Speech by Michael Bustamante

By Harshad Jadhav

November 18, 2021

With an audience of just over 20 members, Michael Bustamante [Boosh-tah-maante] speaks about the relationship between art and politics in Cuba after 1959 and how it shaped Cuban culture over time this Tuesday.


Cuban cultural policy by Fidel Castro defined the rights of writers and artists — "anything that is in favor of the revolution is allowed, or at least not explicitly against it is allowed. Things that are outside of the revolution will not be allowed," said Bustamante, an author of a recently published book, "Cuban Memory Wars: Retrospective Politics in Revolution and Exile."


After talking about the two paintings on the wall behind him, Bustamante addressed the attendees on the zoom call on Tuesday at 5:30 p.m. and discussed how decisions in Cuban politics influenced the Cuban arts and culture and urged the audience to discuss the role of Mariano Rodríguez and his work in this scenario.


Bustamante talked about the difficulties artists faced in identifying the boundaries of "revolution" after the Cuban Revolution in 1959. The government democratized access to culture by publishing and distributing a book called — "Imprenta Nacional," a few months after the revolutionary government came to power. A few years later, a short film named "P.M.," in a cinema verite style, showed "working-class Havana nightlife," according to Bustamante, was banned by ICAIC (Cuban Institute for Cinematic Art and Industry) founded by Castro's government in 1961. "The debate was essentially over the appropriateness of this kind of representation of Cuba and Cubans at a time when, as I said, just weeks before the country had been fighting off an invasion by Cuban exile forces," said Bustamante.


These cultural and artistic policies were vague and unclear, "because of course who is to say what is within the revolution and what is not? Who defines where that line [boundry of revolution] is?" said Bustamante. In some situations, it was clear, but people were skeptical of the inclusion of abstract art, American music, and queer artists within the revolution. There were times when you could debate on the justification of some types of art being within the revolution.


Los Zafiros [The Saffires], a Cuban Doo-Wop in the 1960s, which "sounded so American in so many ways I mean they sound so Cuban too ... you listen to their music or look at the video in this case, and you don't think of them as being 'revolutionary'," said Bustamante. Another such instance was The Sweet Life (Original title: La Dolce Vita), approved by ICAIC but criticized by the newspaper of Cuba's communist party. There were various debates in 1960, according to Bustamante, about whether revolutionary art had to be political? Did it have to be committed, or could it be indifferent? What was going to be the role of abstract art? Though the Cuban revolution never banned abstract art, it was heavily debated.


But there was one question Bustamante had and for which he asked the audience to think about it, which was — Where did Rodríguez fit in? And how did he conceive of the line between what is inclusive and exclusive of the revolution? Rodríguez was a politically committed man, which could be seen through his art like the "Second Declaration of Havana" (Original title: II Declaración de la Habana) in 1962. It is like the first declaration of the Cuban government statement denouncing U.S. interference in human and regional affairs. "This is the kind of declaration that would have been announced at a mass rally that he has painted here in a sort of stylized form," said Bustamante. Another example of his work related to politics is "The Meeting at the OEA" (Original title: Reunión de la OEA) in 1965. Bustamante said, "According to its initials in Spanish, in which the actors who are condemning Cuba from that diplomatic body, are portrayed as grotesque, as deformed, [and] as disfigured." Through this art, Rodríguez was making a statement of his view of international politics at that time, according to Bustamante.


During 1969-1970, Cuba failed an effort of economic development as a socialist country when they couldn't mark the 10 million ton sugar harvest goal. After that point, Cuba started "sovietizing formulas of politics and economics," said Bustamante, "... and some of the consequences of that are reflected in culture."


The well-known case of "Caso Padilla" in 1971 was when poet Herberto Padilla was arrested for his work in 1968. The same year, another event called the "National Congress of Education and Culture" takes place, in which for instance, a document came out defining homosexuality as a perversion. Bustamante said, "the brightest most innovative writers and artists and intellectuals from the 60s, who had been pro-revolutionary were really forbidden from working ... people who were gay were excluded from participation."


The 1980s is an interesting turning point as per Bustamante because, on one hand, the decade opens with a traumatic event called "Mariel Boatlift," a mass migration of Cubans into the U.S., and shortly after the Cuban art world is infused with a new spirit of critical possibility. A new influential artistic exhibition debuts in 1981, where young Cuban artists are looking back on the past in irreverent ways.


"... this is relevant because the emergence of this kind of new critical spirit in the arts in the 80s, coincides with the time when Mariano takes over the leadership of Casa de las Américas (an organization founded by the Cuban government)," says Bustamante showing pictures from the new influential exhibition.


In 1954, the government of Fulgencio Batista decided to host a biennial of art, which was a traveling exhibition of art, that was sponsored by the government of Francisco Franco of fascist persuasion in Spain. Many artists revolted against this exhibition and refused to participate. "They decided to refuse participation in any cultural activities being supported by the Batista government and they staged their own exhibition," says Bustamante. The exhibition went down in Cuban artistic history as the "Anti-Biennial" of which Rodríguez was a participant.


"History has a funny way of repeating itself," said Bustamante, Cuba under the revolution has been conducting biennials (art fairs) every two years since 1984 and it is a major event in Havana, Cuba. In 2018, there was this effort of having an anti-biennial, just like in the 1950s. Currently, there's a petition going on currently in which a number of really well-known Cuban artists like Tania Bruguera are demanding that international artists don't participate in the state-sponsored Biennial.


"It's funny how history comes full circle and, ... given that Mariano himself had once participated in an anti-biennial of his own notwithstanding his long affiliations with Cuban cultural institutions after the revolution, I certainly wonder how he would respond to some of these campaigns in the present," said Bustamante.