AP Exclusive: Cuba softens new law on artistic expression

HAVANA (AP) — Cuba is softening the impact of a heavily criticized new law that would have given government inspectors power to shut down any exhibition or performance deemed to violate the country's socialist revolutionary values, according to the country's vice minister of culture in an interview with The Associated Press.

The law known as Decree 349, published in July, allowed "supervising inspectors" to review cultural events ranging from painting exhibitions to concerts and immediately close any show — and even confiscate the prized business license of any restaurant or bar hosting an objectionable event.

Following protests by many artists, Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas told the AP on Tuesday that when enforcement begins, inspectors on their own will only be able to shut down shows in extreme cases, such as public obscenity, racist or sexist content.

He said inspectors will only respond to complaints on cultural matters and refer problematic cases to higher-ranking officials at the Culture Ministry. And they will not be able to inspect any studio or home that is not open to the public.

Many of Cuba's most renowned artists had complained about censorship in closed-door meetings with high-ranking government officials. A small group of independent artists also launched a series of street protests that brought a swift crackdown from police.

The global success of the island's musicians and painters is considered one of the crowning achievements of the country's revolution, but has created tensions between freedom of expression and the powerful government's view of what is politically correct and appropriate.

Also, many Cubans have grown concerned that young people prefer foreign popular films and television, and the raunchy lyrics of reggaeton, over the more traditional output of those trained in the country's system of elite art schools.

The law formally goes into effect Friday but inspectors will not begin to act on it until a series of detailed regulations are finalized in coming weeks, Rojas said.

Rojas said the government had failed to properly explain the motivations and aims of the new law, which was designed to respond to complaints from the public, as well as artists and intellectuals. about the misuse of patriotic symbols and vulgarity in popular culture.

"There wasn't an advance explanation of the law and that's one of the reasons for the controversy that it unleashed," he told the AP.

He said he had overseen at least 30 meetings with hundreds of artists since the publication of the law.

Detailed regulations to be published in coming days state clearly that "artistic creation is not the target," he said.

"We would apply the decree in very clear situations," Rojas said.

It remained unclear whether Rojas' explanation would satisfy artists such as Marco Antonio Castillo, a founding member of Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters), a duo of sculptors who were one of the country's most renowned art groups before they separated this year.

"Do I want to be in an intellectual environment with these new rules? Do I want my children to live with these rules?" Castillo said before Rojas' announcement. "The answer is no. We have to try to change them."

He said he approved of efforts to control vulgarity, excessive noise from late-night concerts, and tax evasion by artists, but he suspected the law was an effort to control freedom of expression.

"You can't say this law isn't to control artistic content," Castillo said.

Michel Matos, who was among those protesting in the streets against the law, called the decree "fascistic," adding that "it has a ton of subterfuges designed for cultural and ideological control and that's unacceptable for us."

Rojas said that he accepted the well-intentioned criticisms of Cuba's artistic community but that protests like Matos' were part of wider, foreign-backed scheme to destabilize the country by damaging the image of its cultural institutions.

"For them, 349 is a pretext for a more aggressive project against institutional order in Cuba," he said.

Sandor Perez, a 35-year-old rapper and member of Matos' group, said it had not received any foreign support for its efforts.

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Correspondent Michael Weissenstein contributed to the report.

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Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

Michael Weissenstein on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mweissenstein