In Cuba we have learned our duties very well, but not our rights
“In Cuba we have learned our duties very well, but not our rights” /
14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Tania Bruguera
Posted on February 6, 2015
14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 4 February 2015 – This coming February
22 Tania Bruguera should be in Madrid to present one of her works at the
ARCO International Contemporary Art Fair, but she knows she isn’t going
to make it. Trapped by Cuban justice since last December 30, when she
was arrested during her performance #YoTambienExijo (I Too Demand), the
artist remains in Havana hoping to resolve her legal situation. We
talked with her about this, her artivism, and the future of Cuba.
Sanchéz. What is your current legal and immigration situation?
Bruguera. I am waiting for a prosecutor to reduce the charges against
me. I have been advised by several attorneys, such as Laritza Diversent
from Cubalex, and also René Gómez Manzano, from Corriente Agramontista
[both independent legal groups]. They have told me that in this case
there are at least three possible outcomes: one is the dismissal of the
case, which could be temporary or permanent. Another is that they could
impose an administrative measure, which carries a fine. The detail with
this option is that I would have to recognize my guilt and accept the
charges and accusations they’ve made against me, and I don’t think this
variation is just. The third possibility is that it will be taken to
trial, although that seems unlikely to me.
Sanchéz. You are trapped in the intricate mechanisms of Cuban justice…
Bruguera. Throughout this process, I’ve come to realize that there is a
very strong vulnerability for citizens who find themselves in similar
situations. For example, it has been very difficult for me to find a
lawyer who wants to take on my defense. They only allow attorneys “in
the system” to represent a defendant, so the independent lawyers can
advise me but they can’t represent me.
The few who have agreed to represent me have warned me, as of now, that
the solution is to accept everything because the situation is over and
to try not to go to trial, because the day that we get in front of a
court, the sentence will have been decided before the first word is
said. We will have lost before we start the defense.
Sanchéz. Among the worst nightmares of many Cuban emigrants is that of
visiting the island and then their not letting you leave. Do you
“Only lawyers “in the system” can represent me, so the independent
lawyers can advise me but they can’t represent me”
Bruguera. For me it’s the opposite. My nightmare is that they let me
leave but they don’t let me return. Indeed, if tomorrow they return my
passport, which they confiscated, I will not go. I need to be completely
sure that there will be no bitter surprises like not being able to return.
Beyond that, what I have experienced in the last weeks has changed my
life. I will never stop being an artist, but maybe now I have to be
here. They have to understand that they cannot throw out of the country
everyone who bothers them.
Sanchéz. Can you say Tatlin’s Whisper # 6, both in its first version in
Cuba in 2009 as well as in this attempt now, is it a work that has
marked your life?
Bruguera. The performance of December 30 had its antecedent in Tatlin’s
Whisper #6 realized in 2009 at the Wilfredo Lam Center, which also
profoundly marked my professional life. I didn’t know at first, because
it wasn’t public, but I was banned from exhibiting in Cuba.
I began to realize it because no one called me to explain here, which I
assume was because they were trying to protect… something natural in the
system. However, the same people who censored me at the time a
posteriori, and who are censoring me now, want to use the realization of
that performance as an example of tolerance… and it wasn’t.
Sanchéz. Why do you think that at that time it was possible to open the
microphones to the public?
Bruguera. What happened at that opportunity at the Wilfredo Lam Center
was because of the particular conditions that came together. It was
during the Havana Biennial, a space which in itself is more tolerant,
there were a lot of press and foreigners present, I was the guest of
Guillermo Gómez Peña, the special guest of the Biennial, plus it was
within an art space with an audience the majority of whom are
intellectuals. Afterwards, there indeed was a punishment.
I propose projects to Cuban cultural institutions and they always tell
me no. Something very unfortunate happened, which was a trip I made with
my students from the French École des Beaux-Arts during which we wanted
to visit the Superior Art Institute (ISA).
Then from ISA they sent a pretty clear and direct letter to the director
of the school in Paris saying they couldn’t accept this visit if I would
be leading the group and they should send another professor, because I
was a person with whom they had no professional relationship, ignoring
of course that I graduated from this school and was a professor there
for a few years.
On this same trip, when I got to the airport, I was met by a
representative from the National Arts Council and a person dressed in
civilian clothes who never identified himself. Both let me know that I
wouldn’t be able to do anything with the institutions and tried to tell
me that there were problems with my passport, with the permit, trying to
block my entry to the country, but I was able to prove it was all in
good standing under the new travel and immigration law.
On a subsequent trip to Cuba, I asked for an appointment with the Deputy
Minister of Culture, Fernando Rojas, to deal with my case. Also
attending this meeting were Rubén del Valle, president of the National
Arts Council, and Jorge Fernández, the director of the Havana Biennial.
I explained everything that had happened to me and they responded that
none of this would have occurred if I hadn’t been provocative in the
2009 Biennial and they weren’t going to forget about and I wouldn’t have
any more expositions in Cuban institutions.
I could see then that there was a clear double-standard policy against
me; if some foreigner asked about me, I was a valued artist, but if I
proposed to do something in the institutions they wouldn’t allow me to.
On that occasion, I remember that the deputy minister told me that the
fact that I was there meeting with them indicated that they wanted to
redefine my relationship with the institution and I told him I could see
that, but I was an artist who dissented and criticized what didn’t seem
right to me, and I had done it here and wherever I did my work and that
wasn’t going to change.
Well, today we know the result of that cultural policy with those who
return: bring us your money and your prestige but not your criticisms.
Sanchéz. How did you get the idea of repeating the performance, this
time in the Plaza of the Revolution?
Bruguera. I was in Italy, at a performance festival I’d been invited to,
and on Wednesday, 17 December, I traveled from Venice to Rome to
participate in a Mass of Pope Francis.
When it was over, I returned on the train and my sister called to ask me
if I had seen the news about the announcement made by the governments of
Cuba and the United States. It was very powerful news emotionally, as it
was for any Cuban. It was a surprise that shook the foundations
underlying the entire Cuban identity. The answer to this emotion was to
write a letter.
I wanted to look him in the face, Raúl Castro, and ask how he could
explain so many years of confrontation. While I was writing the letter,
a phrase started to emerge, “as a Cuban I demand that…” And in that I
was putting all my doubts, all my unanswered questions, about a future
that wasn’t clear, about an idea of a nation that was redefined without
a good look at where it was going.
Then I sent it to my sister and a friend who answered, “I also demand.”
So I also sent it to the newspaper Granma and this paper [14ymedio]
where it was finally published. It was a very nice experience, because
it was something I did spontaneously… I’d never published anything like
that, but immediately many people started to say “I also demand” and
even created a hashtag on social networks. I was very excited to see so
many people get involved and I must confess that I remembered my time
with Occupy Wall Street.
Sanchéz. The energy of spontaneity?
Bruguera. Yes, the strength that comes from the enthusiasm that
something can generate. Here the cultural and political institutions
want to own the enthusiasm of Cubans, they believe that enthusiasm is
only legitimate if it is something that is consistent with the interests
of the State.
Sanchéz. Did you expect the reaction from the cultural and official
Bruguera. I never thought it would generate such a disproportionate
response. Most significant was that of the president of the National
Council of Arts himself, Ruben del Valle, who told me after two lengthy
meetings that he washed his hands of what might happen to me legally… or
On the other hand, the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba
(UNEAC) published a rather aggressive statement, and I am a member of
that organization, and they didn’t even call a meeting with me
beforehand, without inquiring or investigating. They simply judged me
and questioned that what I tried to do was art.
The Cuban cultural institutions judge instead of creating a space for
collective debate about the culture, when things like this happen.
Because of this I returned my National Culture Award and resigned my
membership in UNEAC.
Sanchéz. Some artists in the country have supported you in the past few
weeks, as is the case with the painter Pedro Pablo Oliva, while others
like Lázaro Saavedra criticized aspects of the performance, and the
great majority have remained silent. How do you view the attitude of the
Cuban intellectual and artistic world toward what happened?
Bruguera. First it is important to say that everyone has the right to
react however they want and not to be judged for it. Now, well in Cuba
we know that there is a cultural policy of many years with certain
invisible boundaries that people know they should not cross because
there will be consequences, and it is also true that in a place where
they pressure you to define yourself, at times silence is the most
articulate argument. I have had a very warm response and support from
many artists and people on the street whom I don’t even know.
Sanchéz. Were you willing, at some point, to change the location of the
performance and not to hold it at the Plaza of the Revolution?
Bruguera. Even for me, the location in the Plaza was problematic from an
aesthetic point of view. I had problems with the Plaza of the Revolution
because on a symbolic level it’s exhausted, it is a symbol that has been
overused… that doesn’t even represent ordinary Cubans, but rather the
great powers of the government. Doing it in the Plaza, I wrote in the
letter addressed to Raúl and published in 14ymedio on 18 December, was
more like a metaphor.
I also imagined a place like Old Havana where there is every type of
person, where the people are. I proposed other locations, like the
street in front of the universal art of the Art Museum and the space
between the National Belles Artes Museum and the Museum of the
Revolution, but they weren’t accepted.
Sanchéz. What was the proposal of the National Arts Council?
Bruguera. They proposed to do it inside the Belles Artes Museum in the
Cuban Art Building. I told Rubén del Valle no, in the first place
because of the aesthetic problem. I didn’t want to repeat the same work
from 2009, so I said that five years later it wouldn’t be inside the
institution where something like this has been done, rather it had to
conquer the streets.
I proposed then that we do it on the stairs at the entrance to the
museum, but he insisted it has to be inside and that the right of
admission had to be controlled, so they wouldn’t let in “the dissidents
and the mercenaries.”
He boasted that the opposition only represented 0.0001% of the Cuban
population, to which I responded that I was often 0.0001% of something
and it was very good, because it is also necessary that there be minorities.
Sanchéz. They are waiting for you in Madrid to present a work in ARCO
2015, but you probably won’t arrive in time. What will you show there?
Bruguera. It is like so many projects that are now halted and won’t be
realized, something that was coordinated over many months, almost a
year. It is a work I did in Cuba when I saw myself like a Nkisi, an
African religious icon that people put nails into to make a wish. In
return, they promise something to the icon and they have to keep their
promise, if not the spirit will collect on the promise. People have a
lot of respect, because they feel that it is a very strong spirit.
In 1998, dressed like that, I went out into the streets of Old Havana
and it created a kind of procession. I wanted to represent, then, the
idea of promises made to the people and never kept. The suit ended up
with residue on it and there is a gallery in Madrid that I had planned
to have repair it, before the show, because it was damaged in transit.
But I know now that I won’t get there, I have asked the organizers to
invite the spectators to the show and they themselves can repair it,
putting nails into it and making their requests.
Sanchéz. ¿Artist or artivista ?
Bruguera. I make political art. For me there is a clear division in art,
on one side that which is a representation because it comments, and on
the other, art that works from the political because it wants to change
something. I make art that appropriates the tools of the political and
tries to generate political moments, an art through which one speaks
directly to power and in its own language.
For example, I had a school (Cátedra Arte de Conducta / Behavior Art
School) for seven years because education is one of the long-term
pillars of politics, and I also did a newspaper twenty years ago
(Memoria de la Postguerra / Postwar Memory) to “take” the media like
they do, and now I take to the streets, the plazas and the places they
create that belong exclusively to power.
“Artivisim” is a variant of political art which I ascribe to that tries
to change things, not satisfied with denouncing, but rather trying to
find solutions to change, a little bit, the political reality in which
Sanchéz. Do you think that after December 30 Cuba is closer to an Occupy
Bruguera. That is what they fear most. Even in the various meetings I
had with the cultural authorities and officials they told me I wanted to
do here the same thing that had happened in the streets of Ukraine.
That’s their great obsession.
The irony is that they felt Occupy Wall Street was nice when it happened
over there, in the United States, but they make clear that they will not
allow the use of plazas for something like that here.
Sanchéz. Some saw in your call to the Plaza an act that could impede the
restoration of relations between Cuba and the United States. Did you
feel that? What do you think of this process?
Bruguera. It is very contradictory, because on one hand the authorities
here tell me that what I do does not matter to anyone, and on the other
hand they accuse me that my actions will ruin the country’s future. They
make you feel like you don’t matter, but also that you carry the weight
of the blame for what happens.
It is very naïve to think that some negotiations between two governments
for 18 months, with so many interests involved, are going to be ruined
by a performance… I don’t have such a disproportionate ego.
Personally, I think all that is peace is welcome. The problem is just
making political headlines in the short-term and not legislative policy
in the long-term. Everyone wonders whether the “blockade” will be
removed and that is very complex process in which many details, and
techniques, need to be negotiated.
For me, what is important are the possibilities that exist today,
because they have started to restore diplomatic relations and there is a
serious debate about the “blockade,” to rethink the project of the
nation from a collective space where all Cubans participate, and that is
what #YoTambienExijo is about.
It is time to ask for a decriminalization of opinion differences, to
create another policy with the press and the media, to legalize civic
associations and political parties, to revise the Constitution, to allow
Cubans to be active citizens and not just aspire to be passive consumers.
And we must also ensure that the benefits reach everyone. Cubans are
very defenseless, especially those who remained in Cuba. Without
revising and changing the laws, without a civic literacy program,
without institutions beginning to respond not to the government but to
the interests of the members of their organizations, without
non-institutional critical spaces… it is not possible to prevent the
coming, for example, of a huge transnational that mistreats the workers,
that doesn’t pay a decent wage, and that doesn’t allow unions to protect
It is the government’s responsibility to prepare citizens for what is
coming and to provide laws that protects them, but they seem so focused
on keeping themselves in power that they can’t see how important it is
to empower ordinary Cubans. In Cuba we have learned our duties very
well, but not our rights. The time has come for ordinary Cubans to
demand their rights.
Source: “In Cuba we have learned our duties very well, but not our
rights” / 14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Tania Bruguera | Translating Cuba –