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Video and Synopsis

Rendition



Opening to the rhythms of Cuban salsa music and a shot of the lighthouse at the tip of Havana's coast, reporter Natasha Del Toro’s story reminds us of an island nation long known for its revolution, retro cars, and its music. But now, she says, Cuba is offering a new kind of revolution: art.

As Del Toro visits arts schools and browses through colorful street markets in Havana, she reports that art has long been at the center of Cuban culture, and under Fidel Castro, it became a tool for spreading socialist ideals. Castro opened free art schools and cultural centers for the masses. But in the 1990s, a further transformation took place – art developed into a tool for profit.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Del Toro reports that Cuba lost subsidies from Russia, and Castro turned to tourism and U.S. dollars for economic relief. The Cuban art scene was suddenly big business. Many artists began to profit from their art for the first time, and some attracted international acclaim.

To find out how this transformation has changed the lives of some in Cuba, Del Toro met artists Marco Castillo and Dago Rodriguez at their studio in Havana. They make up the successful art duo Los Carpinteros, or The Carpenters, and they are known for their handcrafted objects and sculpture.

“Artists live much better here than lawyers,” explains Castillo. “It’s the reverse of what happens in other parts of the world.” Still, Rodriguez remembers the 1990s, the time before the art boom, as “horrible – no food, no light, no public transportation.” Then, the Los Carpinteros artists struggled like so many others living through the country’s tough times.

While everyday necessities were scarce, the basics for building art were not always so hard to come by. The two men found many of their supplies by rummaging through houses abandoned by rich Cubans who had fled the island when Castro took over.

“For us, it was paradise,” says Castillo. “There were all sorts of interesting materials, like marble and wood.” The two artists also scavenged the grounds of the old Havana Country Club. From the materials they collected, Los Carpinteros created some of their earliest works of art.

The rest of the world got its first real taste of Cuba’s artistic talent in 1994 at the Havana Biennial. The contemporary art expo caused a ripple in international art circles and set off a wave of sales. Visitors to the show discovered Los Carpinteros, and the artists were launched into the creative spotlight.

Art curator Dan Cameron remembers the excitement of being at the event. “There was a kind of frenzy,” he tells Del Toro. “You cashed out a bankroll of several hundred dollar bills, and you peeled off a couple hundreds when you entered the studio of an artist you thought was doing really good work. “

Today, the sculptures and paintings of Los Carpinteros are displayed in museums around the world, including MoMA’s permanent collection in New York. Latin American art curator Noel Smith tells Del Toro that the duo’s sculptures sell for $50,000 or $60,000 a piece, an incredible figure by Cuban standards, particularly when one considers that the average doctor only makes about $30 a month in Cuba.

Their art is also known for challenging Castro’s socialist revolution. One of their boldest pieces, a fallen lighthouse, sold to the Tate Gallery in London for $100,000. It’s a social commentary about the system Castillo and Rodriguez grew up in.

“A lighthouse isn’t supposed to be lying on its side, fallen, suffering. It’s not supposed to – you’ll never see that,” says Castillo. “I don’t want this country to be conservative and on the right; I’d like it to continue being socialist. But to the leftist fanatics, I would like to tell them that this is not the paradise that they dream it to be. This is a very difficult country, and it needs to change.”

Visibly uncomfortable with his creative partner’s response, Rodriguez throws back his head and replies, “Oh, goodness! Marco wants to change politics.”

When Del Toro presses Castillo on what change he means? He doesn’t flinch.

“A new government for starters,” he says, with a mischievous smile.

The global success of Cuban art has meant that the government has allowed more freedom of expression and greater freedom to travel for people like Rodriguez and Castillo.

But it hasn’t always been easy for them to take advantage of this freedom. Castillo explains that they have an opening in a few days. “And we can’t go,” Rodriguez interjects. “We don’t have the visa yet.”

They’ve been prevented from attending a number of their openings in the past, including a big solo show in Florida and one at the Guggenheim in New York. But it wasn’t the Cuban government preventing them from traveling, but the United Sates government.

Under President George W. Bush, many Cuban artists have been kept out of the United States. Castillo and Rodriguez believe these travel restrictions are undermining the cultural ties that they and others have been working to build with America.

“I don’t think it’s working in political terms,” Rodriguez tells the reporter. “The only thing it’s doing is cutting the interchange of ideas, which is very important at this moment for this country.”

“For both countries,” adds Castillo.

For now, Cuba’s art revolution remains very much tied to the politics of this island nation and its thorny relationship with the United States.

share your reactions

Scott Wardinsky
Portland, Or.

Thank you for a fair and unbiased view of cultural happenings in Cuba. As someone who spent the better part of the '90s organizing cultural exchanges between Cuban musicians and dancers and their American counterparts, I can attest to the social value of the free exchange of information and ideas.

On many occasions whether it was a workshop or a concert, I witnessed countless sets of eyes being opened and attitudes being changed by both the Americans and Cubans involved as a result of encounters that were basically free of political motives.

Unfortunately since the Bush administration has been in power the number of P2 and 3 (cultural) visas issued to Cubans has been close to zero. This reflects a great loss for the people of the US and Cuba and increases the need for more shows like Del Toro's.

Kudos to Frontline and all who strive to build Bridges and not Blockades. Pa'lante, Scott

(anonymous)
Great report on art and politics in Cuba. It's sad that the Bush Administration would restrict their art!

Jona Ricci
Belleair/Clearwater, Florida

Not a single comment you've posted so far points out that, first: Los Carpinteros are greedy thieves, as they steal much of the materials. Second: not one reference to them using the obscene amout of money for anything but their own selfish house and car-collecting. Don't dare give them a visa to the USA - we don't need this kind of influence here!

FRONTLINE/World's editors respond:
Reporter Natasha Del Toro responds:

Los Carpinteros, like many other Cuban artists, found and took materials from abandoned houses for their art work at a time of severe economic crisis in the early 1990s. Obtaining art materials in Cuba was (and still is) incredibly difficult and expensive. This is one reason why so many Cuban artists use recycled materials. Necessity is the mother of invention.

I included this point in the film as a comedic anecdote to illustrate Cuban artists' creativity within desperate conditions, not as a statement about Los Carpinteros' moral fiber. This happened more than 15 years ago and has nothing to do with their present day situation.

Los Carpinteros no longer have to "steal," as they can afford to buy their art materials. When they can't find or import the art materials they need in Cuba, they go to Brazil or somewhere else to make art.

Thank you for raising your second point, as I did not have time to address the issue of "self-fishness" in the 7 and half minutes allotted for my story. Los Carpinteros and many other successful Cuban artists are famous for providing for their family and friends (and sometimes, their whole neighborhood!) from the profits of their art work. These guys are not only gracious and humble, but generous.

MICHAEL MINOR
MIAMI, FLORIDA

I HAVE VISITED CUBA SEVERAL TIMES AND HAVE SEEN THE COMMUNIST REVOLUTION DESTROY AN ENTIRE COUNTRY. JUST TO SURVIVE AND BE ABLE TO CREATE ART IS A MIRACLE. MORE NEEDS TO BE TOLD OF THE BRAVE CUBAN ARTISTS.

Jorge Gonzalez
Winter Haven, Florida

Alexis Sarti's comment about "Castro's dictatorship" sounds to me like the typical comment of Cuban exiles, which came to live "the good life" in the USA. Cuba's present government is a vast improvement over the one headed by U.S. puppet Fulgencio Batista.

chicago, il
One step closer.

Alex Sardi
los angeles, ca

The only thing I object to is the continous reference to Castro's dictatorship as "socialist revolution". Honestly, it is neither.

Angel Cespedes
Miami, Florida

Natasha, congratulations for this article.The USA government must change his politics with relation to Cuba. Ten North American administrations: Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush father, Clinton and Bush son, have practised a mistaken politics towards Cuba. It is time already for logic and common sense to replace failed policies.

New York, NY
What an interesting story. There are so many layers here I don't know where to begin. I'm very impressed that Frontline/World presented this piece of reporting on how artists are both resisting and profiting from the Cuban regime. It really dissects the limited types of capitalism used in countries like Cuba or China, where there are no human rights or real democracy, yet a few ingenious people can profit for their own gain. Fantastic piece!

natasha rankow
london

I thought this a wonderful piece about a world we actually never hear about. It does not diminish the politics of the country but also does not deny that creative lives are lived despite it.

(anonymous)
Apparently any story that doesn't make clear that Castro is a Commie Bogeyman is leftist according to our anonymous friend from San Jose. He wouldn't be a former Miami resident would he? Sounds like their self serving rhetoric of an "exiled" Cuban to me. They enjoy picketing to uphold the embargo with a sign in one hand, and stuffing their faces with Big Macs with the other. While their fellow Cubans live on 3 soy burgers a day. How brave they are fighting a long distance revolution. At least Natasha and PBS have the guts to set foot on Cuban soil!

San Jose, CA
While first two stories were fine,this one on Ciba has the expected PBS leftist bias. Your program heralds "freedom of artists", but does not criticize the complete political dictatorship in Cuba! What about elections and freedom of the press? You are so predictably left-wing!

Josh Kahn
Los Angeles, CA

I really liked this video because it opened my eyes to a world I had little idea existed. I thought it was amazing to learn that popular artists earn more money in Cuba than doctors -- and I was equally stunned to discover that $30 a month constitutes a typical physician's salary. It's unfortunate that President Bush makes it so difficult for Cubans and Americans to visit each other's country because doing so would bring a wealth of ideas to Cuba and to the U.S.

Atlanta, GA
I am pleased to see more balanced reporting about Cuba...

Los Carpinteros are an example of Cuban ingenuity and the resilience of the Cuban people, in general. The real story is whether the USA will have the moral fortitude to back off a failed policy of animus against a sovereign nation which chose to be different.

Will the next administration in Washington have the chutzpah to "do the right thing": eliminate the blockade and talk to the new administration in Cuba. There are young socialists there who will, like our young here, have to decide for themselves how to live peaceably -- without American intervention into another nation's sovereign affairs.

I am happy for the artists and while they may be enjoying their newly found "wealth"; I hope they can quickly learn how much of their earnings would be greedily gulped [taxes, high rents, etc] in the American economy, if they lived only 90 miles north of their native land.

Ginger Pack
Houston, Texas

This piece just showcases again the amazing stupidity of the Bush Administration and shows what an utter moron the president is. Every educated person knows that is the arts that lead to new ideas and that change societies. That is why every dictator bans any expression of them. GIVE THESE TALENTED ARTISTS A VISA MR. BUSH!!!

Haitian Hillbilly
K-Bik, Haiti

Another great piece of art/political reporting, Natasha. Keep up the great work.