Repealing 50 years of censorship, the Cuban government has quietly informed the country’s radio stations that they are no longer banned from playing specific artists. The blacklist, which was never published – as that would be an admission by the Cuban government that they censored their media – included exiled artists like Gloria Estefan and Celia Cruz.
The BBC broke the news earlier this month, saying they had received reports from Havana radio staff that there had been a government meeting and they’d decided the list served its purpose,” but was now out of date.
This may be a sign of Cuba easing its cultural separation from the world but it’s loosening censorship has not yet been tested by the radio stations.
The government gripped the broadcast community quickly following the 1959 revolution, nationalising all of Cuba’s radio stations in 1960. Messages would have been passed down to the station operators concerning what was seen as appropriate and inappropriate for broadcast. Also, with a good many executions of ‘enemies of the state’, a practice of self-censorship developed in all the country’s media.
Cuba’s legal system, which carried over from the previous regime, already provided little defense for those that were perceived to attack the state:
Those who “threatens, libels or slanders, defames, affronts (injuria) or in any other way insults (ultraje) or offends, with the spoken word or in writing, the dignity or decorum of an authority, public functionary, or his agents or auxiliaries” can receive up to a year in prison.
And following Castro’s move into office the law was made harsher. If the target was higher up the chain, say “the President of the Council of the State, the President of the National Assembly of Popular Power, the members of the Council of the State or the Council of Ministers, or the Deputies of the National Assembly of the Popular Power, the sanction is deprivation of liberty for one to three years.” In the case of music and radio broadcast, the law is not specific to the artist who created the track and could include someone who promotes it through their radio station. So there was a strong incentive to not oppose the government’s blacklist.
In 1963 Soviet-supplied technology was used to jam outside broadcasts from countries like the US, creating a bubble in which the only radio broadcasts were from domestic stations. Rock & Roll, Jazz, and American musicians, whilst not outright banned, were severely reduced in their playtime.
The blacklist ban wasn’t simply for musicians who held a vocally critical stance against the Cuban government. Rather some found their place on it due to where they lived. Internationally-renowned Celia Cruz was banned, despite her popularity in the country, because following the Revolution she and her husband refused to move back to the Cuba from their home in America. This was enough to consider her a political exile and worth banning. Then, over the years, Celia became an outspoken critic of the government and their censorship.
Gloria Estefan’s place on the list is a little more political. Her father worked as a guard for Batista, the dictator deposed in the 1959 revolution. He fled the country ahead of the reprisals, taking his family with him to America. For her ties to the previous regime and her American residence, Estefan was banned from the airwaves.
The news that the blacklist has been repealed is symbolically significant. It could be a sign of a cultural opening on the part of the Cuban government, but with the laws restricting free speech still in place, radio stations will still not know if they are actually free to play the previously banned musicians or not.