The Cuban government is using the 14th edition of the Havana Biennial, slated to open in mid-November, to “erase…the suffering of the Cuban people,” artist and activist Tania Bruguera said on social media today. Using the hashtag #ImmoralBiennial, Bruguera urged visitors to boycott the 2021 show, the island’s largest visual arts event.
Bruguera also disclosed this week that she agreed to leave the country in exchange for the release of 25 prisoners, including Hamlet Lavastida, the Cuban artist who had been held in a maximum-security prison in Havana for the last three months. In an interview with Radio Martí this Tuesday, Bruguera said she accepted an offer to join Harvard University as a senior lecturer in media and performance and used the opportunity to barter with the Cuban regime, which had been pressing her to leave the island.
“I said, ‘Look, you want me to leave, well now you have an opportunity,’” Bruguera explained. “But I’ll leave on the condition that you release [them], and I handed a list of several people.” She named artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, Lavastida, rapper Maykel Osorbo, and Luis Robles, who was arrested in March for holding up a placard on a street corner in Havana. She also requested that members of the 27N Movement, a loose collective fighting censorship on the island, as well as youth detained during this summer’s protests, be freed.
“This may be one of the first times in the history of Cuba that an activist negotiates the release of another activist,” Bruguera told Radio Martí. “Generally, this is done between governments, but in this case we were the intermediaries.”
In the end, the regime agreed to release some of the detainees, such as Lavastida, who was forcibly exiled to Poland with his partner writer Katherine Bisquet. The younger protesters were also freed, Tania’s sister Deborah Bruguera confirmed in a message to Hyperallergic.
“[Tania] was escorted to the airport by a dozen agents to ensure she left the country,” Deborah Bruguera added.
Last month, the Cuban government decided to reopen the country to vaccinated visitors on November 15 — a move perfectly timed with the start of the Havana Biennial on the 21st, as writer and artist Coco Fusco pointed out in an op-ed for Artnet. But the intervention of artists and activists like Bruguera — whose wide recognition in the international art world offers both support and visibility — may have an impact on the outcome of the show and, more importantly, its ability to distract from the ongoing crisis in Cuba. In 2019, she penned an opinion article for Hyperallergic explaining her decisions to boycott the 13th edition of the show, citing the proposed Decree 349, a law severely curbing artistic liberties.
Amid a deepening economic crisis, food and medicine shortages, and the seemingly incessant persecution of dissidents and artists, skepticism around the art exhibition is growing. Fusco wrote that “it would be hard not to see the next biennial as something of a smokescreen.” Many of those who remain behind bars in Havana are peaceful protesters who participated in the largest anti-government demonstrations on the island in decades this summer.
Among them are Otero Alcántara, who has gone on hunger and thirst strikes to denounce artistic repression on the island, as well as Osorbo and photographer Anyelo Troya, who collaborated on the song and video “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), an anthem for Cuban liberation.
“The Havana Biennial was previously suspended when there was a hurricane in a distant province, but now, with a pandemic, a public health crisis, and hundreds of political prisoners and artists like Luis Manuel [Otero Alcántara] and Maykel Osorbo still imprisoned, I find it immoral to move forward with an event like the Biennial,” Bruguera told El Nuevo Herald. The artist added that foreigners should not visit or participate in the event, and for the Cubans who live on the island, she leaves the decision “up to their conscience.”
“Tania speaks on something that I keep seeing in the history of Cuba: fear,” Christian Casas, a Cuban-American artist based in Columbus, Ohio, told Hyperallergic. “The regime is fearful of artists and activists because they know they have the power to fully revolt.”