Cuba: #YoTambienExijo and 'regime change'

What do we make of this? Artist Tania Bruguera and some dozen others were arrested in Havana's Revolution Square Dec. 30. Bruguera planned to stage Yo También Exijo (I Also Demand), her participatory performance act that includes an open-mic section. She had succeeded in getting away with the open-mic trick in her performance of another act, El Susurro de Tatlin (Tatlin's Whsiper), at the 2009 Havana Biennial arts affair. But she was denied a permit to take the act to Revolution Square. Cuba's National Visual Arts Council issued a statement saying the performance was "unacceptable" given the "manipulation" of the "counter-revolutionary media." Bruguera's website tags the acts "Unannounced Performance," "Behavior Art Materials," and "Crowd Control Techniques." The planned event was poorly attended—possibly due to police pre-emptive measures. Havana Times ("open-minded writing from Cuba") stated: "Starting around noon Ministry of Interior troops, both in plainclothes and uniformed, were stationed at all points of access to the square..." Then the cops arrested the intended participants. Havana Times also reports that among the detained were Reinaldo Escobar, husband of dissident blogger Yoani Sánchez, and Eliecer Ávila of opposition group Somos Más (We are More). Most have been released, including Bruguera, although she is apparently barred from leaving Cuba. (14yMedio, ArtForum, Dec. 31) #YoTambienExijo has become a popular hashtag on Facebook and Twitter.

The day before her arrest, Bruguera told NPR by phone from Havana that she intended to invite fellow Cubans to speak about "whatever you think right now about what is happening in Cuba." She added: "As an activist, I did this at Occupy Wall Street, I did this in Europe, I did it everywhere. Why can't I do it in my country?" But the action must inevitably be seen in the context of the current White House opening to Cuba. The New York Times editorialized: "Bruguera's plan was the first test of whether the Obama administration's decision to normalize relations with Cuba earlier this month would prod the Castro regime to be more tolerant of critical voices. Disappointingly, but not surprisingly, the government barred prominent critics, including Ms. Bruguera, from reaching the square."

The Miami Herald notes that a statement from the Cuban Union of Artists and Writers called Bruguera's work "opportunistic" and a "political provocation," labeling her an "attention seeker." According to the Herald, the statement said the performance "aims to boycott [sic] impending negotiations between the US and Cuba." (Presumably, the Herald meant "sabotage" or "derail," not "boycott.")

The Herald account also notes that Cuban exile groups held a simultaneous rally at downtown Miami's Freedom Tower in support of Bruguera. One organizer, Rosa María Payá, daughter of late Cuban dissident Oswaldo Payá, said they sought to give Cubans space to "put the topic of discussion. Cubans have been left outside in these negotiations. It should be the Cuban people who decide, not the US president or a Cuban general."

A more cynical view is taken by Havana-based writer José Jasán Nieves Cárdenas in the Miami-based Progreso Weekly, which hails itself as an "independent," "progressive" voice—presumably of dissent from Miami's moribund "gusano" establishment. A translation is provided by Havana Times:

Tania Bruguera...had been asked by the National Council of Plastic [Visual] Arts to move her performance into the National Museum of Fine Arts, a non-politicized space, but she did not accept that alternative.

What surrounded this "artistic act"...was [an] example of how complex political strategies will become, now that the direct confrontation between the two governments has allegedly ended and we enter the field of underhanded tactics.

To try to place a podium in one of the most symbolic spaces of the Cuban Revolution, without authorization and against the rules, and to try to make it a protest site—in the style of Tahrir Square in Egypt, Maidan Square in the Ukraine or Occupy Wall Street in New York—sounds like an attempt at slapping the faces of Cuban government officials and those leaders in Washington who are trying to change the brutal policy maintained for more than 50 years against Cuba.

The provocation sought repression, not true dialogue.

The island's hierarchy now acts in the knowledge that the U.S. government modified the method—not the objective—of "regime change."

OK, we have a few responses. First, by the accounts cited above, Bruguera did seek "authorization" for the performance. Nor is there anything to suggest she planned anything nearly as ambitious as Tahrir Square, Maidan Square or Occupy Wall Street. But more to the point—progressives were on the side of Occupy Wall Street, and all but a few freedom-hating tendencies were on the side of the Tahrir Square protests. We still aren't sure why tactics we cheer on in Manhattan or Cairo should be demonized as foreign-inspired "regime change" charades in Kiev or Havana. 

We recently noted the case of more conservative leaders of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement appealing to ex-imperial master Britain for succor, thereby playing into Beijing's propaganda that the movement is a neo-colonialist enterprise. Arguably, Bruguera seizing upon Obama's opening does the same thing. But are Cubans not supposed to press freedom of expression now because the US is seeking rapprochement with the regime?

Viewing Bruguera's action only in the context of the US opening denies local, Cuban contexts. Repression in Cuba is certainly more measured than under Mubarak or Yanukovych, but partially because social space in general is more closed and pre-emptive methods more effective. As we have had too many reasons to ask in recent years: Remember when the left used to fetishize balaclavas and Molotov cocktails? Today it seems to more often fetishize police uniforms and truncheons. What's up with that?