Freedom of Speech and Art and is a Revolutionary Conquest
The freedom of artistic expression is a permanent part of human liberation struggles. Explosions of artistic creativity have always accompanied the great social revolutions in history. Genuine social revolutions – of which the 1959 Cuban Revolution is an outstanding 20th Century example – involve the conscious mobilizations of millions upon tens of millions of oppressed, exploited, and working people, individually and collectively, in the determination of their fate and future against the old, decrepit systems and used-up ruling classes.
Constitutionally codified rights to freedom of speech (including artistic freedoms), press, and assembly are generally not the byproduct of learned debates among constitutional lawyers and scholars but, rather, unfold from mass struggles from below, including the great late-18th and 19th Century Revolutions. It is the storms of mass revolutionary struggle that force those “learned debates” and concessions to be granted, codified, and relatively enforced (or not) by the states and governments that become constituted. Constitutional and democratic rights flow from great social revolutions.
Lessons from History
History further shows those rights always at risk and needing to be vigilantly defended. Examples of this included the crushing of Reconstruction in the United States by 1876; the Nazi destruction of constitutional rights in Germany after Adolf Hitler was appointed Chancellor in 1933 (by the “Constitutional” government); various US-backed neocolonial bloody dictatorships that crushed constitutional and democratic rights; e.g., Cuba 1952, Guatemala 1954, Chile 1973, Argentina 1976.
Moreover, for the oppressed and exploited majority, for the slaves, the serfs, the working classes, for African-Americans in US history and oppressed nationalities worldwide, for immigrants, and the impoverished seeking a better life, civil liberties, democratic freedoms, and conquered political space for the right to organize, is not an end in and of itself. Or only a beautiful legal and moral ideal. Rather, it is primarily a weapon to be guarded zealously precisely in order to fight for social, class, and liberationist (anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-homophobic) demands. The right to fight to raise our standards of living, and our ability to participate fully in society as human beings with human rights and dignity, including as literate and creative women and men requires the fullest individual and social-collective rights. The principle that society has the right and responsibility to develop and nurture this has always been the humanist essence of the Cuban Revolution and Cuban socialism.
US Civil War
There was no “intellectual” or “artists” position, per se, on, say, the US Civil War (which by 1863-1864 had become the 2nd American Revolution, a revolutionary war to abolish slavery). I’ve heard and read that the pro-slavery Confederacy may have produced some at least technically good, some say even brilliant, poets and musicians. I know that pro-Union, anti-slavery revolutionary momentum in the North and Midwest certainly led, as all social revolutions do, to an explosion of artistic creativity in forms and content across all categories.
Of course, while General William Tecumseh Sherman was burning down Georgia plantations and freeing slaves (read his brilliant Memoirs of General W. T. Sherman to see the emotional impact of this on Sherman who had not displayed any particular interest in the question of slavery beforehand), quite a leap in consciousness and radicalization in the “North” was developing. Union troops began singing John Brown’s Body as they went into battle. Many began changing their backward views as they saw heroic African American soldiers fighting and dying for abolition, freedom, and democratic rights. In the shrinking and dying Confederacy there was no doubt talented artists and pro-slavery “intellectuals” that were aghast that the social system that nurtured their distinct “southern culture” was going down in flames. Some of their heirs, especially under the impact of the mass Civil Rights Movement, tried to reproduce the hideous legacy of the Confederate “Lost Cause,” until their current steady routing in the US today.
While I don’t know if there were any formal legal proscriptions, I don’t expect Art Galleries and Museums were hanging works of Confederate artists, any more than pro-slavery newspapers were widely circulated or “freely” published in the radicalizing North. Only an extreme pedantic and legal fetishist can object to the sharp restrictions on the proponents of slavery and their “rights,” during the final phases of the revolutionary war. Clearly the fall of Reconstruction by 1876 disenfranchised African Americans (and incipient alliances with poor white farmers) with the protections and democratic rights defended under the auspices (good and useful for once!) of US military occupation. The defeat of Reconstruction was in social and historic terms a counter-revolution. It restored the social and “legal” dominance of the former slave owners and their heirs during what was — in the arc of history — the 90-year detour of Jim Crow segregation. Under the impact of the mass Civil Rights Movement those legal and democratic rights expanded and legal segregation fell.
D.W. Griffith was by all accounts a brilliant, technically groundbreaking filmmaker in the infancy of the industry. He was also a vicious racist whose 1915 “masterpiece” Birth of a Nation” was a vile, stinking pile of historical revisionism on the post-Civil War Reconstruction era and nauseating white-supremacist propaganda. The racist US President Woodrow Wilson showed it in the White House; it was a huge factor in the mass “revival” of the terrorist Ku Klux Klan.
Black rights organizations picketed movie theaters showing it. Was the NAACP and every self-respecting Black organization and media and their allies being blithe and dismissive of “freedom of speech” when it organized mass protests and boycotts of the showings of Birth of a Nation. Was the main question here really D.W. Griffith’s “freedom of speech?” And while I would be opposed to any effort to legally proscribe its showing, certainly, if Radical Reconstruction had not been overthrown and Jim Crow segregation had not been consolidated in the last two decades of the 19th Century, it is hard to imagine such racist trash and disgusting historical revisionism and falsification being even made or funded lavishly as it then was.
Spanish Civil War
How about the Spanish Civil War (really a democratic, social revolution that also unleashed amazing artistic creativity)? Many artists and intellectuals all over the world rallied to the Spanish Republican and revolutionary cause (which had, alas, deep divisions that were the mother of defeat, but that’s the subject for another essay), including some of the greatest and most brilliant of the era, such as Ernest Hemingway, Frida Kahlo, Paul Robeson, and Pablo Picasso. But this sentiment was not universal.
Salvador Dali was a brilliant surrealist painter. But Dali also took a political stance during the Spanish Civil War in support of the Francisco Franco-led Falangist-fascists, backed by Hitler and Benito Mussolini, with US and UK “neutral”compliance. My point is not that the works of the pro-fascist Dali should have been legally proscribed like they were child pornography, but only that one must live with the political consequences of the political stances one takes, independent of the value, talent, or even genius of the artist. Should the Republican governments in Barcelona, Madrid and other cities have been obligated under siege from fascists, that Dali chose to politically support and align himself with, hang his works in public galleries?
The US war against Vietnamese national unification and social revolution which steadily and brutally escalated in the 1960s and early 1970s ended in defeat and debacle for Washington. Over the course of the war from the late 1950s, US society, within and between all social classes and “demographics,” including artists and intellectuals, was sharply polarized. But by the late-1960s the large majority had become firmly anti-war.
Eventually, the mass movement against US intervention and for “US Out Now!” became a powerful political factor forcing Washington’s acquiescence to its defeat by the Vietnamese liberation forces in April 1975. Parallel and allied with the rising Black liberation and women’s liberation movements of that era, the anti-Vietnam war movement was certainly one of the largest sustained people’s mass movements in US history. And against a shooting war while it was raging, which was pretty unprecedented! The war also inspired great anti-war art and music that had great difficulty breaking through corporate and media censorship and blacklisting. But as the movement grew and the US war became crisis-ridden and wildly unpopular, with successive White Houses unable to defeat the Vietnamese revolutionaries – despite the genocidal application of US firepower – these anti-democratic “cultural” restrictions on left-wing, anti-war artists and musicians became more and more untenable.
Unlike the wildly hyped July 11 events which has neither revealed or led to any mass counter-revolutionary movement, the US anti-Vietnam War movement and mass Civil Rights Movement, or the July 26 Movement led by Fidel Castro were genuine mass movements that expanded political rights and cultural expression and freedom.
I would ask the great Chilean-American novelist Isabel Allende, god-daughter of martyred Chilean constitutional president Salvador Allende, overthrown in the US-backed military coup on September 11, 1973, to ponder on that history of her native land, and the subsequent “Operation Condor” years of Washington’s support for vicious military dictatorships in Argentina and Uruguay, alongside the Chilean and Brazilian ones and the active participation of counter-revolutionary Cuban exile terrorists and assassins) as she participates in an anti-Cuba campaign that consciously deletes any reference to Washington’s bipartisan criminal and hated economic and political war against the island. These US-backed military coups and regimes, along with the 1965 US invasion of the Dominican Republic against a constitutional government and revolutionary process, and the counter-insurgency efforts against Che Guevara in Bolivia – all represented bipartisan Washington’s horror at the example and resonance of the Cuban Revolution in its opening decades after its 1959 triumph.
Perhaps Allende will recall that revolutionary Cuba harbored many Chilean workers, artists, and intellectuals fleeing Pinochet’s terror. She might also ponder the curious case of the newspaper El Mercurio, which served as the conduit and organizing tool for the US-backed military coup. As Peter Kornbluh writes in his The Pinochet File: A Declassified Dossier on Atrocity and Accountability:
Throughout the 1960s, the CIA poured funds into Chile’s largest—and staunchly right-wing—newspaper, El Mercurio, putting reporters and editors on the payroll, writing articles and columns for placement and providing additional funds for operating expenses. After the paper’s owner, Agustín Edwards, came to Washington in September 1970 to lobby Nixon for action against Allende, the CIA used El Mercurio as a key outlet for a massive propaganda campaign…Throughout Allende’s aborted tenure, the paper continued an unyielding campaign, running countless virulent, inflammatory articles and editorials exhorting opposition against—and at times even calling for the overthrow of—the Popular Unity government.
Perhaps Allende should familiarize herself with some of the rich history of US government subversive schemes and projects to bring about “regime change” in Cuba for many decades and return Cuba to a neo-colonial status and the unbridled rule of domestic and foreign capital. Perhaps then she could understand Cuba’s need to be vigilant and its moral and political right to defend itself.
In 2022: Thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the eastern European “socialist camp,” which was supposed to be “Castro’s Final Hour;” Over five years since the passing of Fidel Castro which surely would be the end of the Cuban Revolution; Nearly four years since Raul Castro stepped down from all posts and a peaceful transition to power in the Cuban Council of State and National Assembly was carried out…bipartisan Washington, the US billionaire ruling families, and the Latin American oligarchies and ruling classes that look to Washington are still horrified by that example and its continued resonance.
It is surely annoying to them that Cuba is able to count on deep reservoirs of support among the peoples and governments of south America, Central America, and the Caribbean against US Cuba policy. Not only from the appeal of the great traditions of Latin American anti-imperialist struggle. But also because, while bipartisan Washington blathers on about “democracy” and “human rights,” there exists mass consciousness regarding the actual US government history and practice of supporting every bloody right-wing military coup or dictatorship that serves the iron rule of capital and foreign capital through contemporary history. Finally, it is also because Cuba has a proud history of promoting the mass struggles for democratic rights and national-democratic struggles in all these places and granting political asylum to those fleeing repressions from the bloody neocolonial US backed regimes, including artists and intellectuals.
The Curious Case of Tania Bruguera
Tania Bruguera is a Cuban-born performance and installation artist who resides in Cuba and the United States. She has become perhaps the most prominent current figure with a newer generation of counter-revolutionary layers in Cuba, but mainly in the exiled Cuban-American population centers. She is a militant and cynical opponent of the Cuban Revolution who has tangled with Cuban authorities and been detained on numerous occasions. Bruguera is highly courted and fawned over by prestigious institutions and publications like the Museum of Modern Art and the New Yorker magazine. She calls herself “part of the left,” but echoes the views of bipartisan Washington that the embargo is a hoax, in an interview with the Capitol Hill media outlet Politico:
“The people have spoken very clearly…Because, look, the Cuban people have endured 60 or 61 years of embargo and none of this happened before. So, what does the embargo have to do with this? Nothing. What does the embargo have to do with policemen beating a young kid? What does the embargo have to do with the special forces shooting unarmed Cubans? What does the embargo have to do with [President Miguel Diaz-Canel’s] order for people to go defend the revolution on the streets?” In the Politico interview, Bruguera appeals to those enforcing the US blockade to support the “Cuban people”! “And I do believe that other countries can help,” she says, “by telling the Cuban government there’s certain conditions it must meet to do business. Because the Cuban government is very good at making itself seem like the victim [damn stubborn facts!!] internationally — the victim of the embargo, the victim of — air quotes — mercenaries in Cuba, the victim of everything to get sympathy that translates into money and aid. That has to end. The world [For 29 consecutive years the United Nations General Assembly has voted overwhelmingly against the US anti-Cuba “Economic, Commercial, and Financial Embargo”] has to stop seeing the Cuban government as a victim. The Cuban government is the aggressor.” Again, I have to quote the great Malcolm X (a great supporter of the Cuban Revolution): Ms. Bruguera, I can’t stop you from deluding yourself!
Click here for the full interview.
Bruguera’s mercenary political views are laid out very clearly here to the “inside the Beltway” readers of Politico, with little nuance and shameless hyperbole (calling the short, limited July 11 actions, “The protest is bigger than anything that Raul and Fidel Castro were able to organize.”
Despite her barely veiled support for US sanctions, Bruguera recoils at those of her more reckless Cuban-American rightist allies who call for direct US military intervention and strikes. Straining for the “correct” formulation and spin, and trying to position herself as a “moderate” between extremes, she nevertheless seems acutely aware of what the inevitable political consequences would be:
Now, on the opposite side, a U.S. military intervention is not a good response. The destiny of the Cuban people is in the Cuban people’s hands. And the second that a second country — and intervention, specifically — is in the picture, that’s not going to help. First of all, [a military intervention] would back up some of the Cuban government’s claims. And second, I know, incredibly, it could sway people [that is, even the small minority who support her]. That means many of those that today may be against the government would close ranks and come together with the government [to stand against U.S. intervention]. I don’t see it as a good solution. I think what has to be done is pressure [with sanctions and extraterritorial embargo like they’re doing! How moderate you are!] the Cuban government so that it doesn’t have another alternative than to give Cubans rights.
What Bruguera cannot accept is that the great majority of the Cuban working class and people as a whole, including artists and intellectuals, are precisely exercising their rights and the defense of their revolution.
(Parenthetically, it was Bruguera who demanded her paintings be taken down from Cuba’s wonderful Museo de Bellas Artes where they had been displayed.)
Reveling in Hypocrisy
I cannot finish this polemical essay without a reference to the galling hypocrisy and stunning double standards of US policy. It’s not “whataboutism” to point to the striking disparity between the fake hysteria and hype about “repression” in Cuba against US agents and clients compared to the lack of even rare coverage in the capitalist media (let alone stern State Department lectures) on the hundreds of people gunned down in recent protests in Colombia, or Chile, or in the US-backed coup in Bolivia two-years ago, not to speak of the historic legacy of bloody US intervention in the Americas. This is what has to stop in the Western Hemisphere! Of course, you can only get so far by pointing to the raging, in-your-face hypocrisy of US government and capitalist media outlets. It seems that contemporary bourgeois political discourse in the US requires as much hypocrisy as one can get away with.
Washington as Union-Busting Management
Within the limits of all analogies Cuba is like an embattled militant, principled labor union on strike and under siege by a giant multinational corporation (or university or Museum) with unlimited resources. The union has a history of moral and material support to other struggling workers. The company uses every dirty trick and acts of direct and indirect violence and aggression to weaken and eventually crush the union and its example for the whole labor movement. The large, even overwhelming majority, of the workers support the union, but not everybody, and the company is eager and determined to exploit or fabricate any divisions. Is the union obligated, while the strike is raging, to publish the anti-union, pro-company propaganda of scabs and strikebreakers, even if its well-produced and stylish?
This is a Which-Side-Are-You-On Moment regarding the “Cuba Question” in US, Hemispheric, and world politics. Washington arrogantly ignores the United Nations General Assembly, and the clear disdain for US imperial bullying from the peoples and governments across the Americas, including inside the United States. Sorry, Antony Blinken, and Marco Rubio, and Tania Bruguera. You are losing traction, not gaining it.
Contradictions and Struggles
Do Cuban artists within the revolution have legitimate grievances? The only serious answer is undoubtedly, yes. How could they not, in such a lively, contentious society that is under siege from the US imperial superpower. A “siege mentality” can accompany an actual siege, with inevitable injustices and mistakes.
There have been tensions, foolishness, bureaucratic errors and stultification, anti-LGBT prejudices (long since largely rectified), and even genuine persecutions and injustices over the course of the Cuban Revolution around questions of the rights, space, opportunities, and means to create art and literature in revolutionary Cuba, which I hope to review more comprehensively at some future point.
One can lament and even protest any concrete injustices – rare and exceptional in the course of the Cuban Revolution from 1959 to the present day. But that carries– and should carry – no moral or political credibility unless accompanied by a clear and forceful condemnation of the perfidious US blockade, if not partisan solidarity with the Cuban revolutionary example in world politics.
What there has not been in Cuba is suppression of artistic forms or schools or distinct disciplines. There was never in the course of the Cuban Revolution anything even remotely like the Stalinist-era anti-Marxist nostrums such as “socialist realism” and “proletarian literature” as in the Soviet Union, at that time. (Which does not mean that over the entire span of the Soviet Union magnificent works of art were not produced even in those narrow dogmatic forms.)
A brief anomaly to this in Cuba was the non-promotion or public performance of “Western” rock-and-roll music in the late-1960s where some bureaucrats with some authority seemed to have absurdly viewed the music as practically a vector carrying “decadent,” “negative” even potentially “subversive” influences on Cuban youth. There were some tensions as well in the emerging Afro-Cuban hip-hop scene.
As far as I know, rock-and-roll was never legally proscribed on the island and the whole foolishness quickly broke down. This was a very tense time for the Cuban Revolution, following the death of Che Guevara and the crushing of the revolutionary armed struggles across the Americas, the failure of the 10-million ton sugar harvest, and the escalation of the US war on Vietnam, which allowed such bureaucratic notions to gain some traction under many pressures and tensions, including in their relations with the Soviet Union. It may have been difficult in 1969 to hear or acquire the music of the Beatles or Rolling Stones in Cuba, but in 2016 the Rolling Stones gave a massive, free concert in Havana and there is a beautiful statue of John Lennon in a Havana park. Rock-and-Roll and Hip-Hop are ubiquitous in today’s Cuba.
Who Is Afraid of Whom?
It is not the Cuban state or government that is preventing Cuban artists, dancers, and musicians from performing and touring in the United States. Cuban artists are also highly desirous of having US artists, musicians, and dancers come to Cuba and perform and collaborate freely with their Cuban counterparts. It is not the Cuban government that is the obstacle to that. But, as with everything involving US-Cuban exchanges — medical and scientific collaboration, athletic competitions, or even just a week on a beautiful Cuban beach — this can only be a result of real normalization, that is the definitive end of the extraterritorial embargo and travel sanctions.
Again, it is Trump and Biden’s anti-Cuba sanctions and blows against people-to-people exchanges that prevent Cuban artists from performing in the US or US people from seeing them. This I would argue is the real suppression of Cuban artists! This is the real cause these woefully misled signatories should be promoting so that the boot of the US government is off Cuba’s neck!
Let US citizens and legal residents visit Cuba and see for themselves the Cuban art, music, dance, and theater scene. Let them check out Cuba’s vast system of schools and workshops in every field that cultivates talent and produces world-class productions that are in great demand worldwide, including in the United States. And let Cuban artists come to the United States and perform! That would give the lie to this manipulating campaign.
Patriotic, Anti-Imperialist, and Socialist Consciousness Can Only Be Voluntary
There is certainly no requirement in Cuba that any artist must be politically conscious or active, or even political at all. There is no “correct line” on “art and culture.” But the US blockade does exist. And the patriotic and revolutionary unity it engenders among the broad mass of Cuban working people is genuine.
Cuban artists and intellectuals are also imbued with the solidarity, patriotic unity, and working-class internationalism that characterizes the Cuban Revolution. Socialist and anti-imperialist consciousness can only be voluntary. And the biggest delusion of all is that the Cuban Revolution does not hold decisive layers of conscious, mass, popular support.
Clearly if the more than 300 enablers of this dirty imperialist campaign were genuinely interested in opening up political and cultural space in Cuba for the anti-revolution, pro-US intervention, and pro-capitalist (excuse me, “democratic”!) artists they champion, then they should first and foremost demand an end to the US blockade and demand people-to-people exchanges. Instead, they don’t even mention US policy! This alone strips them of any moral or political authority, independent of any creative talent they may have The issue is NOT artistic freedom or censorship, but the US extraterritorial economic war and Cuba’s sovereign right to defend itself! It is foolish and fanciful – to the point of being obscene – to separate “artistic freedom” and “censorship” from the framework of US “regime change” policies
This “petition” shamefully aids the intolerably criminal US bullying of a small Caribbean island that is loved and admired the world over for its heroic example of international solidarity.
Our answer is to step up the fight to end the criminal US blockade!
Fidel Castro’s 1961 “Words to Intellectuals”
By Ike Nahem
The general framework and policy on art and culture over the course of the Cuban Revolution was laid out by Fidel Castro in his famous speech of June 30, 1961, “Words to Intellectuals.” This is a speech given just two months after the April defeat of the Eisenhower-Kennedy-CIA organized mercenary invasion at the Bay of Pigs-Playa Giron that quickly set in motion the intensification of US-organized state terrorism – the so-called Operation Mongoose – and the preparations for a direct US military invasion. That is, when the US state of siege against Cuba was going full throttle! It was an explosive dynamic which culminated in the October Missile Crisis and the prospects of nuclear exchanges and annihilations. (See my article “55 Years Later: Political Legacies of the Cuban Missile Crisis”.)
What the Cuban revolutionary leader laid out, under those conditions of siege, was summed up in the phrase, “Within the Revolution, Everything,” that is, no proscribing of styles, schools, or disciplines; But “outside and against the Revolution,” “No rights at all,” that is, those engaged in counter-revolutionary activity as a political choice (which in Cuba has always meant, and can only mean, at some point collaboration with the US government or US-backed mercenaries operating from US territory) against a popular revolutionary process.
The Cuban Revolution was always a genuine people’s revolution – the exact opposite of a coup or a government installed on the back of someone else’s army. The Cuban Revolution involved the direct interference of millions of ordinary working people – industrial and agricultural workers, landless and impoverished peasants, Afro-Cubans, women, students and youth – in the destiny and fate of their lives, their families, their social class, and their oppressed, degraded, Yankee-dominated country. And also, in their great majority, the legions of patriotic, anti-imperialist, and revolutionary artists and intellectuals who were attracted to this genuine people’s revolution of the oppressed.
Fidel’s speech is particularly thoughtful and incisive, especially when you consider the highly polarized period it was given in. The speech shows how important it was for the revolutionary government to develop policies aimed at creating the conditions for the subsequent accelerating development of Cuban artistic creativity in a living revolutionary experience under siege from the US behemoth. Here is one excerpt:
The Revolution cannot attempt to stifle art or culture when the development of art and culture is one of the goals and one of the basic objectives of the Revolution, precisely in order that art and culture will come to be a genuine patrimony of the people. And just as we have wanted a better life for the people in the material sphere, so do we also want a better life for the people in all spiritual spheres and a better life in the cultural sphere. And just as the Revolution is concerned with the development of the conditions and the forces which permit the satisfaction of all the material needs of the people, so do we also want to develop the conditions which will permit the satisfaction of all the cultural needs of the people.…A high percentage of the people is also going hungry, or at least is living or lived in difficult conditions…in conditions of poverty. A part of the people lacks a large number of material goods which are essential to them, and we are attempting to supply the necessary conditions so that all these material goods will reach the people.
We must supply the necessary conditions for all these cultural goods to reach the people in the same way. This does not mean that the artist has to sacrifice the value of his creations, or that their quality must necessarily be sacrificed. It means that we must conduct a struggle in all senses in order to have the creator produce for the people, and to have the people raise their cultural level in turn, so that they might also draw closer the creators. No rule of a general nature can be indicated.
Not all artistic manifestations are of exactly the same nature, and we have sometimes posed matters here as if all artistic manifestations were of exactly the same nature. There are expressions of the creative spirit which by their very nature can be much more accessible to the people than other manifestations of the creative spirit. Thus, no general rule can be laid down, because in which artistic expression is it that the artist must go to the people, and in which one must the people go to the artist? Can a statement of a general nature be made in this sense? No. It would be too simple a rule. Efforts must be made to reach the people in all manifestations…so that the people will be able to understand ever more and ever better. I do not believe that this principle contradicts the aspirations of any artist, and much less so if one takes into account the fact that men should create for their contemporaries.
For the entire speech click on link here.
This content originally appeared on Dissident Voice and was authored by Ike Nahem.