Freedom of Expression and Censorship

March 11, 2021

The Caribbean has a mixed record with regards to freedom of expression issues, with significant differences over time and across geography, which is tied mainly to political circumstance and the presence or absence of a robust, socially inclusive democracy and independent press, and a well-developed civil society. The subject has taken on additional significance in the present age of social media and new information, communication, and surveillance technologies, along with changing social norms. In this roundtable, we examined the general issues and principles involved, but also looked at specific cases, particularly the current agitation for greater artistic and civic freedoms in Cuba.

Panellists: Coco Fusco (artist and cultural activist, USA), Guy Regis Jr. (theatre practitioner, Haiti), Brendan de Caires (journalist and ED, Pen Canada, Guyana/Canada), Taynia Nethersole (lawyer and art collector, Jamaica).

Discussants: Tessa Mars (artist, Haiti), Joiri Minaya (artist, USA/Dominican Republic), Ada M. Patterson (artist and critic, Barbados)

Moderator: Veerle Poupeye (lead researcher, CCF Feasibility Study, Kingston, Jamaica)

Coco Fusco provided an incisive overview of the history and current situation in Cuba with the San Isidro movement, a movement of artists, writers and intellectuals that has been agitating through creative action for greater cultural and social freedoms, and the repressive response by the powerful Cuban state apparatus. Guy Regis spoke about his theatre practice, the theatre of the streets in Haiti, and its role in giving voice to the voiceless and the unspoken. Brendan de Caires shared his recollections of the repressive social and cultural environment under the Forbes Burnham regime in Guyana and the artistic response at the time. Taynia Nethersole, finally, provided an overview of the legal framework regarding freedom of expression and censorship in Jamaica, which is generally representative for the Anglophone Caribbean, and spoke about specific incidents in Jamaica with regards to perceived obscenity in art.

Key points in the discussion were:

1. The importance of freedom of expression to a healthy and inclusive cultural ecology: Freedom of expression issues arise at different levels in the Caribbean, from direct, publicly visible political censorship to more subtle but often equally repressive forms of social pressure, for instance against LGBTQ identities and cultural expressions. Voicelessness and social invisibility remain as major social issues for marginalized and oppressed groups. The arts can make a major difference there. The importance of being open to marginal and emerging cultural forms. While vulnerable and under-supported, such expressions are critical to social and cultural inclusion and are often the voice of the future.

2. Solidarity: The need for, and power of collective solidarity when such freedom of expression issues arise. Solidarity is important on a regional level and could, for instance, make a major difference with the situation in Cuba. This should not be construed as being inherently hostile to Cuba and the Cuban revolution.

3. Understanding the political, legal and financial frameworks: There needs to be a good grasp of the political, legal and financial frameworks and banking regulations to make effective interventions and to ensure that funding and other support relevant to freedom of expression issues reaches where it is needed and intended. This is particularly important in countries with authoritarian, centralized governments such as Cuba.

The video below is an edited excerpt of what was a 2-hour Zoom conversation.