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Topsy-Turvy Laws, Trendiness Bring Cuban Artists Riches

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In this May 21, 2015, file photo, people sit on deck chairs on an artificial beach as a bride and groom ride a classic American convertible car on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, Thursday. The beach’s 40-year-old creator, Arles del Rio, sold a piece featured at the last biennial for $11,875, more than 40 times the annual salary of an ordinary Cuban. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan, File)

In this May 21, 2015, file photo, people sit on deck chairs on an artificial beach as a bride and groom ride a classic American convertible car on the Malecon in Havana, Cuba, Thursday. The beach’s 40-year-old creator, Arles del Rio, sold a piece featured at the last biennial for $11,875, more than 40 times the annual salary of an ordinary Cuban. (AP Photo/Desmond Boylan, File)

ANDREA RODRIGUEZ, Associated Press

HAVANA (AP) — Late one balmy spring night during Havana’s 12th Biennial, young working-class men and women lounged on a stretch of sand dotted with folding chairs and umbrellas, an artificial beach created as an art installation on the capital’s Malecon seaside promenade.

Meanwhile, at Sotheby’s auction house in New York, the beach’s 40-year-old creator, Arles del Rio, sold another piece featured at the last biennial for $11,875, more than 40 times the annual salary of an ordinary Cuban. The piece, titled “Fly Away,” is made of chain-link fence with a hole in the shape of a jet, making it appear the plane flew right through it.

Cuba’s growing international trendiness combined with the government’s topsy-turvy labor regulations are making sculptors, painters and other artists some of the richest people on the island. It’s a demonstration both of Cuba’s accomplishments in culture and education, as well as its economic difficulties after a half-century of communism.

“When I was in art school, my parents almost threw me out of the house because I hadn’t chosen a ‘real’ career,” said printmaker Max Delgado. “These days, there’s real competition among kids studying music or painting.”

Cuba allows its citizens to work in hundreds of types of private jobs outside the state-run economy but virtually none of those positions allow entrepreneurs to create real wealth. The island’s most potentially profitable business sectors and professions remain entirely under control of the state, which currently pays an average salary of a little more than $23 a month, or about $280 a year, in addition to the heavily subsidized health and other government services everyone gets.

But an exception was created at the end of the 1980s, when independent artists became some of the first Cubans that the government allowed to earn money outside the confines of the state and keep the profits from the direct sales of their work, sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars.

That has created a tiny class of artists who are wealthy by Cuban standards and can divide their time between the island and countries such as the United States or Spain. They can duck Cuba’s roughly 50 percent income tax on works sold outside Cuba.

Cuban economist Arturo Lopez-Levy, a lecturer at the University of Denver, said that under the island’s bifurcated economy most people earn puny state salaries while those with access to foreign money like the top-end artists can live like kings.

In the Sotheby’s auction two weeks ago, the works of Cuban artists surpassed expectations. One piece by Alexandro Arrechea went for $118,000, a lot of three pieces by a pair of artists who call themselves Los Carpinteros captured $60,000, and a sculpture by the artists’ collective “The Merger” got $50,000.

“This situation is due above all to the creation of a two-lane economy, with one sector connected to the market and another with the remnants of the command economy inherited from the 1970s, ’80s and ’90s,” Lopez-Levy said.

Along with medicine and science, art and music are fields in which small, poor Cuba punches far above its weight. While it treats medicine and scientific research as resources to be jealously guarded for the good of the nation, the government has seen artists and musicians as valued cultural ambassadors who are afforded special treatment.

The phenomenon is only expected to grow with warming ties between Cuba and the U.S. The detente is allowing more American visitors, including wealthy art collectors, to travel legally to the island on “educational” tours that often include the purchase of art, which can be legally exported back to the United States.

Organizers of the 2015 Biennial that opened May 22 have said they expect 2,500 Americans will visit this year’s fair, many of them art buyers, before it wraps up on June 22.

Don Pappalardo, founder and CEO of Troika, an arts and entertainment marketing consultancy in Southern California, said Cuba is “is one of the most vital areas for contemporary art in the world today.”

“Growing hype around Cuba will likely attract collectors who are looking for the next big thing,” Pappalardo, himself an avid collector of Latin American works, said during a visit to Havana Biennial. “Some prices will go up, which is great for the artists. Some prices may go crazy, which is great for investment collectors but not always great for everyone else.”

Many of the visiting Americans are touring middle-class Havana neighborhoods dotted with immaculately restored homes where the artists live and have created private galleries of their work.

“Compared to the median they live very well,” Rafael Acosta de Arriba, an art critic and former head of the National Fine Arts Council, said of Cuba’s artists. “Cuban artists are very well compensated, but from abroad because in Cuba there is no domestic art market.”

Top painters, sculptors and other artists, for instance, are among the very few Cubans who regularly patronize high-priced private restaurants that cater mainly to foreigners.

For the artists themselves, the situation is a lucky combination of the quality of their art and an economy that has left them in a position of unexpected privilege.

“Cuban art is gaining fans,” Delgado said. “You can take advantage of earning at global prices and living and working here.”

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Associated Press writer Beth J. Harpaz contributed to this report from Havana.

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Andrea Rodriguez on Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/ARodriguezAP

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Commentary

COMMENTARY: Muslims in France Face Worsening Climate of Hate Under Leadership of President Macron

For France, which colonized Algeria for more than a century, the idea that people from the former colonies should live the life they want seems unbearable. Many white French people seem to have a fear that those from the former colonies may want to treat the descendants of the European French in the same way that the colonial masters treated us. Assuming always the worst for its Muslim citizens says a lot about the country and its beliefs.

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A demonstration in France by Muslims protesting their treatment under President Macron in 2020.
A demonstration in France by Muslims protesting their treatment under President Macron in 2020.

By Larbi Ben Krima

Editor’s Note: We are accustomed to hearing travel advisories telling us to avoid countries in the midst of civil war or government repression. Last month a Muslim civil rights organization warned Muslims not to travel to a country that many consider to be the birthplace of liberty. The author of this article, a French citizen, explains how France has become an oppressive place for Muslims.

I was born and raised in France to an Algerian family. I, like millions of other French citizens, heard about colonization and the mistreatment it created. There was some progress made, and now, piece by piece, that is being erased.

One year ago, in October 2020, French President Macron decided to launch his 2022 re-election campaign with a speech targeting Muslim people. He used terrorism as an excuse. Everybody in France knew it was really about politics, although the citizens of the world did not know that.

Macron’s government followed up by dissolving organizations that had criticized his Islamophobic government.

Schools, humanitarian NGO’s, mosques, publishing offices, and civil right movements with Muslim participants have been shut down by a government looking for Far Right votes in the next election.

France is still pretending to fight for rights around the world, but these rights are never really applied to its Muslim citizens, who are always seen as a Fifth Column and who always have to prove that they are French enough.

Every Muslim act is seen as a danger to the country. It seems that Muslim prayers threaten the French republic; Muslim food is seen as a challenge to the religion of other French people; and Muslim clothes are seen as an attempt to change France’s way of life. Most religions have special foods, and prayers and clothing. Having these customs should not be made so difficult for us after all these years. What’s the big deal?

For France, which colonized Algeria for more than a century, the idea that people from the former colonies should live the life they want seems unbearable. Many white French people seem to have a fear that those from the former colonies may want to treat the descendants of the European French in the same way that the colonial masters treated us. Assuming always the worst for its Muslim citizens says a lot about the country and its beliefs.

That may explain why this country, which refuses to take accountability for its colonial past, can’t accept the kids who are born and raised here.

Quoting the world-famous psychiatrist and political philosopher Frantz Fanon, “It should not be said that such and such a country is racist, but there are no lynchings or extermination camps there. The truth is, all of this and something more is on the horizon.”

We can say that racism runs deep in France’s institutions and politics, cheered on by the media, with applause from a substantial group who likes what they are hearing.

This is a country where an openly racist media pundit has growing support in his campaign for president, just as Donald Trump did.

France, which always despised the USA, has now became one of the United States of Islamophobia, along with China and India.

A former great country, known for its ideals, France has used its former glory around the world. Recently, the world has come to know what a very small country France has actually become a country that should stop preaching to others what it obviously refuses to apply to itself.

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Business

Opinion: Different Summit, Same Story for the Polluters, Politicians, Privileged and Poor at Global Climate Meeting

So far, Glasgow has heard a lot of talk. President Biden and other world leaders touted two ‘major’ agreements earlier this week. One commits to ending deforestation by 2030, and the other to cut planet-heating methane emissions by 30%. But these aren’t binding. They are promises, an invitation to take leaders at their word. Many of these leaders promised to halve deforestation by 2020 back at a New York summit in 2014, a promise that was quietly broken.

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Despite the looming catastrophe, a tour of the COP26 premises makes it very clear that at these talks, nothing has changed.
Despite the looming catastrophe, a tour of the COP26 premises makes it very clear that at these talks, nothing has changed.

By Louis Wilson, Special to California Black Media Partners

Global negotiations kicked off this week in Glasgow, Scotland, in what John Kerry, President Biden’s climate envoy, described as our ‘last best chance’ to avoid environmental disaster.

These talks matter to California – so much so that a delegation of elected and government officials led by Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis made the 5,000-mile trip.

The goal is simple: agree to a plan to reduce the emissions that cause dangerous heating. To do that, governments need to end our reliance on fossil fuels, and support less-wealthy nations and communities in their decarbonization process.

We’ve been here 25 times before. The 26th U.N. Climate Change Conference COP26 is a gathering of over 100 nations in search of a solution to the climate crisis. Sadly, since the first meeting in Berlin in 1995, global emissions have increased. By almost every measure, the climate crisis is getting worse. That’s visible to Californians in the record wildfires, drought, and extreme weather that has intensified in the past two years.

The science is clear – something needs to change right now, otherwise the climate will change it for us. The current business-as-usual trajectory is set to make the world somewhere between 4.5 degrees F to 5.4 degrees F hotter than it was before we started burning fossil fuels. That would mean more droughts, fire, hurricanes, famines, climate refugees, and the list goes on.

So far, Glasgow has heard a lot of talk. President Biden and other world leaders touted two ‘major’ agreements earlier this week. One commits to ending deforestation by 2030, and the other to cut planet-heating methane emissions by 30%. But these aren’t binding. They are promises, an invitation to take leaders at their word. Many of these leaders promised to halve deforestation by 2020 back at a New York summit in 2014, a promise that was quietly broken.

Despite the looming catastrophe, a tour of the COP26 premises makes it very clear that at these talks, nothing has changed. The same old faces are here – the politicians, the polluters, the big companies, and people representing privileged and largely white interests.

Companies sponsoring the talks for a seat at the center of the action include one of the world’s largest plastic polluters (Unilever), a bank (NatWest) that has financed billions of dollars’ worth of fossil fuel projects since 2015, and a consumer goods company (Reckitt) whose suppliers included, until very recently, companies tearing down one of the world’s last remaining tropical rainforests in Papua New Guinea.

One of these sponsors, SSE, is currently building a new fossil gas plant, even while hosting a friendly stall touting unproven future technologies that might eventually help reduce emissions. Reckitt, meanwhile, is organizing an official side-event titled ‘Changing Consumer Behaviour,’ which appears aimed at deflecting responsibility onto individuals.

Presumably, the main recommendation will be to steer clear of their products until they can remove deforestation from their supply chain.

While companies that have had a hand in causing the crisis are overrepresented, notably underrepresented are BIPOC communities, or representatives from the worst affected countries. It is, as many have called it, the richest, Whitest COP ever.

That’s a problem ethically, but it’s also a big problem because clearly, ‘business as usual’ hasn’t worked. If we want to prevent the worst of what is to come, we need to focus on the interests of people on the frontlines: those who lost their homes in wildfires this year, or who were forced off their land by agribusinesses, or whose air is being polluted by mining projects. We can no longer prioritize the narrow interests of a very noisy but destructive business community.

This matters for California – the state which has long been a leader in the U.S. on climate action but is suffering the most immediate impacts of the climate crisis right now. If Californians want this state to be liveable for future generations, we need to see through ambitious action at home – but we also need these global negotiations to be a success.

Right now, we’re on track for more warm words, more bold, unmet promises, and more degrees of global heating. Unless this COP and all future climate summits put the worst affected, most vulnerable communities first, we will continue on this disastrous path which will see California and many other parts of the globe become inhospitable for our descendants within generations.

Louis Wilson is a senior communications advisor with Global Witness, a climate advocacy group.

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Black History

U.N. Climate Summit: Black Caucus Member Isaac Bryan Is Representing California in Scotland 

Elected to his Assembly seat in May, Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) is mainly known for his work on social justice issues. But he has received praise for the multifocal approach he takes to standing up for environmental justice.

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During his campaign for the Assembly, Bryan received an endorsement from California Environmental Voters (EnviroVoters). The Sierra Club California also gave Bryan a score of 100% on its 2021 Legislative Report Card.
During his campaign for the Assembly, Bryan received an endorsement from California Environmental Voters (EnviroVoters). The Sierra Club California also gave Bryan a score of 100% on its 2021 Legislative Report Card.

By Aldon Thomas Stiles | California Black Media

Assemblymember Isaac Bryan (D-Los Angeles) is the only Black member of the California Legislature attending the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland this week.

Gov. Gavin Newsom is not present at the summit as he abruptly opted out last week, citing personal reasons.

“Due to family obligations, Governor Newsom will no longer be traveling to the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) and will instead be participating virtually, focusing on California’s landmark climate change policies,” Newsom’s spokesperson Erin Mellon said October 29.

Lt. Gov. Eleni Kounalakis is attending the conference in Newsom’s place.

The conference began Sunday, October 31 and will last through Friday, November 12. It is co-hosted by the United Kingdom and Italy.

Bryan, who represents California’s 54th district and serves as the Assembly’s Assistant Majority Whip, joins 22 government officials attending the conference. He is also a member of the California Legislative Black Caucus (CLBC).

Elected to his Assembly seat in May, Bryan is mainly known for his work on social justice issues. But he has received praise for the multifocal approach he takes to standing up for environmental justice.

During his campaign for the Assembly, Bryan received an endorsement from California Environmental Voters (EnviroVoters). The Sierra Club California also gave Bryan a score of 100% on its 2021 Legislative Report Card.

“Isaac Bryan is a bold, visionary leader whose intersectional approach to policy is much needed in the California legislature,” said EnviroVoters CEO Mary Creasman.

“We do not have time to waste when it comes to climate justice, and California needs leaders who are willing to stand up to big oil and polluters. Isaac has proven that he will lead the charge and do what is right at this critical point. Assembly District 54 needs an Assembly member who will take bold action on the community values of racial, criminal, economic, and environmental justice, and Isaac Bryan is clearly that candidate. EnviroVoters is excited to endorse Isaac Bryan for Assembly District 54,” Creasman continued.

Bryan responded to this endorsement and another one from Equality California (EQCA) in a statement.

“This is our moment. The support of these two frontrunners for progress is an important call to protect our vulnerable communities, prioritizing the needs of our LGBTQ+ and BIPOC neighbors; ensure clean air and water for all; and lift people out of poverty by preparing for jobs in emerging technologies,” Bryan said.

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