Cuba, Castro, the arts and freedom
Fidel Castro's death last week was marked by nine days of enforced mourning. Sales of alcohol and live music were forbidden over this period. It seems like a fitting coda to Castro's legacy—one which censored and imprisoned artists, musicians and writers and all others who did not parrot the regime's ideology.
Castro's death has been significant not only because it marks the end of a totalitarian communist dictator, but because it has highlighted how misinformed many people are about Castro's legacy and the oppressive socialist system he implemented in Cuba. Misguided political leaders, intellectuals and entertainers have pointed to Castro's positive accomplishments and disingenuously elided the dictator's abysmal human rights record over 50 years (murder and mass executions, show trials, unjust imprisonment, suppression of free speech, iron restrictions on movement, trade, work, travel and severe limitations on freedom in almost every dimension of human experience).
Cuba is justly praised for its arts, however, particularly its tremendously rich musical culture. What I find interesting is that many people associate this rich artistic heritage with Cuba's socialism, as though there’s a causal relationship between the two. Undoubtedly, the arts everywhere are shaped by the political systems within which they are created, and I am sure that Cuban music is no exception, but did Cuba's socialism have a positive influence on the arts, or were the arts made possible by courageous figures despite a regime that ensured widespread poverty, controlled travel and cultural exchange, and censored and penalized those who dared speak out?
While living in England in 1998, I was fortunate enough to see the Buena Vista Social Club perform live at the Royal Festival Hall. I had heard their music, and was charmed when I realized that the average age of the performers was about 75. One of the strongest memories of that evening was at the end of the performance when the band returned for an encore, and brought out an enormous Cuban flag. The audience went crazy, applauding all the more powerfully at the sight of the enormous flag held high by the band.
At first I thought that the applause was for the Cuban people—for the culture that they had preserved and perhaps strengthened—despite Castro's oppressive regime. The post-performance concert discussion with my artsy friends in black turtlenecks and berets revealed a different perspective however. The audience (my friends claimed) had applauded the flag with such enthusiasm because they believed that Cuba represented an ideal of equality and justice. Cuba (so went the argument), has nobly rejected capitalism and thereby avoided the descent into the base consumerism and inequality of "the West.” I pointed out that perhaps we were not in a position to romanticize the well-being and happiness of Cubans living on $14 a month under communism. Well-dressed urbanites sipping expensive drinks in fancy post-show bars never seem to see the irony in their criticisms of the free market.
In some ways, a culture of hardship can spawn artists that find creative methods of expressing themselves despite a culture of oppression. That’s what Coco Fusco, a Cuban-American artist and curator, argued last year in her book Dangerous Moves: Performance and Politics in Cuba. Fusco highlights the manner in which the state censors dissent and controls artistic expression, thereby driving artists to find oblique, indirect, metaphorical methods of providing social commentary.
But Rubén Gonzáles, the pianist for the Buena Vista Social Club, suggests another angle on the greatness of Cuban music: it has its origins in the vibrant period before Castro, when Havana was overrun with the so-called evils of capitalism and American exploitation: "There was very little money in it but everyone played because they really wanted to. Now  people play more for money than for the love of it; now there's more business and less talent. The basis of everything you hear now in Cuban music, that all comes out of that brilliant period." (from Lucy Duran's CD jacket interview with Gonzáles for his solo album).