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article image'Gagging' law protecting Cuban culture draws artists' ire

By Carlos BATISTA (AFP)     Feb 14, 2019 in World

A law obliging Cuban artists to register with the ministry of culture has created controversy on the Caribbean island known for its spontaneous musical tradition.

In the historic old town of Havana, tourists amble through the colorful cobbled streets serenaded by rumba and the sounds of "soperos" -- amateur singers and musicians who can be found on almost every corner.

These are the main targets of Decree 349 which bans artists from performing without official authorization, while also providing sanctions for sexist and vulgar language.

The ruling socialist regime says this is to "protect culture."

The decree was signed by President Miguel Diaz-Canel on April 20, one day after he replaced Raul Castro as the country's leader, but faced with the uproar it has caused he's since admitted the subject "should have been discussed more and better explained."

Yet that didn't stop it being signed into law in early December.

Ten days away from a referendum on the new constitution, which includes a clause recognizing that artistic creation should be "free," some artists have hit out at this "gagging decree," while many more have criticized its lack of clarity.

"It's not right to have a decree with gaps, that leaves room for doubt and lacks clarity or creates uncertainty," popular singer Tony Avila told AFP.

The 47-year-old's recent song "Mi" created waves in Cuba. It's about refurbishments needed in his house but many Cubans interpreted it as an ode to fixing what's wrong in the socialist country, which finds itself at a crossroads as it prepares to recognize the role of private enterprise.

- 'Back to civility' -

A Cuban musician in Mariachi costume plays a Mexican guitar in a street of Havana
A Cuban musician in Mariachi costume plays a Mexican guitar in a street of Havana

"We're going to apply it steadily until we reach a consensus," said Culture Minister Alpidio Alonso on December 6, a day before the decree was signed into law.

While the decree has an impact on all artists, it is widely expected to most affect musicians and music video producers.

It will punish those who exceed "sound and noise" limits, use national symbols in a disrespectful manner or "violate current norms and regulations in matters of cultural policy."

The question of cultural policy is an ominous one. Socialist revolutionary and late leader Fidel Castro defined it as such: "With the revolution, everything. Against the revolution, nothing."

Like much of Latin America, in particular with the wave of reggaeton sweeping the region, Cuban music videos can contain offensive lyrics and multitudes of scantily clad women.

"I think it's a good idea to try to go back to civility," said Avila, although he said the decree was "a little incomplete."

- 'Pretentious' -

Surrounded by 40-odd Lucas trophies -- Cuba's highest honor for music videos -- producer Joseph Ros is another skeptic.

"When you talk about such subjective issues, it's very difficult and I think it's pretentious translating them into law," said the 29-year-old.

"It's a decree that claims something that is very difficult to control and depends a lot on human resources, on the person who at the end implements these measures."

The decree states that the diffusion and commercialization of artistic works must be approved and controlled "by the corresponding cultural institution."

"The role of institutions is central in the revolution's cultural program," said Alonso who insisted that any private space -- such as bars, restaurants or galleries -- organizing concerts would have to be "affiliated to the institutions."

"If you go around the whole island you'll see that the majority of musicians are self-taught," said Avila.

Both he and Ros pointed to the great Cuban singer Benny More, whom they say would have struggled to thrive in the new system.

"Turning your back on this self-made talent doesn't make sense," said Ros.

"There are many examples of artists who began their careers independently, outside the (official) institutions and achieved great success both in music and cinema."

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