CubaBrief: MoMa magazine interviews Cuban protesters of the San Isidro and 27N movements. Reflection on courage in Cuba today with insights by G.K. Chesterton

English writer, philosopher, Catholic lay theologian, and critic G.K. Chesterton in his 1908 book Orthodoxy observed that “courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. ‘He that will lose his life, the same shall save it,’ is not a piece of mysticism for saints and heroes. It is a piece of everyday advice for sailors or mountaineers.” The world has witnessed numerous examples of courage in Cuba with the dissident movement that for over sixty years has resisted the totalitarian impositions of the Castro dictatorship.

The good news is that in December 2020 the world continues to pay attention, and in the magazine of the Museum of Modern Art, based in New York City, there are several interviews with courageous Cubans that are demanding their rights, and claiming that Cubans have a right to their rights. They are echoing themes spoken decades earlier by the Christian Liberation Movement that was formed in Havana in 1988, and continues in the struggle despite their founding leader’s murder in 2012.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

On December 20, 2020 Wall Street Journal columnist Mary Anastasia O’Grady wrote an important analysis on the “Cuba’s San Isidro Uprising” with the subtitle “There has been organized dissent for decades. This time could be different.” In it she described a telephone interview she had with Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, one of the leaders of the San Isidro Movement in Havana, and how he spoke plainly about Fidel Castro. Luis Manuel said, “for me he was a bad person, and what he did is not justified by what he did in things like health care,” the 33-year-old performance artist said. “If you repress someone because they wrote a poem you don’t like or you arrest young people continually, you are not a good person. This repression has destroyed the lives of intellectuals.”Ms. O’Grady pointed out how “lots of Cubans will tell you similar things privately, but few have dared utter them in public, until now.”

Reading this reminded me of the plight of Eduardo Cardet Concepción, the Christian Liberation Movement’s national coordinator, and I wrote a letter to the editor highlighting what had happened to him. “A man of impeccable character and widely respected in his community. Dr. Cardet is a physician, a husband and a father of two. Following Castro’s November 25, 2016 death, Dr. Cardet told the Madrid-based esRadio, ‘Castro was a very controversial man, very much hated and rejected by our people.'”

This is what happened to this Cuban dissident for speaking honestly. “On November 30, 2016, when Dr. Cardet returned to Cuba, state security beat him in front of his wife and children, and jailed him. Amnesty International recognized him a prisoner of conscience. His predecessor in the Christian Liberation Movement, Oswaldo Payá, was killed along with the movement’s youth leader, Harold Cepero Escalante, on July 22, 2012. Sentenced in a 2017 show trial to three years imprisonment, Dr. Cardet was beaten up again and stabbed repeatedly. Because his family campaigned for his release, the dictatorship denied family visits as punishment. Dr. Cardet was paroled on May 4, 2019, after two years, five months and four days in prison, and freed on September 30, 2019.”

Eduardo Cardet Concepción

Eduardo Cardet Concepción

Despite all of this, there are Cubans risking everything for freedom, and dignity. G.K. Chesterton continuing his examination comes close to providing an explanation of what drives courageous individuals. “He must not merely cling to life, for then he will be a coward, and will not escape. He must seek his life in a spirit of furious indifference to it; he must desire life like water and yet drink death like wine. No philosopher, I fancy, has ever expressed this romantic riddle with adequate lucidity, and I certainly have not done so. But Christianity has done more: it has marked the limits of it in the awful graves of the suicide and the hero, showing the distance between him who dies for the sake of living and him who dies for the sake of dying.”

Cuban dissidents continue to risk their lives for the sake of living as full human beings with sovereignty over their persons and a voice in their communities, and for the next generation of Cuban children to have a better future. Observers are bearing witness to this in the courageous examples of Eduardo Cardet Concepción, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and many other Cubans.

MoMa Magazine, December 23, 2020

The Right to Have Rights

A new “artivist” movement demands freedom of expression in Cuba.

Coco Fusco

Dec 23, 2020

On November 27, 2020, Cuban artists, writers, and filmmakers carried out an unprecedented protest in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana. A crowd of more than 300 people chanted and waited for 12 hours to pressure officials to open the Ministry’s doors and listen to their demands. At 9:00 p.m., 32 of them were allowed inside for a historic five-hour meeting with officials. The protesters called on the Cuban government to refrain from harassing independent artists, to stop treating dissent as a crime, and to cease its violence against the San Isidro Movement, a group of artists and activists that had staged a hunger strike to protest the arrest and sentencing of a young rapper. Out of that encounter emerged a new “artivist” movement called 27N. I asked several artists—Camila Lobón, Julio Llópiz Casal, Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra, and Reynier Leyva Novo—to speak about the significance of this new movement and the response of the Cuban government to the protests.

Camila Lobón photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Camila Lobón photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Coco Fusco: In your opinion, what are the most important aspects of the November 27 protests?

Camila Lobón: I believe the most valuable thing about 27N—beyond the fact that a spontaneous peaceful protest of this magnitude, an event without precedent, occurred at all—was that people with different political views were united by a desire to defend basic rights, such as freedom of expression and the right to dissent without retaliatory harassment. These demands, in effect, express the disagreement of many with the political reality that we live in Cuba.

What do you think of the current situation in Cuba with regard to the 27N movement?

Things are unpredictable at the moment. The government unleashed a media campaign to discredit the very same people who were admitted to the ministry on November 27. Since that night, many of the participants have been surveilled by state security, prevented from leaving their homes, harassed by state security via telephone, or subjected to public acts of repudiation by government loyalists. However, the community that came together that day continues to work together to elaborate upon the demands that were presented on November 27.

What are the artistic projects that have been created by 27N that represent the group’s efforts at raising awareness?

27N group members are using their Facebook and Twitter accounts to chronicle and make visible everything that has happened since the protest. We finally managed to meet in person, after two weeks in which several of us were illegally deprived of freedom of movement and also had our Internet disrupted. We are using online platforms to make ourselves known, get others involved, and to expand our community.

Julio Llópiz Casal photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Julio Llópiz Casal photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Julio Llópiz Casal

Coco Fusco: In your opinion, what are the most important aspects of the November 27 protests?

Julio Llópiz Casal: The event was an expression of collective indignation. Everything that happened on that day, from the peaceful nature of the protest to the way the 30 people were elected to enter the ministry to speak to officials, happened in a democratic manner. I personally had never experienced such a democratic event in Cuba before.

What do you think of the current situation in Cuba with regard to the 27N movement?

I would say that the situation is tense but favorable. On the one hand, the state has deployed police and paramilitary operations throughout the city and is trying to argue in official media that what happened was orchestrated by the United States. On the other hand, although the ministry has found every way not to dialogue with the protesters, people are gradually formulating their positions. Dialogue and exchange about necessary change in Cuba is taking place among many people in civil society, above all in the artistic community. That energy is in our environment and is very important.

What are the artistic projects that have been created by 27N that represent the group’s efforts at raising awareness?

We have made short audiovisual documentaries about what has happened and is happening in the wake of the 27N. I have created graphic designs to respond to campaigns that try to portray us as terrorists and mercenaries. In the immediate future, I will create interventions, performances, and videos that relate in one way or another to the possibilities of freedom of expression and respect for difference.

Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra during his hunger strike, photographed by Katherine Bisquet, 2020

Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra during his hunger strike, photographed by Katherine Bisquet, 2020

Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra

Coco Fusco: In your opinion, what are the most important aspects of the November 27th protests?

Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra: The most important thing about 27N, which in fact did not begin on November 27, was that it was sparked by the anger felt by the San Isidro Movement because of the arrest of Denis Solís, a member of the movement, an artist and musician. Bound up with this were personal sentiments and friendship. In Cuba these values have been lost due to having to live with scarcity and persecution, which cause friendships to fracture. We began a campaign for his release. Either he had to be freed or we die. That sense of friendship spread to other Cubans who, bound by love, admiration, and a commitment to the struggle for justice, came together.

What do you think of the current situation in Cuba with regard to the 27N movement?

Cuban reality is marked by a lack of creativity on the part of the regime, and our people’s lack of representation. 27N represents a creative Cuban society that wishes to exist within Cuba and do something for Cuba, unlike the regime that is becoming increasingly pathetic and frustrated, and offers few solutions to our problems. All the government does is enforce its power through repression, violence, and instilling fears in the citizenry. 27N brings artists together with activists working on animal rights and gender issues. Everyone came together for justice.

What are the artistic projects that have been created by 27N that represent the group’s efforts at raising awareness?

In recent years, art in Cuba has been deployed as an exercise in civic education. This is being done in a country that is very rigid, where the slightest gesture causes everything to explode. Cuba is like a macho man who, because he does not get a medical examination, dies of prostate cancer. Right now, art connects with many people when you do a work about these issues. Art is providing solutions and tools to people.

Reynier Leyva Novo and Tania Bruguera, photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Reynier Leyva Novo and Tania Bruguera, photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Reynier Leyva Novo

Coco Fusco: In your opinion, what are the most important aspects of the November 27th protests?

Reynier Leyva Novo: The most important thing for me is the protest itself. In Cuba there is no culture of protest against the government or outside the state. This civic culture ended, paradoxically, in 1959, when the Cuban Revolution triumphed. The protest emerged as an imagined possibility for Cubans who for decades have been silent or protesting quietly within their homes, so that the Big Brother would not hear them. After the police raid on the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement, people felt deep indignation and decided to take to the street. At first, there were only 30 of us outside the Ministry of Culture, but within a few hours there were more than 300 people united by a common idea: freedom. Freedom of expression, freedom to dissent, freedom of association. That day people began to think differently and turn their thinking into action. It was important that our demands extended beyond the sphere of art. We have civic demands that spoke to our basic rights as citizens, which are the rights of all, not of a privileged minority. Artists and intellectuals in Cuba in the last 60 years have rarely taken on that responsibility.

What do you think of the current situation in Cuba with regard to the 27N movement?

27N definitely opened a door. The government seems destabilized, it seems to be casting stones everywhere, looking for an enemy or misguidedly creating one. The government doesn’t seem to be able to face this historical moment and doesn’t seem to have concrete answers to our demands. Or perhaps they don’t want to have answers, which would be worse. The truth is that people saw the light. It is sad that a government does not listen to the legitimate demands of its citizens. The 27N movement is an energy that lives in many Cubans on and off the island. It is an energy that extends beyond our borders.

What are the artistic projects that have been created by 27N that represent the group’s efforts at raising awareness?

The 30 representatives that were appointed by consensus on the night of the protest to meet with officials at the Ministry of Culture have formed a heterogeneous alliance that seeks to give shape to the spirit of social justice that crystallized on November 27. Since several of the protesters have been harassed by police, we have directed our creative actions toward social networks. Artistic projects are being generated through open calls for people to join from digital platforms. One example is the “video reconstruction” of the 27N, in which people are asked to explain in 40 seconds why they went to the November 27 protest. The idea is to create a collective memory of the demonstration from the participants’ point of view. The San Isidro Movement has invited people to join a collective whistle every night at an appointed time. For another #challenge (#IpayIsavings) people are invited to turn off the television when the National Television Newsletter (NTV) is on to protest the defamation campaign against the protesters, and also in reaction to the steep rise in electricity prices in Cuba. I called from my Instagram and Facebook pages for people to brush their teeth in public with the slogan of #noaladifamasion and #caretakuverb. Another poetic action was carried out by poet Katherine Bisquet and visual artist Camila Lobón. After being subjected to house arrest for 13 days, they painted the following text on a bed sheet—“13 days of deprivation of illegal liberty. We have the right to express ourselves freely”—and hanged it from the top of a building. 27N is creating a fresh and colorful graphic campaign in response to urgent issues such as house arrests, the criminalization of free thought, and the government’s baseless claims that independent creators and journalists work for the CIA. While the government represses with violence, we respond with creativity, intelligence, and culture.

Coco Fusco, artist and writer

https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/479



The Wall Street Journal, December 20, 2020

The Americas

Cuba’s San Isidro Uprising

There has been organized dissent for decades. This time could be different.

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara speaks with the media from his home in Havana, May 2, 2018. Photo: alexandre meneghini/Reuters

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara speaks with the media from his home in Havana, May 2, 2018. Photo: alexandre meneghini/Reuters

In a telephone interview last week I asked Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, one of the leaders of the dissident San Isidro Movement in Havana, what he thinks of Fidel Castro.

His answer stunned me not because I disagreed but because challenging the godlike myth of the comandante, alive or dead, has always been taboo.

“For me he was a bad person, and what he did is not justified by what he did in things like health care,” the 33-year-old performance artist said. “If you repress someone because they wrote a poem you don’t like or you arrest young people continually, you are not a good person. This repression has destroyed the lives of intellectuals.”

Lots of Cubans will tell you similar things privately, but few have dared utter them in public. Until now.

The San Isidro Movement was formed in 2018 to oppose a new law making it a crime to engage in performance art without permission from the Ministry of Culture. The group—made up of young adults of different races who are artists, writers, musicians, students, and researchers—hold a mix of political views but are united in their quest for freedom.

There has been plenty of organized opposition to the dictatorship since 1959, when Castro took power. In the late 1990s and early 2000s the late Oswaldo Payá’s Varela Project collected more than 25,000 signatures on a petition calling for free speech, free assembly, ownership of businesses and political pluralism. Since 2003 the Ladies in White—wives, sisters and daughters of political prisoners—have been an international symbol of resistance to arbitrary incarceration.

As the San Isidro Movement gains street cred in the barrio, support from other dissident groups, and recognition abroad, the question on the minds of long-suffering Cubans is whether this time things are different. There are good reasons to remain cautiously pessimistic about the odds of political change. But it’s also true that Cuban civil society seems to be undergoing a revival, and that makes the landscape markedly different than it was even 10 years ago.

On Nov. 26 Mr. Otero Alcántara and at least five others had been inside an apartment on a hunger strike for more than eight days, protesting rapper Denis Solis’s eight-month prison sentence for “disrespect.” That’s when authorities, using Covid-19 regulations as a pretext, broke down the door and stormed the premises. The strikers were carted off to detention. Mr. Otero Alcántara was taken to a hospital where his strike was broken.

The next day hundreds of people gathered across the street from the Ministry of Culture for 15 hours to protest the raid. To defuse the tension, the regime agreed to meet with 30 of the protesters to discuss their demands for freedom of expression.

It was an extraordinary concession. But dissident hopes were soon dashed when the dictatorship canceled a second promised meeting because the group had the temerity to request that its imprisoned members be included.

It was a predictable reversion to the mean. Yet in my conversation with Mr. Otero Alcántara I couldn’t shake the feeling of something new unfolding. He told me that he launched his hunger strike when Mr. Solis was arrested because he was appalled at how quickly Cubans accept someone being taken away and imprisoned. His objection is to “repression normalized.”

Nothing new there. But then I wondered aloud whether this group of dissidents—many of whom were selected and nurtured by the regime in their careers—is even aware of the many martyrs that went before it. He answered that some names are known, like Payá, killed in a suspicious car crash in 2012, and Orlando Zapata, a black bricklayer who died a political prisoner in 2010. But there is also “a lot of ignorance,” he said, “because every 10 years the regime destroys the history and dissidents have to start over.”

One of San Isidro’s causes is gay rights. But Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela has been dining out for years internationally as a champion of the LGBT community, so I asked Mr. Otero Alcántara what makes it an issue. “Cubans are living in a totalitarian dictatorship where all institutions respond to the interests of the dictatorship,” he said. “But it is impossible for any institution to cover all the pluralities in a society. Yes, there is a sector in Cuba that feels represented by her but others do not. These others are not allowed to be independent.” So much for identity politics.

One big change for dissidents came in December 2018 when, under severe economic strain, the regime began to offer internet access via a 3G cell network. Today Mr. Otero Alcántara maintains that the San Isidro Movement “is far larger than what can be seen because of social media. Social networks are the big key,” he told me, adding confidently that “the digital revolution is the greatest revolution since 1959. Cubans want to be free.”

Write to O’Grady@wsj.com.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/cubas-san-isidro-uprising-11608499604?mod=article_inline

The Wall Street Journal, December 23, 2020

A Diaspora’s Hope and a Dissident’s Bravery

Saying what you think can have dire consequences for Cubans.

Ms. O’Grady is spot on. Speaking critically of Fidel Castro, as Cuban artist and dissident Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has done, isn’t common practice. Saying what you think can have dire consequences for Cubans.

Eduardo Cardet Concepción, the Christian Liberation Movement’s national coordinator, is of impeccable character and widely respected in his community. Dr. Cardet is a physician, a husband and a father of two. Following Castro’s 2016 death, Dr. Cardet told the Madrid-based esRadio, “Castro was a very controversial man, very much hated and rejected by our people.”

On Nov. 30, 2016, when Dr. Carcet returned to Cuba, state security beat him in front of his wife and children, and jailed him. Amnesty International recognized him a prisoner of conscience. His predecessor in the Christian Liberation Movement, Oswaldo Payá, was killed along with the movement’s youth leader, Harold Cepero Escalante, on July 22, 2012.

Sentenced in a 2017 show trial to three years imprisonment, Dr. Cardet was beaten up again and stabbed repeatedly. Because his family campaigned for his release, the dictatorship denied family visits as punishment. Dr. Cardet was paroled on May 4, 2019, after two years, five months and four days in prison, and freed on Sept. 30, 2019.

This was the price for speaking candidly. Both Dr. Cardet and Mr. Otero Alcántara continue to do it.

John Suarez

Executive Director
Center for a Free Cuba

Falls Church, Va.

https://www.wsj.com/articles/a-diaspora-s-hope-and-a-dissidents-bravery-11608754031