An old affliction haunts The Cuban: Exile politics and divisions
BY FABIOLA SANTIAGO
The new American Museum of the Cuban Diaspora is striking in its
architectural resemblance to the grand colonial houses of Havana, yet
has a modern Miami flair. From the imposing stairwell to the natural
light that bathes the halls and bounces off sparkling white marble
floors, The Cuban is a jewel.
But why isn’t Miami — and the two million strong Cuban diaspora in the
United States and abroad — flocking to see what’s billed as its
“cultural home”? Why isn’t there — now that this decades-old dream has
come to fruition thanks to a $10 million county subsidy — an endowment
coming from this wealthy community to properly run the museum and build
a permanent collection?
Perhaps because an old affliction haunts The Cuban: exile politics and
In the age of engagement, many Cuban-Americans have turned their eyes
toward the island, including once-hard-line Republicans. Seeing for
yourself, showing the island of your birth to your children and
grandchildren before you die, has become the trendy thing to do,
especially after the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United
States and the death of Fidel Castro.
Not without controversy but without the old political stigma, the
diaspora and its descendants are traveling to Havana for quinces and
wedding photo shoots amid colonial architecture and white-sand beaches.
They buy art, dine at paladares, ride tour buses around the city — and
yes, also help families who never left the island. A stunning 13,000
Cubans abroad have sought repatriation, according to the Cuban embassy.
Some artists, in particular, are listing their place of residence as
both Havana and Miami.
But The Cuban drew a clear line in the sand in its founding documents:
This is “a museum of memory dedicated to showcasing, interpreting and
documenting the history, culture and contributions of the Cuban
diaspora” as seen “through the eyes of its artists, thinkers and
creators, many of whom enjoy hard-earned international standing.”
Cuba is the backdrop, a historical point on a timeline on the museum
wall, and a central part of the content of exhibits — but the artists,
thinkers and creators who live on the island won’t be protagonists here.
“It’s not discrimination,” founding director Ileana Fuentes tells me.
“It’s simply not in our mission. The museums of the Jewish experience
you see in many cities, for example, don’t discriminate against
gentiles. It’s just not the story they’re telling. It’s the same for us.”
It was only a matter of time before that limited role would be tested —
and an old ghost resurrected: The ugly fight among exiles on whether to
show or not to show art made in Cuba. The issue ended up killing the old
Cuban Museum in the 1990s. And now, only months after The Cuban opened
in November, here’s the issue again, brought back to life by an
unexpected Cintas Foundation decision to expand its prestigious
fellowship awards program — limited to the Cuban diaspora since 1963 —
to include Cuban artists, architects, writers and musicians on the island.
The announcement popped up in an undated press release on the Cintas
website as its six-month executive director, Victor Deupi, a lecturer in
architecture at the University of Miami, and Fuentes were in
conversations about The Cuban hosting the next annual Cintas winners
exhibition — the perfect match.
But Fuentes immediately pulled out and the museum’s resident curator,
Jesus Rosado, wrote an impassioned piece saying that the Cintas move was
part of a Havana-made strategy to “ideologically invade” exile
institutions while Castroism remains entrenched in Cuba. An exiled
artist who received a Cintas award, Juan Abreu, said he was renouncing
his 1993 prize (but didn’t return the money) because opening the award
to island artists amounted to white-washing the dictatorship.
The controversy leaves one with a sense of déjà vu. We’ve seen this
“To promote Cuban art in its entirety one has to recognize the various
groups, not just the exile community,“ argues U.S.-born Deupi, who has
been traveling to Cuba for 15 years “never for purposes of going to the
beach and having fun,” but to see family, do research, and as he put it,
“cry,” even if “of course you have fun when you’re there.” His parents
fled the island in 1961.
“We became a defacto exile organization through giving prizes to Cubans
that live in the U.S.,” Deupi says. “After diplomatic relations were
established, legally we could do this, and since we’re not a political
organization, if we can do something legally to support Cuban art, we
felt very strongly that we should. Leaving [Cuban artists] out the
prizes — that would be a clear political decision.”
Others don’t see it that way — and no, they’re not necessarily hardliners.
“The times are a little confusing. Certain lines appear to have been
broken as well they should,” Manuel E. Gonzalez, an arts patron and
former Cintas board member who also travels to Cuba, writes in an
opposition letter. “However, there are a few points that must never be
forgotten. … It is only possible to exhibit, publish or execute your
work in Cuba as long as governmental artistic guidelines are followed.”
Cuban artists on the island, he adds, have access to opportunities and
international scholarships — from Fort Lauderdale, New York, Germany,
Switzerland and Japan — that aren’t accessible to those in exile.
“More importantly there are numerous invitations to international
exhibitions where the Cuban government chooses who will represent the
country,” Gonzalez writes. “It should come as no surprise that those who
permanently reside outside the island are never considered. Further, the
Cuban government has recently realized the monetary possibilities of a
national art market. A proliferation of tourist art shops exist in every
province throughout the island. To a Cuban artist, life outside their
country is a completely different, new and in certain aspects more
tougher reality. The competition is broader and brutal. The Cintas
Foundation is all they have.”
Gonzalez makes excellent points. As long as a dictatorship is in place,
everything in Cuba — including art is political. But I also understand
the sentiment behind inclusion of Cuban artists on the island. They’ve
already been exhibiting, playing music here for decades.
To include or exclude isn’t an argument anyone is ever going to win.
Truth is, everyone loses a little in the battle. After all, there’s
museum overload in Miami and an ailment of the soul diagnosed as Cuba
battle fatigue. And add to the local stew that yet another group is
vying to open another Cuban exile museum with the same mission and scope
of The Cuban.
The parting is regrettable. The Cuban and Cintas need each other. And
the museum’s inaugural exhibition — the retrospective “Dictators,
Terrorism, War and Exiles: The Art of Luis Cruz Azaceta” — is a
testament to their organic connection.
Azaceta, who has lived in several U.S. cities and is based in New
Orleans, was twice a Cintas award winner in 1972 and 1975. He left Cuba
at 18 in 1960, from Havana to New York, where he worked factory jobs and
studied at Manhattan’s School of Visual Arts. He exhibited in Miami when
our fledgling art scene ran on a shoestring, but made his career outside
of the capital of exiles.
His art is a revelation in that he addresses contemporary American
issues even as it has at its heart the state of being Cuban. The
Oklahoma bombing, the Iraq War, and Twin Towers terrorism co-exist among
Cuban rafters, political prisoners, and el dictador.
So American, so Miami, yet the exhibition comes from elsewhere —
Newark’s Aljira, a Center for Contemporary Art — and fits The Cuban’s
mission, proving that it’s not geography that matters to the Cuban exile
When it’s a homecoming, you feel it.
Fabiola Santiago: email@example.com, @fabiolasantiago
Source: Mission of new Cuban museum is tested by Cintas Foundation
expansion to Cuba | Miami Herald –