Kabakovs’ Cuban project provokes US government in election year
American children allowed to travel to Havana only after last-minute appeal
By Charmaine Picard. News, Issue 236, June 2012
Published online: 30 May 2012
A project by the artists Ilya and Emilia Kabakov during the 11th Havana Biennial was nearly derailed when the US Department of the Treasury denied the artists the necessary public performance and exhibition licence that would allow five US children to travel to Havana, saying the project was “not consistent with the current US policy on Cuba”.
“We had help from senators, congressmen and people in the art world trying to find out why we were denied the licence,” says Emilia Kabakov, who trained as a classical pianist in the Soviet Union before becoming a visual artist. According to the Kabakovs, their application had been sent to the US Department of State for further review because their project was seen as politically sensitive and would receive international attention as part of the Havana Biennial.
A government official, who declined to be named for this article, says the state department was afraid that the American children would be used for political propaganda by the Cuban government. “Our argument to the state department was if the US doesn’t allow the children to come, then we will have a political situation,” Emilia Kabakov says. “Russian children are free to come but Americans are not. We live in a free country, so why can’t we bring this message to Cuba?”
After winning an appeal, the Kabakovs’ Ship of Tolerance opened at the Oratorio San Felipe Neri in Havana on 10 May, with a classical music concert performed by children from the US, Russia and Cuba.
Under the US trade embargo in force since 1963, American citizens can only travel to Cuba with organisations that are licensed by the treasury department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (Ofac). According to Ofac, the estimated number of US travellers to Cuba in 2011 was around 390,000. When asked about the review process, Jeff Braunger, of the treasury department, says by email: “Licensing determinations are based on whether the applicant has satisfied the licensing criteria and will be engaging in activities that fall within the scope of current US policy.”
Once the Kabakovs learned that their application had been denied, in mid-April, the artists immediately organised and filmed a concert with American children, preparing a video that could be shown alongside the live classical performances of their Russian and Cuban counterparts. They also appealed against the decision, and just seven days before the opening of their exhibition in Cuba, they received word that their licence had been approved by the treasury department.
The children’s concert took place before the unveiling of the installation at the Castillo de la Real Fuerza on 11 May. Five-hundred Cuban children participated in the project, making paintings on the subject of tolerance that were sewn together to create the sail for the 66-foot-long by 23-foot-wide wooden ship, which was built on-site by a team of carpenters from Manchester College, UK, and local student carpenters from the Escuela Taller (workshop school) in Havana. The installation will remain in Cuba as a gift from the Kabakovs.
When asked what the project meant for the Cuban people, the director of the biennial, Jorge Fernández, says: “It represents hope. If the children of our three countries can work together, it’s a lesson for adults.” The Russian ambassador to Cuba, Mikhail Kamynin, was less circumspect in his response saying: “We have to be tolerant of the political regime that exists, we have to respect the will of the people of sovereign countries; it’s not by accident that only three countries, the United States, Israel and the Marshall Islands, voted against the UN resolution to end the embargo.”
Russia and the US government both have chequered relationships with Cuba. While Cuba received annual subsidies worth around $5bn from their Cold War ally before the fall of the Soviet Union, many who lived through the “special period” in the early 1990s when the Russian government withdrew economic support came to view their former benefactors as traitors and occupiers.
As for the US, the economic embargo continues to make everyday living difficult. Although President Obama reinstituted people-to-people travel licences for cultural exchange in January 2011 and also increased the dollar amount family members are allowed to send back to Cuba, economic conditions remain bleak for the 11 million on the island, where the average income is just $20 per month. Miami-based Cuban-Americans who back the embargo have a strong lobby in Congress, and during this election year it is unlikely that President Obama will loosen restrictions further as Florida is a swing state.
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