What it’s like to be an artist in exile in Cuba

Written by Cynthia Launius

You know that classic movie I mentioned when I was putting the play together? “The Lady from Shanghai?” I decided to re-create that in some small way. The inspiration for this was an actual trip to the island of Cuba where I was able to visit many of the sites, learn about the history and meet with the leading Cuban activists of today, among them Miguel Díaz-Canel, the Vice President of the Council of State and People’s Power (CSPPP).

He told me that he read my play in which my protagonist, Lea, is told that she is leaving Cuba forever, to become a star in China. While she protests that the story is pure fiction, it was a powerful moment.

I knew that there were certain barriers in place that wouldn’t allow her to leave Cuba as fast as I imagined. I also knew that over the last five decades, the Cuban government has used as a tool cultural nationalism to quash dissent and protect themselves.

During the play, Lea is in exile in China. Lea and other dissidents visit characters from old books to highlight the benefits and danger that Chinese culture has brought to Cuba, and then try to come up with some new classics.

Historically, the very idea of literary freedom being protected is false in Cuba. Every one of my characters has tried to leave Cuba, been stopped by the regime, and even been tried and arrested.

The irony is that Cuban cultural nationalism has worked extremely well for Cuba’s former leadership and Cuba’s current political transition, propelling Cuba and its elite to a level of prosperity and well-being that is far beyond Cuba’s borders.

Playwright Cynthia Launius addresses the political situation in Cuba in “Who’s in Exile.” Credit: Cynthia Launius

But still the Cubans continue to need some high-profile ways to get their message out. I think we have reached that point where Cuban artists need to speak out in as honest a way as possible. We really cannot keep on being invisible to the Cuban government, even as great writers and artists.

This play is very different from the classics I was talking about with Lea and the scenes I’ve seen of this play on stage, in a way. It’s just so true. I was just reading a piece on CBS news in which this very essayist, Ms. Bernadette Schalansky, said: “For Cuba to escape complete submission to the U.S. policy of exile, it would need to find more than a single means to move against the U.S. Without that support, as hard as it may be, it will remain a captive, not free.”

I don’t believe the Cuban government would think of allowing the play to continue in Cuba itself. It really is more about facilitating and supporting the work of creators here in Cuba to do what they do, both through our play and other projects here, because we already know that there are American audiences who can’t and won’t make it to Havana. We need to keep the momentum going because it’s just a matter of time before our regime realizes it will lose its grip on the island.

This story is excerpted from the book They Fought for Cuba: A Novelist in Exile by Cynthia Launius. It is available now from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The 10-day tour dates are detailed below.

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