HAVANA — When everything seemed to be going wrong, Cuban multimedia artist Alejandro Pablo García Alarcón found a solution in what some might consider an unusual place: NFTs.
Artists like him have been dealt multiple blows in recent years: The pandemic wreaked havoc on Cuba’s tourism sector, sending art sales plummeting. American sanctions, while not explicitly applying to art, made it harder for Cubans to sell their works. And for artists whose work can veer into political commentary, like García Alarcón’s, it can be hard to get featured in Cuban galleries.
NFTs, or nonfungible tokens, are digital images registered on a blockchain and generally purchased with cryptocurrencies. They offer artists such as García Alarcón a rare loophole because they can profit from their art on an international stage with few speech restrictions due to the medium’s decentralized nature.
“The first thing that drew me to it was the freedom,” said García Alarcón, known best by his artist name, Paolo De. “You can commercialize your work without intermediaries, without having to pass through a filter.”
But this year, doors have begun to close for artists from Cuba and other countries facing U.S. sanctions because key NFT trading sites have gradually blocked them from doing business on their platforms, often with little or no explanation.
García Alarcón is among at least 30 Cuban artists whose profiles have been delisted from at least two American-owned NFT trading sites sites, including the largest one, OpenSea, and KnownOrigin, according to Cuban NFT artist collectives.
Neither site responded to an Associated Press email seeking comment.
The delistings have extended to some of the biggest names in the Cuban digital art scene, including Havana’s most popular interactive art space, Fábrica de Arte Cubano, and photographer Gabriel Guerra Bianchini, the first Cuba resident to auction off a piece as an NFT.
In March 2021, his work “Hotel Habana 3/10,” which features a mix of photos of Havana’s old, classic buildings stacked on top of each other, made a splash in the local art scene. His OpenSea page now reads “404. This page is lost.”
On its website, OpenSea boasts that it is “building an open digital economy” and that users can “trade their items freely.”
García Alarcón began trading NFTs on OpenSea in April 2021, using his first work as a political commentary on the controversial detention of protesting Cuban artists in January of that year. He earned $200 from it and proceeded to sell around 20 more NFTs through the website.
At one point, OpenSea promoted García Alarcón as an artist to watch. But last March, he was suddenly locked out of his account without explanation.
“They sell you the idea of freedom, that you can show your work, that there’s no censorship,” García Alarcón said. “You use the platform to show what you can’t show in your own country, and then this happens.”
When an artist is taken off of a platform, the art they sold is also removed from the site. Although the NFT continues to exist on the blockchain and is available to view on other NFT trading sites, artists say it’s often viewed as a loss by collectors who are confused or want to display the art on more popular platforms.
Although OpenSea’s hasn’t said why it removed the work of the Cuban artists, it likely has to do with the perceived risks of running afoul of U.S. sanctions. Amid criticism for delisting Iranian artists earlier this year, OpenSea told the crytocurrency news site Decrypt in March: “We have a zero tolerance policy for the use of our services by sanctioned individuals or entities and people located in sanctioned countries.”
The costs of violating the sanctions can be steep, as the U.S. Treasury Department fined the cryptocurrency exchange Bittrex $24 million in October for allowing traders to evade American sanctions in places such as Cuba, Syria, Iran and Sudan.
Although the U.S. has imposed economic sanctions on Cuba for more than six decades, including bans on commercial products such as cigars and rum, those sanctions don’t apply to a lot of Cuban art. But in some cases, NFTs have come to be considered more as an investment vehicle, selling for tens of millions of dollars during the 2021 boom.
For Gianni D’Alerta, a Cuban American who has lived in Miami his entire life and has never visited the island, the medium was “an opportunity to engage with my culture” and bridge a longstanding divide between Cubans on the island and in Miami.
He’s the organizer of NFTcuba.ART, a collective of around 100 Cuban artists around the world. Last week he received an email from OpenSea saying the NFTcuba.ART account was blocked “due to activity that goes against our Terms of Service.”
Artists say they’ve never been told explicitly why their accounts were taken down, and when D’Alerta asked for more details, OpenSea responded that it was “unable to disclose additional details,” emails shared with the AP show.
Some artists theorize that the trading platforms could be doing it out of an overabundance of caution, though others speculate that people who don’t like what certain artists have to say about Cuba could have created accounts to flag those artists’ profiles.
D’Alerta and other collective leaders told the AP that the bans have even extended to personal accounts of Cuban artists who don’t live on the island.
Meanwhile, leaders in the Cuban NFT space worry that the deplatforming could have a long-term chilling effect on Cuban digital artists.
Buying NFTs can already be viewed as risky due to recent instability in the cryptocurrency market, as evidence by the recent collapse of the popular cryptocurrency trading platform FTX and the criminal charges against its founder, Sam Bankman-Fried.
It could be viewed as even more of a risk for those buying from Cuban artists, said D’Alerta, because the art could later disappear from the big platforms.
“It’s heart-wrenching and it’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s another letdown, you know. Another realization that they’re not part of the world’s community. You can’t participate,’ is basically what (NTF platforms) are saying.”
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