The temperature of the repression in Cuba has risen like a fever during the days of the pandemic. It’s a systematic, cellular fever. The first thing the political police do when they detain an artist is to seize and ravage their cellphone. They want this to seem routine, normal, but they haven’t managed to do so.
Certain of the ever more frequent repressive episodes shake up our apathy. Among such events were the arrest of performance artist Tania Bruguera, and the harassment of the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artistry. There was also the jailing of performance artist Luis Manuel Otero a few months ago, after an irregular judicial process.
The San Isidro Movement is a collective of young visual artists, poets, musicians and intellectuals. Their headquarters is located in a house in one of the poorest neighborhoods of Havana.
At the beginning of November, the police burst into the home of one of its members, rapper Denis Solis. Following an exchange of insults, the youth was arrested. After a hasty trial, he was then sentenced to eight months in prison for contempt.
The other members of the collective mobilized and went to the police stations, seeking information. Instead of a response, they were arbitrarily detained. They then held vigils in the city parks, from where they were forcefully dispersed.
With these alternatives closed to them, they opted to gather at the movement’s headquarters on Damas street. There, they wished to peacefully demand their fellow artist’s liberation through social media.
Cuban State Security and the island’s political and cultural bureaucracy considered that option, as well, to be subversive. They tried by a number of means to get them out of the site. They tried repeatedly to force open the door; they attacked them verbally and physically; and they contaminated the water supply. It was then that the members decided to declare a hunger strike, including both food and drink. Others accompanied and supported them.
News of the strike spread on social media, and over the few national and international independent news outlets. The power elite then began to react with the recourse they had always used: smear tactics.
Mariela Castro, Raul Castro’s daughter, who directs the National Center for Sexual Education was among them. She tweeted that the young people in San Isidro were “crude, tasteless and miserable.” Abel Prieto, former Minister of Culture, former presidential advisor and now president of the House of the Americas called them “marginal” and “criminals”.
Such adjectives to describe young, black, biracial and poor youth would raise eyebrows in any Latin American country. Describing poor youth like those of San Isidro in these terms would be considered reflections of government classism and racism.
Granma, Cubadebate, and other government media, including the official online social media, added the well-worn slur of “imperialist agents”. According to this old script, the youthful artists had received large sums of money from the US government. These are the same youth who the official discourse itself has termed “poor” and “marginalized”. They also accused them of having ties to the Miami and CIA “terrorists” and of working for Donald Trump’s reelection. Even if one of them had expressed sympathy for Trump, that wasn’t the identity of such a heterogenous group.
Another focal point of the government’s campaign against San Isidro was to deny that the hunger strike was real. Despite convincing images of Luis Manuel Otero’s and Maykel Osorbo’s weakened state, government media insinuated the strikers were eating and drinking.
The Cuban regime lives by the symbolic legitimatization of a revolutionary epoch. In the eyes of such a regime, there can be no epic heroism of the opposition or the dissidents. The official media’s emphasis on the strike’s falsity was belied by the police’s urgency to dislodge them from the site.
The objective of those in power was always to disperse them, and silence the public voice of that independent collective. However, when they cordoned off the street and impeded the access of family and friends, the pandemic was their excuse. Officials insisted that these were public health measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The arrival of author and journalist Carlos Manuel Alvarez at 955 Damas Street became their poorly disguised pretext to intervene. Carlos Manuel directs El Estornudo [“The Sneeze”], one of the few publications to cover the conflict from the beginning. Along with independent sites Rialta, El Toque, Cibercuba and others, Alvarez covered it truthfully and accurately.
Alvarez is the author of a pair of books that are essential to the understanding of today’s Cuba. The Fallen is available in English from Greywolf press, and La Tribu from Sexto Piso. He arrived from New York, and had to take a Coronavirus test in the Havana airport. Alvarez was at the Damas St. site shortly before the police’s forced entry. Three agents contacted him and told him that his test had come out “doubtful” and he needed a new one. When the writer responded that he could take the test at the site of the movement, the agents said no. They told him they had to escort him to a clinic.
Following the forceful clearing of their site and the detention of the strikers, the majority were taken home. Luis Manuel Otero remains locked up. Curator Anamely Ramos, a student from Mexico’s Ibero-American University, was arrested the next day. The site of the San Isidro Movement was closed.
Meanwhile, the government gave definitive shape to the public health story. According to them, the violent intervention occurred because Alvarez’ arrival had violated public health protocols. They claimed there was a risk of spreading the virus.
This episode of repression in Cuba joins many other authoritarian manipulations of the Coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean. Governments have used this pretext to limit civil and political rights. But it’s important not to limit our analysis of events through a lens of short-term or immediate circumstances. There’s been a cellular and physical repression aimed at the new generation of independent Cuban artists, filmmakers, writers, journalists and intellectuals. This isn’t simply due to the pandemic or the change of administration in the US. Nor is it because of any advantage US politicians like Mike Pompeo or Michael Kozak can glean from them.
Then young artists demonstrated enormous civility during those hours and hours outside the Ministry of Culture on November 27th. These youth and their actions can’t easily be manipulated by those who have hegemonized the Cuban conflict for decades. They’re not puppets, as the official press and their most extremist rivals obsessively insist on presenting them. They’re also not unaware that a set of concrete demands won’t clear the horizon for a greater change.
Over the last few days in Cuba, we’ve seen the systematic repression of a State that aspires to unrestricted control. They’re trying to control a generation that has expressed in multiple ways their rejection of laws limiting freedom of expression and association. Nothing more and nothing less than a general rejection of Decree 349, that mandates who is and who isn’t an artist. Similarly, they reject Decree 373, that regulates the exercise of independent filmmaking. These rejections imply profound disagreement with the way the new Constitution and Penal Code obstruct human rights in Cuba.
The same government media that justified the repression exercised against the San Isidro Movement ignored the protests that continued for over 12 hours in front of the Ministry of Culture. The greatest achievement of that long Friday wasn’t the promise to stop repression. That’s something that a State like the Cuban one will never fulfill. The movement’s achievement was having forced those in power to negotiate. The bureaucrats and propagandists can say what they will, that accomplishment of the San Isidro strikers can’t be whisked away.
First published in Spanish by Letras Libres