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Independent Artists Under Threat During Havana Biennial

The detention and harassment of Cuban artists during the Havana Biennial is part and parcel of efforts to stamp out artistic freedom.

NEW YORK | April 16, 2019—Since the opening of the XIII Havana Biennial on April 12, 2019, several independent Cuban artists have been arrested and have been the targets of constant harassment by the Cuban police. In response to the beginning of the official Biennial and in protest at the Cuban government’s introduction of Decree 349, which formalizes and widens the scope of artistic censorship in Cuba, independent artists have organized alternative cultural events under the title of “Bienal sin 349”. Aware of the potential danger to the artists, ARC, Index on Censorship and PEN International issued a statement in solidarity on Friday, April 12.

On eve of the opening of the Biennial, artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was arrested by Cuban police while performing a piece work involving a footrace with American flags outside his home with two other artists. He was released 72 hours after on Monday, April 15. Artist and activist Amaury Pacheco was arrested and released a few hours later. Pacheco and his wife Iris Ruiz had their house vandalized a few days before. Last week, the artist and writer Coco Fusco was denied entry to Cuba, and poet Katherine Bisquet has stated she and her family have been the targets of increased threats in the past month. All of these artists have been outspoken against Decree 349.

When Reuters asked about Alcántara in a news conference, Norma Rodriguez, head of Cuba’s National Council of Visual Arts, said that as far as she knows “he is an activist, not an artist.” Artists and free expression organizations fear that statements like the one by Norma Rodriguez indicate that the Ministry of Culture is prepared to implement Decree 349 despite its flaws and serious concerns expressed by both officially-recognized and independent artists.

“The repeated intimidation of Cuban artists—in addition to the many artists already behind bars, including rappers Maykel El Obsorbo and Pupito en Sy—all of whom are active members of a campaign against Decree 349, is an intolerable affront to free expression,” said Julie Trébault, Director of the Artists at Risk Connection at PEN America. “While the art world is gathering at the XIII Havana Biennial, the repression against Cuban artists who are critical of this restrictive new measure exposes the Cuban Ministry of Culture’s intent to intimidate and censor critical and independent artistic voices. We continue to call on Cuban authorities to end the ongoing harassment of artists and immediately and unconditionally release all artists detained for peacefully protesting Decree 349.”

Learn more about Decree 349 in ARC’s bilingual white paper Art Under Pressure: Decree 349 Restricts Creative Freedom in Cuba, or in ARC's recent joint statement with Index on Censorship and PEN International.

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