The oldest dictatorship in Latin America just blinked. On Nov. 28, after days of protest by prominent artists and intellectuals over the detention of one of their own, the government in Cuba agreed to grant more independence to the island’s cultural community.
Score one for freedom of thought, the life force of that community’s creativity and its independent expressions, which speak loudly to Cubans trapped under communist rule.
Dictators rarely tolerate protests or “do dialogue” with independent civil society. But in recent weeks, Cuba’s regime has been faced with an unprecedented show of solidarity among a group of artists and thinkers known as the San Isidro Movement. The group has experienced increasing harassment since a 2018 decree made it illegal for artists to operate without being registered with a state institution.
The spark for the protests was the Nov. 9 arrest of rapper Denis Solís, one of many artists whose work challenges the regime’s ideology or its claim to power. To head off escalation of the protests, officials agreed to allow independent creators to meet freely without being “harassed” or “criminalized” by security forces, according to Tania Bruguera, a well-known Cuban artist.
The promised tolerance reflects a recognition of how much young Cuban artists are tapping the internet for ideas and reaching foreign audiences. “The authorities can continue to harass, intimidate, arrest and criminalize alternative artists and thinkers, but they cannot keep their minds in prison,” says Amnesty International’s director for the Americas, Erika Guevara Rosas.
One purpose of art, whether film, dance, literature, or painting, is to help people imagine an alternative reality, perhaps a universal truth that bonds people from different views. Art “expresses feelings for other people who feel the same but maybe don’t know how to articulate it,” Ms. Bruguera told the Financial Times. “Autocratic regimes repress us emotionally. Art liberates us emotionally.”
In any country, creative people engage with society to open new possibilities, expand thought, and transcend fear. Cuba’s leaders, who enjoy the international recognition of the country’s rich cultural expressions, may have realized the need for artistic freedom. If so, Cuba is one step closer to democracy.