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Cuba

Natasha Del Toro

Natasha Del Toro is an independent documentary producer and writer with an interest in Latin America and the Caribbean. In 2007, she produced a short documentary on a socially conscious Haitian singer named Belo, which aired as a Rough Cut on FRONTLINE/World recently. She also traveled to El Salvador and covered a corporate social responsibility program for “Americas” magazine. Del Toro attended Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, from which she earned Masters degrees in arts and cultural reporting and in broadcast journalism. She currently lives in Tampa, Florida, where she also produces for her local PBS station, WEDU.

Natasha Del Toro

Reporter, Natasha Del Toro

Natasha Del Toro talks about some of the challenges of filming in Cuba as an American reporting there, and how Cuba’s political culture has uniquely defined its art.

Jackie Bennion: How did you first discover the work of Los Carpinteros?

Natasha Del Toro: I met Dago [Rodriguez] in the winter of 2004 while he was doing an art residency in Tampa. He was charming, handsome, well dressed and wildly talented. He was creating quite a stir in the art scene in Tampa. I started to do some research on Los Carpinteros -- Marco [Castillo] and Dago. These guys came from very humble backgrounds. They were trained in the best art schools. They had adopted the blue-collar moniker their classmates assigned them -- Los Carpinteros (The Carpenters) -- because of their wood and craftwork.

They were so poor that they had to use recycled and found materials. But they created this conceptual, ironic art loaded with political overtones. I remember seeing one of their pieces, this absurdly large wooden structure with drawers. It's called "Jewelry Box." Marco once told me during an interview that he is fascinated by how the pursuit of wealth and fine things has been a major cause of violence in history. It sheds a new light on the work.

What do you think sets Cuban art apart?
A number of things, really. First, the political situation in Cuba forces artists to come up with subtle ways to critique the system. Because of censorship, they must be very clever in their approach. A curator once joked that skirting government censors in Cuba provided far better training than any top-notch M.F.A. program. The result is highly sophisticated work that is often imbued with veiled political meanings.

Second, Cuban artists make exceptional Cuban art because of their education. From the time they are young, Cubans with artistic talent are handpicked and sent to extremely rigorous schools that are fully subsidized by the Cuban government. Only the best make it to graduation. But even those who don't make it through get a solid -- and free -- art education along the way, which is probably why you find such good street art in Cuba.

Third, although there are great artists throughout Latin America, the travel embargo makes Cuban art scarce and consequently more exotic. This drives up demand -- at least for Americans.

What made you decide to do this particular story?
I went to Cuba for the first time in 2003, and it was impossible to miss how art permeates society. You can even see it in the rhythmic way people walk along the Malecon. I wanted to figure out if it was something innate in the culture. Cubans also just spend their time differently. They only get four television channels, which show either art programs or Fidel Castro giving five-hour speeches. And they don't have techie toys like Nintendo Gameboys or iPods. The arts are a major way of passing the time.

Despite the socialist system Fidel Castro has imposed for the past 50 years, has a kind of elite society developed around the more successful artists?
On the business side of the arts, there is definitely an economic discrepancy between artists and other people on the island. Artists invite foreigners into their homes and sell work privately, often earning more with just one painting than most Cubans earn in a year. The average Cuban simply does not have access to disposable income.

Cuba is off limits to most Americans. What sort of hoops did you have to go through to film there?
To go legally, I had to get freelance journalist licenses from the U.S. Treasury Department for myself and my cameraman. This can take a couple of months, so you have to leave yourself plenty of time before your trip. I got notice that my license had been approved only two days before I traveled.

When I arrived in Cuba, I found out that I also needed a journalist's license from the Cuban government, which is also a lot of paperwork and time. Fortunately, I did most of the interviews and shooting on my tourist visa. Even with a journalist's visa, you don't necessarily get free access. And you may be followed. The Cubans really mistrust U.S. journalists. And the First Amendment does not apply in Cuba.

Were people open and willing to talk to you?
Yes and no. There are lots of cultural sensitivities around reporting in Cuba. Certain words can literally shut down a conversation. When I was asking about the opening up of the art market, it was far better to ask about "commercialization" of art rather than budding "capitalism." Also, the word "communism" is a harsh one for most Cubans to hear. They'd rather you refer to their system as socialism.

After more than four decades of censorship and a repressive government, Cubans have learned to communicate in a sort of code, with expressions and gestures referring to "El Comandante." Self-censorship is a big problem there and has been one of the most effective tools for keeping Castro in power for so long. Many people were willing to talk, but they grew visibly uncomfortable when I turned on the camera. They'd immediately soften their position from the one they'd held minutes earlier.

Los Carpinteros have gained international acclaim. Do they have any idea what Castro thinks of their art?
I don't know if they have ever dealt with Castro directly. I am sure Castro would be extremely proud of them. Even if their work critiques the system, they are a great example of what the revolution has produced.

I noticed there were no female Cuban artists represented in your film. Is there a reason for that?
There is a wonderful pool of women artists from Cuba -- Elsa Mora, Tania Bruguera, Liset Castillo, Lidzie Alvisa and many others. Some have moved to the United States or other places and travel back when they can. I didn't focus on them for this documentary, but I think it would be very interesting to do a piece about them, as they've also had huge success on the international art market.

Is it possible to live in Florida and not have an opinion about Cuba?
Not everyone in Florida cares about Cuba. Passions run high mostly in south Florida and Tampa Bay, where Cubans settled to create a cigar industry long before Miami served its first cafe con leche. But you would be surprised. Many second- and third-generation Cuban Americans don't share the same feelings or experiences of their grandparents or parents. Many of them just want to go back and visit the island and reconnect with their culture and their relatives. But the Cuba problem lies more in electoral politics. A small constituency of influential anti-Castro residents -- people who fled Cuba after Castro took over in 1959 -- are the ones who largely determine policy against Cuba.

Since we first interviewed you in September 2006, Fidel Castro has officially stepped down and handed the reins to his brother Raul. How do you think this might change things for Cuban artists?
Many analysts are now predicting that Cuba will adopt market reforms resembling China's economic model. And the elections in the United States may also impact Cuba's future. A Democratic president and Congress would be more likely to ease trade and travel restrictions, allowing Americans to visit the island. But even if tourism and business improve Cuba's economy, it would be sad to see the island lose its vibrant culture, becoming overrun with McDonald's, Starbucks and other chain stores. As for the future of the Cuban art world, artists say they are trying to make good universal art that will outlast politics.

If Cuba does open up and become so-called normalized, do you feel this could affect the uniqueness of the work of artists like Los Carpinteros? In the sense that there's less political agitation, less to rail against?
The political situation is part of what makes Cuban art so different and sought after in the international market. The island's transition could eliminate the special niche Cuban artists have occupied for so long. Some art critics say the effects of the market have already diluted some of the art because artists have started creating work for certain tastes.

Even so, I can only hope the Cuban government will continue to subsidize art education. Whatever happens, I believe changes to the system will not occur as quickly as some Americans think. Cubans are very proud people, who have been fighting for their independence long before the Revolution of 1959. And the crop of Cuban officials under Raul Castro plan to continue their socialist agenda.

Maybe it will take a full generation after Fidel to really notice a difference in the arts and in the society in general.

Do you know how much has changed for Los Carpinteros since you filmed their story back in 2006? Has there been any political backlash for the views they voiced in the piece?
From what I know, they haven't experienced any major backlash. They have continued traveling to art exhibitions around the world and their work continues to sell very well. It seems like their biggest obstacle has been the United States, for not granting them visas.

I'm not in close touch with them, so I don't know all of the details. Maybe repercussions have occurred in more subtle ways, although, Los Carpinteros have not told me this.  Also, it's difficult to find out what is happening through email or phone, since the government supposedly monitors mass communication. I don't know if people are censoring their messages. Life in Cuba is more complicated than we can imagine.

This interview has been updated from the original published in September 2006.