Reports from Cuba: Culture, controlled by the regime and increasingly inaccessible for Cubans

Carlos Lima Beltran writes from Havana via Diario de Cuba:

Culture, controlled by the regime and increasingly inaccessible for Cubans

By persecuting dissident artists and intellectuals, and prohibiting the free circulation of their work and thought, the regime is also violating Cubans’ right to freely access culture.

One of the “achievements of the Cuban Revolution” of which the regime often boasts is its guaranteeing of the people’s access to culture. Official propaganda and spokespersons on and off the island often state that Cuba is the most cultured country in the world, citing the success of the regime’s cultural policy as proof. The reality is that Cubans can only access those cultural offerings that suit those in power (who are not interested in citizens being free because they are well educated, as endorsed by José Martí) and accessing even that part of the culture that does not bother them is increasingly difficult.

The Culture Ministry states on its website, among others, the following basic premises of Cuban cultural policy: the promotion and encouragement of artistic and literary creation; respect and support for leading roles played by communities in the shaping of their creative and socio-cultural processes; recognition of the role of culture in the promotion and orientation of socioeconomic processes.

The degree to which the regime truly values the role of culture in the promotion and orientation of socioeconomic processes is evident in its censorship and persecution of all those artists and intellectuals who do not serve their interests. There are numerous examples of this. Among the most recent is writer, journalist and comedian Jorge Fernández Era, who has been arrested multiple times, and been prevented from leaving the country, as well as being subjected to house arrest, in retaliation for satirizing the Cuban reality.

The only artistic and literary creation considered “worthy” of promotion and encouragement in Cuba is that which is subordinated to those in power, and extols the Revolution.

By harassing protesting artists and intellectuals, and prohibiting the free circulation of their work and thought, the regime is also violating Cubans’ right to freely access culture.

Can one be cultured and, therefore, free, when the powers that be control one’s access to information and determine what cultural offerings one can consume?

The same regime that boasts – recently through the former Culture Minister Abel Prieto —of having printed and disseminated Don Quixote de La Mancha as one of the first actions of the Cuban Revolution, is the same one that for decades has censored books, films, plays and musical production, as well as their creators.

For decades, the regime has boasted that Cubans could enjoy, almost for free, theater and ballet shows, concerts, films and books; obviously, those that did not challenge those in power. But the present looks less and less like those remote times. For Cubans, all these cultural offerings are increasingly unattainable.

“Cultural goods and services constitute one of the most dynamic sectors in the world economy. In Cuba, together with sports, they accounted for an average of 4.1% of Cuban GDP in the last six years,” stated an article in the state media source Cubadebate in 2014.

State investment in the sector has not changed much, according to figures published by the National Office of Statistics and Information (ONEI), but cultural options are becoming scarcer every day.

Cuba has several specific programs approved by the Culture Ministry: the National Program for the Development of Music, the National Program for the Development of Artistic Education, the National Historical Memory Program, the National Reading Program, the National Program for the Computerization of Cultural Processes, and the National Program for the Development of Cultural Institutions.

Very little of this is palpable for the population, which, after the “Ordering Task,” saw prices increase, both for food and cultural offerings.

In 2022 Cubadebate highlighted, about the 30th Havana International Book Fair, that “in the midst of very complex circumstances, both economic and epidemiological, Cuba’s most massive cultural event can be classified as a success in the face of adversity.”

It made no reference to Cubans’ perceptions of book prices, which in some cases were around 1,000 pesos. What books can the proletariat acquire in the Cuban socialist paradise, where the minimum wage for state workers is 2,100 pesos?

Given the scarcity of food and its high prices, in contrast to meager salaries, buying a book, no matter how good it is, is not even an option for many Cubans.

Ticket prices for movies, theater, and music shows increased fivefold in 2021. This increase is reflected in the improvement of the venues, according to Irinka Cordoví, Director of Project 23, in Havana.

“This increase in prices means a better functioning of theaters and cinemas,” Cordoví said. “It represents a commitment that will be reflected in elements such as hygiene, the atmosphere, the quality of the programming, as well as in excellent service for patrons.”

Cuba’s cinemas and theaters today, however, are falling apart. It suffices to look at the venues in Havana, where fewer and fewer are even operating.

The precariousness state into which the Government has plunged the country, in addition to it censorship, not only limits Cubans’ access to culture, but even causes them to relegate it to the least of their priorities.

A survey on Cubans’ leisure, conducted by the Cubadata project between December 9 and 31, 2022 throughout the country, and in which 1,773 people participated, showed that 39.4% had not read at all during the 30 days prior to the survey. 20.4% had not even been able to enjoy watching series, documentaries or movies on television, which is probably related to the blackouts that have plagued the country in recent years, and have sparked citizen protests.

5.9% of the respondents said that their enjoyment of cultural activities, such as reading and theater, had been affected by the situation in Cuba, and 6.2% said that this situation had affected their ability to have fun through movies and series.

The hours that Cubans have had to spend in lines to buy food, and to move from one place to another, in a country where getting about is an ordeal, means that there is less and less time for activities that provide pleasure, including cultural ones.
38.9% of those Cubans surveyed said they had no free time to spend on activities of their choice during the month. 12.4% could do so only once in that period; 10.9%, twice a month; 20.2%, at least once a week; and a fortunate 17.6%, almost daily.