Reports from Cuba: The crusade against laughter in Cuba

Lynn Cruz in Havana Times:

Crusade against Laughter in Cuba

Art is not a mirror held up to reality but a hammer with which to shape it – Bertold Brecht

A new attack against the popular TV show Vivir del Cuento sees the disappearance of the character Facundo Correcto, played by actor Andy Vazquez. The director of the Cuban Radio and Television Institute (IRCT), Rafael Perez, wrongly states in a video on Cuba en directo’s website that the actor isn’t being censored, but his character won’t be featured in the new season.

Before this, the message became clear in an article written by Miguel Cruz Suarez and published on August 8th 2019, by the party-line newspaper Granma, under the headline Humor en un solo sentido (“One-note humor”): “Creole humor, Costumbrismo, vernacular theater, have always fed off all facets of Cuban political and social life, but to then make anything that “sniffs” of institutionalism into a comedy card (which isn’t always that funny), I think is offensive to the thousands of people who take on with great sacrifice these duties, which critics rarely want to take into account.”

The reality is that we Cubans have survived by reading between the lines.

Who is Correcto? The caricature of a leader. Let’s remember that getting rid of political humor was one of the first measures adopted by Fidel Castro. Why target Correcto if he hasn’t changed at all? He continues to be the same character, with his more or less sarcastic jokes, but he is essentially the same. Vivir del cuento emerged amidst a completely different political landscape to the one Cuba is seeing today. Add to that the veracity of scriptwriters and actors who are imbued with this farce. Now, there has been another tightening of the screw, and the character and actor have become the same.

Rafael Perez, Correcto from IRCT, played his own interpretation of a leader. We know that he doesn’t have any real power because the extermination order “Came from above” as we say in fine Cuban. Perez claimed that the punishment came in response to a video that Vazquez made, when he mocked what had happened during the inauguration of the Cuatro Caminos market. Opening up a market in the middle of uncertain times, with stores suffering severe shortages, led to chaos and public disorder. It seems that government leaders think this occurrence needs to be buried.

The pretext is not all insignificant, because Perez also took advantage of this moment to say that these characters shouldn’t be taken out of the program. Many things have caught my attention during the debate on social media. First, statements made by Alejandro Cruz, who appears as the Social Media/Marketing Manager of the Cuban Ministry of Tourism on his Facebook wall. Plus, Cruz had studied Language and culture at Beijing Language and Culture University, and I would have loved to have quoted him, but his comment disappeared. 

Cruz was essentially calling into question not the censors, but the rights of the TV show that was being discussed. According to Cruz, it was unimaginable that Vivir del cuento’s characters were traveling between Miami and Havana. The answer from Luis Silva, actor and creator of the series, soon came and he outrightly declared that he was the absolute owner of this character and he could do whatever he wanted with him. He questioned the lack of respect for property rights, when series, foreign movies that are played on Cuban TV, are mostly pirate copies.

Cruz’s statement shed light on an important detail and, at the same time, a burning issue within Cuban capitalism, which is intellectual property. I agree with Silva on this occasion, of course, but, why is this the concern now? It’s a matter of a system using all of its might to crush an individual. In whose name is Cruz speaking? What is brewing high up in the PCC’s ranks? I would add.

All of these questions make me think that those who have power are trapped in their own sophisms. They want to be capitalists, but they can’t. They aren’t allowed to be. They are mocking the Law in the same way they have let the Cuban people up until now. This includes, as Silva rightfully mentioned, the fact that the State doesn’t respect international regulations, much less Cuba’s own. This has happened with films made in Cuba, which have appeared on the street before their premiere, which is to say, straight from ICAIC’s edition rooms.

A new dilemma to think about… there are many different ways to write up a contract. These mainly depend on a production’s budget. For example, in Hollywood, producers just pay actors extremely high salaries they don’t have to deal with actors’ image rights and become the sole owners of their movies.

When it’s a co-production between Cuba and Europe, actors are back paid for their image rights, depending on where the movie is screened, especially in Spain, where we have this agreement. In Brazil, O Globo pays actors of a Brazilian Aramis Delgado’s standing some 50,000 USD per month, for example, and in order to keep their exclusivity, they are paid the same wage between one soap and the next. 

So, if anything is to be demanded, we should first be demanding that our rights be respected. Working as an actor is extremely risky business, once you enter the world of characters, you’ll never be the same again. Plus, the media hasn’t been spoken about in business terms up until now. Or is it a business already and we just haven’t found this out?

Following this logic, what respect is being shown to a TV star who now has to wait to be hired again and has to squeeze into a bus or experience the same hardship as any regular Cuban? This is where the greatest pretense lies, carrying on like we are all the same. If that’s the case, why are Culture officials driving cars with State fuel and even air-conditioning?  It sounds ridiculous when you write it down, but the way the world spins is really as simple as that.

So, this censored episode has uncovered a whole load of questions. Taking Vazquez’s case, I have been able to understand why I have always refused to work in TV, even when it’s a fact here in Cuba, and in many other Latin American countries, that you don’t truly exist as an actor until you’ve made an appearance on the small screen.

As well as the poor working conditions, you have abuse. Many of these people, with a shady professional record in media, former MININT agents in many cases, who you’ll suddenly find producing something and, of course, they have no idea about the dynamics of working relationships and what is needed for shooting.  I worked on a shoot where there was a 20-minute-long argument about something as basic as where to put the microphone.

On the other hand, you have the experiences of other actors, the mass exodus of actors and actresses is an alarm bell for those who are studying the craft. When everything is barren, what’s left? I believe that the fact that I was censored in 2018, and stopped from appearing in the media, especially TV, where I had finally given in and started working because I was too tired to resist anymore, has taken a weight off my shoulders and I no longer have to decide. Nevertheless, I believe that with Andy Vazquez the situation is far worse, given the popularity of the show. The fact that he also makes people laugh, makes him extremely likeable. People are always grateful for this. 

On the other hand, in an article published on OnCuba news, journalist Milena Recio mentions, and I quote: “The Facundo Correcto that we know, doesn’t survive without Panfilo by his side; he is just one of his alters. Andy Vazquez without Cuba will have to reinvent himself, without first “falling to pieces” in the face of discouragement and possibly bitterness. If he finally decides (which is his own decision to make) to leave the country where, no matter what people say, what people promise, he will have all kinds of problems finding work.”

This comment ends by not only crushing Correcto, but Vazquez too. It’s not enough to get rid of his character, the integrity of the actor is also in danger. He is stripped of everything he had earned with his talent and likeability.  It’s as if the political plot conditions our people, artists and the press so much, that they assume that the end of this tragedy will ultimately be exile or persecution. And by the way, it’s striking that this is independent.

There is some truth in Recio’s words, but horror shouldn’t be naturalized in this way, they are collaborating with those in power by doing this. Vazquez’s punishment for his brilliant interpretation of a political cadre, will sadly leave him off the airwaves, just like I have been since April 2018. I have never been called to a casting ever since that day. Given that I don’t abandon my critical stance, it’s understandable that institutions aren’t calling me, but independent agencies, especially casting agents, who are only two blocks from my house, have also closed their doors to me.

They know this practice works. It has been tried and tested for 60 years. However, I have noticed that many colleagues have reacted this time, almost two years after my sanction. While I was just given condolences in private, because very few people voiced their anger online, many actors and comedians have joined public debates about Vazquez. The system hasn’t changed, but people are beginning to react. Artists are recognizing their power as celebrities more and more. You can be an actor and an activist at the same time. Unfortunately, and I say this because we Cubans think of ourselves as the center of the world, we weren’t the ones to create this duality.