The Radical Street Art of Havana’s Youth

cuba

“Their generation is more connected to the outside world than ever, but their art reflects a struggle to see a future in their own country.”

12 October 2017 |DENI ELLIS BÉCHARD | Pacific Standard

Yulier P. learned that the police were keeping track of his street art when he received a citation at his house, directing him to present himself for una entrevista: an interview.

Fabián, another street artist, says the same news arrived in a letter ordering him to pay a $40 fine—the equivalent of eight weeks’ salary for the average Cuban—or else serve a year in prison. With help from a friend, Fabián paid. Yulier went to the entrevista, taking with him a copy of the Cuban constitution. For two hours, an officer interrogated him.

Did Yulier oppose the Revolution? Why hadn’t he gone through official channels before creating public art? Yulier responded that he hadn’t broken any law and pointed to constitutional clauses guaranteeing his right to create art so long as it didn’t oppose the Revolution. In the end, neither he nor Fabián was arrested, an outcome that suggests a growing acceptance of political art in Cuba.

In Havana, the art of Yulier P. and Fabián is nearly ubiquitous. It appears in alleys, residential streets, major thoroughfares, and on the city’s many ruins. The roofless husk of an abandoned theater in the Centro neighborhood has become a sunlit gallery where a red lupine creature with hanging breasts—Yulier’s invention—extends its only arm in supplication, like a beggar; on the opposing wall, a life-size figure in a balaclava—Fabián’s go-to character—lifts his hands and eyes in a motion of entreaty that, if not for its air of futility, might be priestly.

The art covering walls from Habana Vieja to Vedado reflects the concerns of a younger generation of Cubans ever more connected to the world outside, even while they struggle to see a future in their own country. Yet both Yulier and Fabián acknowledge that, 10 years ago, their art wouldn’t have been possible. Unlike many political artists in Cuba’s past, neither has been jailed since they began painting publicly over the last three years, though the laws remain the same (and are, in theory, similar to many state and city ordinances prohibiting vandalism in the United States).

The multiplying paintings across Havana indicate that some of the youth feel more at ease, or at least more intent on, speaking out, and hint at a new attitude of measured tolerance on the part of the Cuban leadership toward artists who are not perceived as threats.

“Raúl Castro is engaged in a PR campaign to project an image of change in Cuba to attract less criticism and more foreign investment,” Sebastian Arcos, associate director of the Cuban Research Institute, told Pacific Standard in an email—though he stressed that, since Raúl Castro became president of Cuba in 2008, there haven’t been fundamental reforms so much as “what dissidents call ‘Cambio Fraude’ [fraudulent change]…. Any serious political threat is still handled quickly and harshly.” Still, both Arcos and Brian Latell, the author of three books on Cuba, agree that Fidel Castro would never have allowed any such subversive art. Latell has long held that Raúl Castro has a vision for Cuba that differs significantly from that of his brother, a vision that is now possible after Fidel’s death. Latell believes that the Cuban leadership doesn’t truly fear political upheaval, but that they are—speaking broadly—”very worried that the youth are unhappy, that they’re alienated, and that they don’t believe in the Revolution.”

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