Cuba on My Mind: Legal Implications of Accessing Cuban Art
by Lesley Sotolongo, Esq.
Following the rise to power of Fidel Castro in 1959, a declining economy made preserving Cuba’s cultural property and accessing contemporary artworks increasingly difficult. Because of the Communist regime, the U.S. embargo was ratified in 1962 causing Cuba’s cultural heritage to suffer and art works to be illegally exported into the U.S. Furthermore, the embargo prohibited U.S. museums from exchanging information relating to its conservation efforts with the Cuban government. Despite the high demand for Cuban fine art worldwide, contemporary Cuban painters were not allowed to sell their paintings to the U.S. or to work with auction houses such as Christie’s or Sotheby’s. In fact, Cuban artists have basically no freedom of speech rights evidenced by recent arrests of more than a dozen artists and activists prior to their participation in an open-mic performance planned in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolucion. (Read about Cuban activists arrests in December 2014). Thus, access to Cuban artworks in the U.S. has been significantly curtailed due to the bureaucratic obstacles for both Cubans and Americans. Recently, President Obama has taken executive action to restore diplomatic ties with Cuba and has called on Congress to formally overturn its sanctions, effectively ending the 55 year embargo. Until Congress takes further action the embargo is still in effect.
Still, there have been some Cuban art exhibitions in the U.S. Last year, the McMullen Museum of Art at Boston College organized an exhibit titled “Wilfredo Lam: Imagining New Worlds” with works by this important Cuban artist contextualized as an international figure in 20th-century art history. Furthermore, Abel Barroso, Jorge López Pardo, J. Roberto Diago, Meira Marrero and José Toirac are the headliners of “Permutations: Contemporary Cuban Art at Pan American Art Projects” in Miami, FL. The show reflects on the various strategies that the artists use to comment on social and political realities in Cuba as well as in a broader global context.
In fact, Cuban pieces are increasingly sought out by collectors, fueling illegal exports of their works from Cuba. According to David D’Arcy writing for The Art Newspaper, a missing Havana painting discovered in a Miami art gallery last year increased the toll of works stolen from Cuba’s National Museum of Fine Art in Havana to 95 works. The theft of Eduardo Abela’s painting, Carnaval Infantil, was originally housed at the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana. Cuban officials from the National Council of Cultural Heritage stated that the works were cut directly from their frames while in storage, making it difficult to detect the theft. The statement made by the Cuban government indicated a willingness to work with proper authorities inside or outside of Cuba in order to alert museums, galleries, auction houses and others of similar thefts. This case is significant because art theft is relatively rare in Cuba given that museums are tightly guarded and artwork is usually inspected by the Cuban military officers before it leaves the country. The Cuban government has become increasingly aware of this problem and is anxious to find a solution to reclaim its valuable works. However, Cuba’s suffering economy and current laws in the U.S. make this a difficult task.
One legal exception makes it feasible for artworks to be exported from Cuba. Marco A. Gonzalez, Jr., Esq., a partner at Nicoll, Davis, & Spinella LLP, sat down with Center for Art Law to discuss some relevant U.S. law and the ongoing effects of the embargo. Gonzalez explained a little-known exception to the U.S. embargo for cultural assets. Under the Cuban Assets Control Regulations § 515.206(a) information and informational materials are exempt types of transactions stating in part,
“the importation from any country and the exportation to any country of information or informational materials as defined in § 515.332, whether commercial or otherwise, regardless of format or medium of transmission, are exempt from the prohibitions and regulations of this part except for payments owed to Cuba for telecommunications services between Cuba and the United States.” 31 C.F.R. § 515.206(a) (West 2013).
Under § 515.332, the term information and informational materials includes, (1) Publications, films, posters, phonograph records, photographs, microfilms, microfiche, tapes, compact disks, CD ROMs, artworks, news wire feeds, and other information and informational articles. Specifically, artworks must be classified under Chapter subheading 9701, 9702, or 9703 of the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States. Unlike cigars or rum, which are considered commercial products, the U.S. government classifies Cuban artworks as cultural assets, and thus it is legal for Americans to bring artworks that are included under this law into the U.S. However, this is not always a great idea because the crime of counterfeiting of works and falsifying authentication has become a problem in Cuba. Thus, travelers should be aware of the possibility that they might not be getting what they bargained for.
Since 2003, traveling to Cuba from the U.S. has been highly restricted and now President Obama wishes to ease those restrictions. Previously, only religious, educational, and cultural groups could legally travel to Cuba, and with specific permission from the U.S. State Department. Recently, there were several attempts in the 112th Congress aimed at rolling back the Obama Administration’s actions easing restrictions on travel and remittances, but none of these were approved. Several legislative initiatives were also introduced that would have further eased or lifted such restrictions altogether, but no action was taken on these measures.
Nevertheless, Americans still cannot simply book a flight and head to Cuba. In order to travel to Cuba the traveler must book the trip with a Cuban travel agency that has an official license from the U.S. State Department. While the tour may include stops at museums or historic sites, purely recreational activities such as visiting the gorgeous beaches are prohibited from tour itineraries. Thus, travel and bringing home artwork is possible with the exercise of caution.
Whether exported illegally or not, the fact is that Cuban art remains coveted despite the trade embargo that might very well be overturned in the near future. Thus, the art world awaits the feasibility of obtaining works created by Cuban artists not only to increase accessibility to Cuban cultural production in the U.S., but also to allow for repatriation of many stolen and misplaced works.
Cuban Assets Control Regulations, § 515.
D’Arcy, David, “Stolen paintings from Havana turn up in Miami,” The ArtNewspaper (Mar. 2, 2014 ) available at http://goo.gl/R4wM73
About the Author: Lesley Sotolongo is an intellectual property attorney. She may be reached at Lesley.Sotolongo@law.cardozo.yu.edu.
Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.