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Tania Bruguera is one of the most important Cuban artists in the last decades. Photo: Archive.
Tania Bruguera is one of the most important Cuban artists in the last decades. Photo: Archive.

Tania Bruguera, Life, Dissent and Performance

The recent kidnapping of the renowned Cuban artist has once again brought the scope of Castro's censorship to the table.

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Arbitrary arrests of artists, journalists, and activists in Cuba are common currency, a country of creators and intellectuals that its government fears, and therefore silences. 

One of the historical victims of censorship and persecution on the island has been the renowned installation and performance artist Tania Bruguera, recently kidnapped by the Castro regime last June when she was preparing to attend a demonstration for the murder of a young man by the police.

Three "gag" decrees

Hansel Hernandez was murdered in the back by the police within a month of George Floyd's death. Hansel was 27 years old and Afro-Cuban, and he reportedly tried to stone patrol cars when he was caught stealing in Guanabacoa, on the outskirts of Havana. Security forces rushed to incinerate his body because of the threat of COVID, but Hansel was not sick, nor was he armed.

Six days after his murder, on June 30, 2020, artivist Tania Bruguera was supposed to attend a peaceful protest in front of Havana's Yara cinema. She had announced it on the social accounts of the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism, a foundation she created back in 2015, and she asked the police to refrain from boycotting this peaceful act.

However, they did the opposite. 

The event was to take place at 11 a.m. Tania was abducted by State Security agents early in the morning, her sister denounced on social media.

"Tania Bruguera has been taken (we still don't know if by military or police dressed as civilians - kidnapping -) from her home at this very moment (6:17 a.m. Cuban time) to prevent her presence at the peaceful demonstration that will take place today in various parts of the country against #Police Violence," Deborah Bruguera wrote on Instagram.

"They had their chance to prove themselves the opposite of what they are, but they lost it. The day begins with the disappearance of #TaniaBruguera. It's time to go out and defend our rights. #BASTAYA!!"

Bruguera was detained under the pretext of "pandemic contagion," her sister writes. But a photograph of the artist preparing for the protest shows her wearing a face mask and glasses.

"We won't allow Tania Bruguera nor any other peaceful protester, all of whom have been asked to comply with hygiene regulations, mask use, social distancing, and are responsible activists, to be improperly and illegally charged with an inexistent 'pandemic contagion.' Enough with the threats and repressive strategies," Deborah Bruguera continues.

Tania Bruguera was released 10 hours later, but not before having been subjected to the psychological torture of those who had put her in what they called a "warehouse."

"And when she was put in a cell, she also heard how they reminded her of the metaphorical possibilities of that concrete fact, threats, clashes and humiliations towards her person," her sister explained in another post on social networks. "The minor argument was that nobody follows her, loves her or defends her, that she is worthless and she could even hear how they threateningly mentioned that her only family - her sister Deborah Bruguera and her nephew Marcel - are in another geography, in the same place where her mother Algeria recently died in strange circumstances and where her sister could have also lost her life."

"Psychological violence of the most vulgar and primary kind. Using the family no longer only reflects the petty and thuggish character of that government but also the lack of originality. The very exhaustion of its cancer-causing people denotes that they look more like narcos from a bad soap opera than a political police force."

Something similar happened to the director of the website El Estornudo and correspondent of The Washington Post, Abraham Jiménez, who was going to cover the protest march against the death of Hernández when he found a patrol car guarding the door of his house. "I am under house arrest," he wrote on his networks.

Other activists reported being held in their homes. Those who managed to get to the Yara cinema found it cordoned off by the police.

Living and expressing oneself freely in Cuba has become an eternal and risky Groundhog Day. The arrests are followed by other more sibylline ways of silencing dissent like restricting Internet access, the only breach to spread the truth of those who denounce arbitrary arrests and censorship in a confined island projected as an idyllic communist paradise.

The Internet as a new method of censorship

On Monday 20th Tania Bruguera woke up without an internet connection. She was casually going to protest in front of the building of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television to demand the resignation of its Director of Communications, Yusimí González, accused of homophobic comments. 

The Cuban telecommunications company, Etecsa, also blocked five other artists, activists, and reporters from accessing mobile data.

"In Cuba, they don't kill journalists, they kill their reputation," a reporter said a few days ago, referring to the case of Jiménez Enoa, who has denounced being subjected to a "defamation campaign" promoted by the "cyber-clubs," a sort of computerized Holy Inquisition in the pay of the regime that is dedicated to attacking opponents and anyone who contravenes the version of the official media by using false profiles and also harassing their relatives."

This is the product of Decree 370 – known as the Scourge Law –, one of the three "decrees" created at the end of 2018 by the Cuban government, which seeks to "patch up" the Internet.

Especially in Article 68, the government considers a violation to disseminate information (that the regime believes) contrary to social interest, morals, good customs, and the integrity of the people.

When the government does not rely on this type of decree, it does so through more arbitrary methods, such as becoming a "fugitive in your own country," say those who've had to survive it like journalist Camila Acosta.

Acosta began to suffer State Security persecution when she left her job at Canal La Habana to become an independent reporter on real miseries. The journalist not only denounces sanctions against her freedom as a member of the press, but she has had to change her address five times this year, the last two in less than a month, alleging that her landlords are threatening to throw her out. 

Dissident art

One of the first times that the Cuban artivist Tania Bruguera (1968) heard the expression "Let's go for a walk" was from her father. She was 25 years old and preparing an exhibition with texts by artists for a newspaper, when Miguel Brugueras, whom Tania used to see a couple of times a year, showed up at her house and took her to see some "colleagues." Miguel had been one of the founders of the Communist Party, and his defense of Castroism made him distance himself from the family. "That day he wasn't my father, he was a policeman," the artist recalled in a conversation with El País Semanal. 

Since that day, "the walk" has been frequent in the life and artistic career of Bruguera. The artist lives between Havana and Chicago; between Havana and the multiple exhibitions and projects at the MOMA or the TATE, institutions that consecrated her as one of the great Cuban artists and the regime's number one enemy.

Each interrogation, each arrest, reinforces her art, which, as she explains, cannot be separated from the politics of her time. A dissidence she claims had the germ in her early teens when she returned to Cuba after following her father as a diplomat in Beirut, Paris, and Panama. She realized that the revolutionary island she had been told about had little to do with the Cuba of her childhood. Of her youth. Of her middle age. 

"I know that I am a target of the Cuban government. They have classified me as an enemy, and there is no turning back from that," Bruguera said in the interview. She lives on constant alert, perpetually watched, whether she is in Havana or New York. 

Her international reputation allows her to put herself in the front line, to say and do what others fear because if something were to happen to her, Tania admits, the scandal would be too much to handle.

"Once during an interrogation, I was told: 'We are not going to put you in jail any more because we don't want you to be the Cuban Ai Weiwei or to get a Nobel Prize,'" she recalled.

La artivista Tania Bruguera participó en la exposición "Person of the Crowd": El arte contemporáneo de la Flânerie, organizada por la Fundación Barnes, en Filadelfia, en marzo de 2017.

Artivist" Tania Bruguera took part in the exhibition Person of the Crowd: The Contemporary Art of Flânerie, organized by The Barnes Foundation, in Philadelphia, March, 2017. Photo: AL DÍA News.
Censorship by decree

Bruguera is not an antagonist to the ideals of the revolution, to social justice, but Cuba is far from that. Light years away from that 1959 when the Cuban Revolution proposed a unique moment of creative freedom that attracted Sartre, Ginsberg, Simone de Beauvoir, and called for ideas, artists, and storytellers.

National Literature Prize winner Antón Arrufat once recounted how, in the 70s, those avant-garde airs gave way to a tight line. Many intellectuals ended up fleeing from Castroism, with renowned names as that of the writer Reinaldo Arenas, who suffered torture, imprisonment, and finally exile. "But I kept writing because it was the one thing they couldn't take away from me," Arrufat told The New York Times.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union and then, years later, when Raul Castro took office as president in 2006, Cuba had a few years of respite during which galleries, theater companies, and major film festivals appeared. Tourism no longer came for sex and the beach, but culture.

However, the three decrees of 2018, especially the fateful 349 concerning artists – and everyone else – threatens to set everything back. 

Every artist in Cuba must be affiliated if they want to perform, exhibit, or sell their work on the island. The inspectors of the Ministry of Culture can interrupt a poetry reading or an opening at any time, fine the creators, or even confiscate their works. The Government insists that this is not censorship, but a way of "protecting its heritage" from globalization.

"In the 1970s there was no decree or law to justify censorship; now the right to censor is codified in a decree," insists Arrufat, author of the landmark Seven Against Thebes.

Tania Bruguera was arrested again in 2018 for protesting decree 349, as she had been in 2014 for organizing a performance in the Plaza de la Revolución when Obama softened relations with Cuba. She also refused to participate in the Havana Biennial in 2019 because of the new decree legalizing censorship. 

"The power is slipping from their hands, and they want to control the artists. They are afraid because new things are happening in Cuba," concluded the artivist, adding: "We must speak to power without fear. Political art in Cuba is a Russian roulette, an all-or-nothing game in which one bets to lose everything."

According to Cuban Prisoners Defenders, there are currently more than a hundred people in Cuba imprisoned for political reasons. 

For the NGO, the cases are part of an "increase in repression, control and Cold War rhetoric" that they had observed since 2018 when the regime's apparatus began to weaken. 

"They seek to control a population that is increasingly disaffected with the system and an international public opinion that is less and less manipulable," CPD said. 

Art and journalism are dangerous for totalitarianism. Sometimes the Internet is, too.

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