments pushing for legislation that restricts creative expression and is used to silence artists. Uganda and Indonesia have recently announced regulations that include vetting songs, videos, and film scripts prior to their release and ban content deemed blasphemous. ARC will continue to highlight these cases and bring together its network of organizations that are committed to fighting and advocating for artistic freedom.

We hope that this white paper will bring further attention to the state of artistic expression in Cuba. Please read it, share it, and join us as we support the Cuban artists who are still protesting and calling for the repeal of Decree 349. In advance of the government-led Havana Biennial Art Exhibition, we hope a strong international coalition can make an impact as the provisions of Decree 349 have not been fully rolled out by the Cuban government.

This is the first bilingual English-Spanish white paper published by ARC, prepared in collaboration with Cubalex.

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