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The Arts | Sanctions' Impact on Cultural Heritage: Iran and the Case of Cuba


17 Oct 2012 19:19Comments

Doing damage with a broad brush.

Gerardo Contino is a lawyer specializing in intellectual property. He has worked in the arts for over a decade in Cuba and the United States.
[ comment ] Since the beginning of 2012, increasingly severe economic sanctions have been imposed on Iran because of its nuclear program. The situation in the Islamic Republic took a critical turn this month as its currency dropped to an all-time low, producing an unprecedented economic crisis that reminds me of the situation in Cuba over the past 50 years. Compounding the suffering experienced by ordinary citizens, harsh economic sanctions are also detrimental to cultural heritage and the arts.

As a Cuban citizen, I experienced the U.S. embargo first hand and remember well when, in 1989, the Soviet Union collapsed and Cuba entered "the special period." The 1990s was a decade of extreme economic depression in Cuba: the country lost 80 percent of its imports and exports. Since 1992, the U.N. General Assembly has annually condemned the embargo against Cuba, declaring it to be a violation of international law due to the fact that it neither targets a foreign entity present on U.S. territory, nor is it designed to regulate the conduct of American citizens abroad. In 2011, 186 countries voted for the resolution to condemn the embargo, with only two opposed: the United States and Israel. The devastating effects of the embargo on the Cuban economy are well documented, but what is rarely talked about when it comes to sanctions are their impact on cultural heritage and the arts.

Cuba's cultural heritage has been a primary victim of the embargo, as Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums, discovered in 2009. Bell visited Havana that year with the intention of learning about Cuban museums and discussing the possibilities for an open dialogue between the United States and Cuba. He was impressed with the organization and sheer number of museums in Cuba (at the time of his visit, Cuba had 315 museums, one for every 36,000 people; the ratio in the United States is 1 to 50,000). However, when he visited the Centro Nacional de Conservación, Restauración y Museología, where 32 conservators work on objects from Cuba's museums, historic buildings, and churches, he saw that the embargo prohibited the exchange of the latest knowledge and expertise related to conservation.

Cuban scholars cannot participate in conferences and professional meetings in the United States, and American scholars cannot participate in international conferences organized by Cuba. The embargo effectively prevents the creation of enterprises involving foreign investors aimed at the conservation and repair of monuments and other cultural objects and bars Cuba from accessing many potential sources of financial aid for such work. Furthermore, the U.S. government has pressured European entities that provide technological support for cultural conservation in Cuba to end their cooperation.

In the world of fine art, despite the high demand for their work, contemporary Cuban painters are not allowed to send their paintings to the United States for sale or to work with major auction houses such as Christie's and Sotheby's. Exhibiting work in the United States is technically possible, but extremely difficult to arrange given the multiple bureaucratic obstacles that must be navigated and the absence of normal transportation and insurance services.

Sweeping economic sanctions exact a deep toll from cultural heritage and the arts. As the United States and its allies continue to exert economic pressure on Iran, those of us who care about and work in the arts should be aware of the negative effects such actions have on cultural production and cultural preservation. The severe sanctions imposed on Cuba and Iran go beyond the interest of any government in their impact on people and their culture.

Photo credit: Paintings by Iranian artists Afshin Pirhashemi (above, via Art Persia Facebook) and Mehrdad Mohebali (homepage), at Christie's auction of "Modern and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art", at Dubai's Jumeirah Emirates Towers Hotel.

Copyright © 2012 Tehran Bureau

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