THE NEXT WAVE FROM HAVANA

Here come the Cubans. Artists from that fading citadel of Soviet-style communism are everywhere these days in the most freebooting of all capitalist enterprises, the Western art world. Sculptor Ricardo Brey, 37, who lives in both Cuba and Europe, contributed a huge installation to last summer's Olympian Documenta IX exhibition in Germany. Jose Bedia, 33, who divides his time between Mexico City and New York, last week opened a show at the Frumkin-Adams Gallery in New York and made an installation for Paris's Hotel des Arts. Sculptor Florencio Gelabert, 32, and painters Arturo Cuenca, 37, and Tomas Esson, 29, have all recently survived the initiation rites for art-world trendies: they've each created an Absolut vodka ad. Like the German and Italian neoexpressionists who took over the scene in the '70s and '80s the Cuban artists may be on the brink of changing the face of contemporary art. And they are undergoing profound changes themselves.

They are known as the "Generation of the '80s," the artists who grew up in Cuba after the 1959 revolution. As youngsters in the Castro regime, they were given artistic encouragement, starting at about the age of 11, with as much free instruction and materials as their talents merited. Later, they took subsidized jobs in galleries or art schools or propaganda office whole process lay the rather liberal idea that an artist is no less socially useful than a truckdriver or a mason or a soldier. Of course, Cuba's premier art school, the Instituto Superior de Arte (ISA), offered the same art education dictators have always favored: academic training in the figure, still life and landscape-with an emphasis on the nobility of sugar-cane cutters and factory workers. As one Cuban artist put it, "In Cuba, you think more of the message than of the esthetics."

Still, Castro, who had waged a nasty campaign against hippies, gays and sundry other nonconformists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, seemed to relax a little around 1980. The authorities looked the other way at ISA students who got hold of magazines like Artforum and Art in America from hip tourists. They didn't crack down when Bedia, Cuenca and other members of the Generation began holding unofficial exhibitions of their work in each other's homes. Culture minister Armando Hart even allowed the group to stage an officially sanctioned show of avant-garde work, influenced by conceptual art, in 1980.

But by the late 1980s, the artists were going much too far. Esson, a vigorous draftsman of malevolently puffy forms, embarked on a series of paintings ostensibly commemorating the revolution. The first one was called "The Orgasm of the Bay of Pigs" and showed an ejaculating cigar in Castro's mouth. Peter Ludwig, the billionaire collector, tried to buy it for his new museum in Germany, but, Esson says, the Cuban government refused to allow it to leave the country, on the amazing grounds of "cultural patrimony." Another Esson painting had two beasts coupling in front of an image of Che Guevara. In early 1988, at a youth-art-association convention in Havana, a bureaucrat named Carlos Aldana lectured the artists on their revolutionary responsibilities. Cuenca stood up and heatedly debated the idea that all political criticism constituted disloyalty.

The minister of culture decided that all this talent, inventiveness and enthusiasm deserved not prison but promotion--in another country. Mexico City seemed the ideal spot for artistic exile: Cuba has a big embassy there, Cuban functionaries (i.e., watchdogs) could operate freely and Mexico offered no political asylum to wayward artists. (There are rumors that the artists are supposed to remit the proceeds from sales to the Cuban government in return for extended visas and living allowances. But the artists insist this isn't true.)

So, partly lured by adventure and partly pushed by Castro, a loose-knit community of de facto deported artists has sprung up in Mexico City. In some ways, the arrangement offers them more freedom to pursue their art than if they moved to Miami; in south Florida, longtime resident right-wing Cubans have been hostile to the new generation of contemporary artists from Castro's Cuba because they're not far enough right. And that's putting it mildly: Miami's Cuban Museum of Art and Culture has been bombed twice for showing artists still living on the island. Gelabert, who now lives in Miami and condemns the violence, says nevertheless, "What can I say to someone who spent 20 years trying to get out, or who risked his life on a raft?"

Meanwhile, in Mexico City, some artists, like 34-year-old Consuelo Castaneda, admit that they left Cuba more for economic reasons than political ones. There were shortages of everything, including artists' materials. In her paintings, Castaneda likes to combine blown-up details of old masters with contemporary devices like words, Barbara Kruger style. Like many of these artists, she wants to be part of the international avant-garde, not pigeonholed as a cultural curiosity. "We want the public to see the work as more than just 'Cuba'," she says. "We're still trying to figure out where we fit in."

One place she fits in--along with Bedia, Cuenca and others-- is Nina Menocal's gallery "Ninart" on the edge of the fashionable Zona Rosa district. Her patrons are chiefly wealthy Mexicans in the northern industrial boomtown of Monterrey who prefer the more avant-garde Cubans to the transparent leftist cant of many Mexico City artists. Menocal, who grew up in Havana, is considered a villain on both sides of Cuban politics. In Miami, she's believed to be funneling money from art sales back to Castro--which she denies. To Havana, she's an agent of capitalism, tempting Cuban artists into expatriation. Her artists from the Generation, according to the catalog essay for their first group show, in 1991, say she helps keep their art from becoming "the exclusive property of one ideological program or another."

Despite the relative freedom of Mexico City, some artists want to cut all ties to Cuba, burn their bridges--and head for Miami. Gelabert made a short trip home from Mexico in 1989 and was struck by the chill brought on by the corruption trial and execution of Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa. "I knew I wasn't coming back," Gelabert says. He accepted an invitation from Rutgers University in 1990 and then requested political asylum. Painter Fernando Garcia, 35, arrived in Miami the hard way: first crossing the Rio Grande illegally from Tijuana, with his wife and child. He's been supporting himself in Miami by doing post-hurricane cleanup and construction. More artists seem to be on the way. This fall, two more Mexico City Generation artists-photographer Rogelio Lopez Marin, 37, and painter Ileana Villazon, 23-defected to Miami, jumping off while installing an exhibition in Houston. And about 20 new faces showed up at a recent opening at the Fred Snitzer gallery in Miami, headquarters of the new community of Cuban artists.

What separates the newcomers to Miami from those who fled Castro a generation ago is their political ambivalence. Some are still Marxists, but think Castro betrayed the revolution. Some see Cuban communism itself as a failed system, but believe it was a sincere attempt at social justice. The newcomers are here mostly to make their art better, and in the process are adding a new dimension to the art world. Cuban artists "had to dig deeper and harder to find our cultural roots, an intense Afro-Latin Americanism," says Bedia. "That's what we've brought to the contemporary art world." As socially engaged art, the new Cuban work is a fresh alternative to the dry photo-plus-text style so prevalent in American galleries: it's much more visceral, passionate and--dare one say it?--colorful.

For artists who stayed in Havana, the situation is as bad as ever, perhaps worse. In 1991, Marco Antonio Abad and Antonio Crespo made a videotape called "A Day Like Any Other," which cuts between snippets from Cuban television, including a Castro speech, to shots of empty Havana streets, to a man masturbating. Police charged the artists with harming "the integrity of our head of state with insulting and offensive references to his person." Abad and Crespo, jailed since last November, face the possibility of eight more years in prison.