After more than five decades of trade embargo, this fall Alaska Airlines will become one of the first American carriers to fly scheduled commercial flights to Havana, Cuba. Although a major step in Cuban-American relations, the artists of the small Caribbean island have been circumventing the embargo for over 20 years.
In the 1990s, Cuba was in the midst of a severe economic depression which left much of the population in extreme poverty. The dissolution of the Soviet Union spelled disaster for the small island which had relied on the importation of Soviet oil to feed its economy. Almost overnight, the country lost nearly 80 percent of its imports, 80 percent of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34 percent. Economic instability, compounded with a stringent U.S. trade embargo, forced Cubans to find ways to survive in the face of unprecedented obstacles.
As Cuban artists soon discovered, creativity loves chaos. While food shortages and electrical breakouts led to unrest, a group of artists and art professionals embarked on a lawsuit to protect art exchange with Cuba from the U.S. embargo. Citing the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, Cuban artists won their lawsuit, making it legal for foreign art dealers to travel to Cuba to purchase art.
At the same time, 5,000 miles away in Germany, art collectors Peter and Irene Ludwig were falling in love with contemporary Cuban art. After seeing an exhibition in Dusseldorf the pair was struck by the unique brand of avant-garde art being produced.
Under Fidel Castro’s presidency, Cubans remained highly censored but the creation and flow of Cuban art to the world enabled artists to bring attention to life in Cuba in a way that nothing else could. The Ludwigs believed that if they could establish an arts foundation in Havana, it may help stem the exodus of Cuban artists and help preserve the flourishing arts scene. In 1995, the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba was established as an autonomous, non-governmental, non-profit and 21 years later, it remains the only foreign foundation in the country.
“I think that Peter Ludwig was very wise when dealing with Cuba, he had already experienced relations with socialist countries in Europe—with East Germany, with the Soviet Union, with Hungary—and there are some institutions he set up there. But he started in a modest, very humble way with Cuba,” said Foundation Ludwig Executive Director Wilfredo Benitez during his visit to Anchorage last week.
As the first and only Executive Director of the Ludwig Foundation, Benitez has been on the front lines of the Cuban art scene for 21 years. However, a Google search of his name or the Ludwig Foundation will return very limited results. With internet a scarcity in Cuba, the government has elected to forgo creating a website for the Foundation as it would give non-Cubans access to information that very few Cubans would be able to freely access.
“We don’t have a website. Our president thought it was not fair to have a website when there is no free internet in Cuba especially when it would be a website that only people from abroad could see. It’s not practical but it is meant to be a statement,” explains Benitez.
“You know, we Cubans are part of a post-colonial world. So there is much sensitivity towards to those coming from the rich part of the world. Sometimes they are perceived as conquerors,” continued Benitez.
This mentality has not stopped Benitez from continuing to connect with artists from around the world as he feels that it is important to keep inspiring Cuban artists.
“Artists, intellectuals, academics can see sometimes issues that other people can’t see. Even institutions can’t see sometimes. Arts have a high status in Cuba and I think it has to do with artists’ sense of responsibility,” explains Benitez.
Despite the feeling that Cuban artists have an innate responsibility to create their art, Benitez has noticed a major shift in recent years.
“Artists have always been the ones who were allowed to travel and have exhibitions and I think because of that we are facing a challenge which is the growing of commercialism because Cuban artists have been very much exposed and generated much interest from the collectors of the world. There is a tendency within the arts to repeat formulas that will make the artists money. Of course this is good for the artists because they make money but it’s not so good for the arts in general,” says Benitez.
Now, as Alaska Airlines preps for daily nonstop flights between Los Angeles and Havana, Benitez hopes that the influx of foreign artists will re-ignite a sense of patriotism that will lead to the creation of Cuban art for Cuban audiences.
For longtime friend and University of Alaska Anchorage dance professor, Dr. Jill Flanders-Crosby, the newly opened flight routes means that she can continue her 2010 project “Secrets Under the Skin” which explored Cuban religious rituals, dances and music. It also means that she can finally expose a new generation of UAA students to the country she loves.
“There’s all this interest in Cuba because everything is opening up and nobody really has a real understanding of what Cuba is and what it can be. Every art form comes out of a time and place in history and the more that any student—in any forum—can broaden their understanding of other parts of the world, that is really important,” said Flanders-Crosby after Benitez’s guest lecture on Wednesday.
Benitez, who travelled to Alaska for vacation, saw the educational opportunity and agreed to donate his time by giving several guest lectures to UAA students last week. Although he will return home to Havana soon, Benitez hopes that in the future he will be able to establish a working collaboration between the Ludwig Foundation in Cuba and UAA.
*Originally published in the Anchorage Press