Monday, February 8, 2010

The Writing is on the Wall

Feb 7: The Writing is on the Wall

Havana is a city surprisingly free of graffiti. Perhaps the expense of paint is too much in a country where most people can barely afford enough food to survive. However, recently there are political messages appearing on the streets. They are not explicitly anti-government. Instead they invoke abstract ideals like “libertad” or “freedom” (written in English on Linea in Vedado).

These furtive messages do not last long before people (local CDR representatives perhaps) come along not to erase or cover over the graffiti but to do something much more ingenious: they change the message. When there were elections on the island, and a list of candidates was posted, someone came along and wrote “no” next to each name. Then a government sympathizer came along with a stencil and painted “al bloqueo” (to the embargo) under each “no.” What had been a repudiation of an electoral system where the communist party always wins, for more than 50 years now, becomes an anti-US imperialist slogan.

On Saturday morning I noticed a new graffiti on a wall a few blocks from my house: “Libertad” it proclaimed in a thick black paint scrawled on a low wall on 19th and D in Vedado. Within a few hours, someone had come by, and in a clearly different writing had painted “para los Cinco” (for the Five), a reference to the five Cubans in jail in the US for spying.

The Cuban state is genius at incorporating and defanging dissent, either by hijacking graffiti messages, or through the very hegemony of the revolutionary discourse. There was a protest at the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), the premiere art university in the country, in October of 2009. Although news of this spontaneous protest reached the international news, few people in Cuba heard about it. Students, fed up with poor quality and scarce food, and terrible conditions in their dorms, demanded improvements and staged a sit-down “strike” until things changed. Students, being videotaped by cell phones, spoke loudly and articulately about their complaints. They painted posters satirizing the conditions at ISA, danced, and one student even staged a performance in which he covered himself with mud to symbolize the problems they face given the absence of water in the dorms, sometimes for two days in a row. Some students claimed to not be staging a strike, and others said that this was not a political act. “We are artists, and we only want to be able to express ourselves as artists,” one non-political artist declared.

In an edited video that is circulating around Havana, one sees these students confronting the Rector of the university quite directly and dramatically. A student yells plaintively that the people who are supposed to represent him, don’t do anything. The Rector calmly explains the difficulties they face in this revolutionary process. At the end of the video, one of the students reads a printed manifesto in which they affirm their revolutionary commitment, and argue for rectification of these problems within the context of the revolution. Although these kinds of spontaneous protests in which people openly confront authorities are rare in Cuba, even this act of defiance was carefully couched, by the students themselves, as part of the revolutionary process. As Fidel said in his address to intellectuals in 1961, “within the revolution everything: against the revolution, nothing.” The students at the ISA have learned well!

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