CubaBrief: Alerting the world to Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara’s ongoing hunger and thirst strike and remembering Heberto Juan Padilla’s coerced confession in 1971

Heberto Padilla (1971) and Luis Manuel Alcántara (2021): Two artists targeted by Castro regime for their freedom of expression

Heberto Padilla (1971) and Luis Manuel Alcántara (2021): Two artists targeted by Castro regime for their freedom of expression

Over the past sixty two years the space for artistic expression in Cuba has been under attack. Today, Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a leading figure in the San Isidro Movement, is on a hunger and thirst strike demanding that “the state of siege that has remained on his home since November 2020 be lifted; Return of his works of art and corresponding compensation for the damage they have caused; respect for the full exercise of artistic freedoms for all Cuban artists,” reports independent journalist María Matienzo.  On November 26, 2020 Luis Manuel’s home was raided by secret police posing as doctors, and everyone was arbitrarily detained and taken away. The next day at the Ministry of Culture hundreds of Cuban artists and intellectuals gathered outside the entrance in nonviolent protest. Out of this demonstration emerged the 27N movement.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara

The San Isidro Movement came into existence in 2018 protesting the Castro regime’s Decree 349, a new law that further restricted artistic freedoms in Cuba, and that Amnesty International described as dystopian. According to Amnesty, “under the decree, all artists, including collectives, musicians and performers, are prohibited from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the Ministry of Culture.”

Times have changed, and the protests of these artists have circled the world, and the Castro dictatorship has been exposed for the tyranny that it is.

It was not always this way. The Castro regime was able to operate with complete impunity between 1959 and 1971, and many in the international community refused to listen to the victims, almost nobody listened but fifty years ago that began to change.

Screen Shot 2021-04-27 at 8.20.26 AM.png

Heberto Juan Padilla, a Cuban poet, who like many had been an enthusiastic supporter of Fidel Castro ousting Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, became disillusioned when the Castro regime’s dictatorial nature became clear, and reflected it in his writings. In 1968, however, Cuban judges in the national poetry contest awarded their “Julian del Casal” poetry prize to Padilla’s collection, Fuera del Juego (Out of the Game), which contained critical lines such as:

“The poet! Kick him out!
He has no business here.
He doesn’t play the game.
He never gets excited
Or speaks out clearly.
He never even sees the miracles …”

The book was published but an addendum was added that criticized the work as counterrevolutionary, and Heberto Padilla was placed under house arrest. On March 20, 1971 Heberto Padilla and Belkis Cuza Malé’s home was raided by armed state security agents at seven in the morning and they were arbitrarily detained. Belkis was held incommunicado for three days and released. Heberto was interrogated for over a month and psychologically tortured by the secret police and on April 27, 1971 taken to confess before the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba (Unión Nacional de Escritores y Artistas de Cuba, UNEAC) his counter-revolutionary tendencies. Cuban literary critic José Antonio Portuondo served as the moderator and introduced Heberto Padilla to the gathered group, and the numerous cameras of the official press. Below is an excerpt of a video from the event.

Artists and intellectuals wrote two open and public letters to Fidel Castro about Heberto Padilla, the first on April 9, 1971, was signed by Carlos Barral, Simone de Beauvoir, Italo Calvino, Josep Maria Castellet, Fernando Claudín, Julio Cortázar, Jean Daniel, Marguerite Duras, Hans Magnus Enzensbeger, Jean-Pierre Faye, Carlos Franqui, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, Juan Goytisolo, Luis Goytisolo, Alain Jouffroy, André Pieyre de Mandiargues, Joyce Mansour, Dionys Mascolo, Alberto Moravia, Maurice Nadeau, Hélène Parmelin, Octavio Paz, Anne Philipe, Pignon, Jean Pronteau, Rebeyrolle, Rossana Rossanda, Francisco Rossi, Claude Roy, Jean-Paul Sartre, Jorge Semprún, Mario Vargas Llosa, and the second on May 20, 1971 was signed by an even greater number of artists and intellectuals. The second letter was in reaction to Heberto Padilla’s “confession” and expressed their belief that it was their “duty to communicate our shame and anger to you” regarding it and expressed concern for “the contempt for human dignity that involves forcing a man to ridiculously accuse himself of the worst betrayals and vileness does not alarm us because he is a writer, but because any Cuban colleague – peasant, worker, technician or intellectual – may also be the victim of a similar violence and humiliation.”

Heberto Padilla with his wife Belkiz Cuza Malé in Cuba 1973

Heberto Padilla with his wife Belkiz Cuza Malé in Cuba 1973

Today, the lives of other artists hang in the balance. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is alone, surrounded by state security, on a hunger and thirst strike protesting the violence he has been subjected to by this 62 year old dictatorship, and Cuban rapper Denis Solís remains behind bars for verbally protesting the police illegally entering his home. He was unjustly sentenced to eight months in prison on November 12, 2020.

On April 27, 2021, the fiftieth anniversary of Heberto Padilla’s forced confession, the San Isidro Movement and 27N will be convening the project Padilla’s Shadow, a virtual performance that will be streamed on the internet and social media to commemorate this act to remember the poet’s confession. The performance is directed by the Cuban American artist Coco Fusco, and is in Spanish with English subtitles.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara on hunger and thirst strike in Cuba, and surrounded.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara on hunger and thirst strike in Cuba, and surrounded.

At the same time we must recall that time is passing, and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has spent over 48 hours without water and 72 hours without food, and we fear for his safety. The Center joins his demand that the state of siege that has remained on his home since November 2020 be lifted; his works of art returned and corresponding compensation for damage the secret police have caused; and respect for the full exercise of artistic freedom for all Cuban artists.

Global Voices, April 21, 2021

Cuban artists fight repression through song, social media and hunger strikes

Cuban rappers are a visible part of the resistance

By Luis Rodriguez and Allison Janos

Screenshot of the anthem “Patria y Vida” on YouTube. In the photo, Manuel Otero Alcántara with the initials of the San Isidro Movement on his chest.

Screenshot of the anthem “Patria y Vida” on YouTube. In the photo, Manuel Otero Alcántara with the initials of the San Isidro Movement on his chest.

This article was written anonymously by an author in Cuba, using the fake name “Luis Rodriguez”

Historically, the political system in Cuba has repressed any form of opposition, including legitimate proposals supported by constitutional values. But in 2021, Cuban society has the power of social media in its hands to resist repression from the Cuban state, in addition to anthems and other methods of protest.

This past April 4, members of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo, known as Osorbo, thwarted an attempted arrest by the police with the help of its community in the Havana neighborhood of San Isidro.

The activists and intellectuals of MSI express themselves principally through music and from the aesthetic codes of performance, including striptease acts. Based in Havana, its membership features Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo, the independent journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez, and the rapper Denis Solís, imprisoned in Cuba for an altercation with the police, among others. Nearly all members of MSI are black and mixed race, and since its birth in 2018, its leaders have been subject to arbitrary detention.

The day before the attempted arrest on April 4, the police paid a visit to San Isidro. Journalist Humberto López of the Cuban state television channel made a complaint against an event that would unfold on April 4 in the San Isidro neighborhood for an allegedly subversive purpose.

On that day, the community went to the streets to support the singers with their most recent song, Patria y Vida, also starring the group Gente de Zona, Descemer Bueno, and Yotuel, members of the group Orishas. The theme music was sung in chorus that historic Sunday: “It’s already over,” they sang. “You, ’59. Me, double two,” in lyrics that refer to the year of the Cuban Revolution (1959) and the recent protest movement (2020).

Meanwhile, another symbolic scene of resistance was in progress. Given the worsening of the economic situation during the pandemic with effects on vulnerable groups throughout the country, the leaders of the dissident organization Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) took the initiative to distribute food to people in the community of Altamira in Santiago de Cuba. In the face of the government’s actions, which included fencing off the headquarters to prevent its members from continuing with this practice, 27 of their activists started a hunger strike at the end of March. The conflict has awoken the interest of the international community, including the Organization of American States and the European Parliament. Cuban state media in turn has questioned the motives of the hunger strike and of the MSI movement overall. According to the Diario de Cuba, the UNPACU ended the strike on April 11 and began distributing food again.

The following day, on April 12, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was summoned by the police, Maykel Castillo was beaten, and other members of the community were detained, according to the MSI Instagram account.

The spirit of 27N continues

In what came to be known as 27N, the protests on November 27, 2020 were considered unprecedented in Cuban society and are comparable to the Maleconazo, a term used to refer to the antigovernment unrest that shook the Cuban nation in 1994 when Cuba experienced one of the worst economic crises in its history.

In November 2020, a group of nonconformist artists gathered in front of the Ministry of Culture to reclaim the right to freedom of creation and expression on the island, and reclaim the liberation of some of the incarcerated members of the San Isidro Movement (MSI). The night before, members of MSI were evicted from the headquarters of San Isidro, as their core members underwent a hunger strike demanding the freedom of Denis Solís.

This seemingly isolated event was the result of decades of artists and intellectuals being subjected to discontent and arbitrary actions. Eventually, they decided to peacefully confront Cuban power. Vice Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas has responded to the protests on Twitter by saying that he has invited the artists to engage in a dialogue, but they refused and caused trouble instead. 

Many on and off the island have interpreted these protests as the prelude to a possible social outburst in Cuba, a signal to the government to speed up economic, political, and social changes called for by Cuban society, including the need to promote the existence of legitimate civil society. In Cuba, there does not exist, as it does in other countries, the freedom of association. The few NGOs that operate are controlled by the state, except those that operate in the Catholic sphere.

The Cuban intellectual expert on judicial topics, Julio César Guanche, explains this point of inflection in the history of the Cuban nation in the Chilean press:

“The current scene in Cuba expresses generational, social, and cultural change that Cuba has been experiencing for years… None of those who were at 27N in front of MINCULT [Ministry of Culture] were born that day into Cuban political life, nor were those that starred in the protests of the San Isidro Movement. [Its demands], it seems to me, cannot be reduced to only one position on the left or the right, and even less to the position of “revolutionaries against counterrevolutionaries.”

The unifying power of social media in the face of internet blocks

There is one factor that is vital to achieving this power to gather this number of artists with a sense of unity, when they are usually isolated and fragmented: New communication technologies and the power to mobilize on social media, above all through Facebook and WhatsApp. Since 2018, Cubans have had access to the internet on their cell phones.

For many, its use is so liberating that it can trigger mobilization in places where there is oppression, such as the case in Cuba, and where internet access acts as a mechanism for cohesion and enhanced leadership. Social media in Cuba could be contributing to the democratization of Cuban society and could empower the nascent civil society to weaken the historic monopoly that the state has exercised over the realms of information and culture, ideological pillars of all authoritarian states.

In response to the protests, there were internet blocks by the Cuban state and its company that monopolizes the sphere of communications, ETECSA. It happened after the protest in front of the Ministry of Culture in November 2020. On that historic night, ETECSA, by order of the government, revoked access to the internet and social media throughout the island without offering an explanation, in order to prevent the information from being transmitted to the world through international media. The members of the UNPACU headquarters in Santiago de Cuba have also suspended access to the internet on several occasions and have installed security cameras in front of the building. It has also deprived independent journalists of internet access. Oftentimes, someone with internet access manages to leak the information and it spreads like wildfire through cyberspace and the blogosphere.

Thanks to the use of private virtual networks (VPN), it is often possible to stay connected to social media. But with new legal attempts to control information constantly received by the Cuban people, the future is uncertain.

Translating Cuba, April 21, 2021


Screen Shot 2021-04-27 at 8.20.49 AM.png

Commemorative Act in Honor of the 50th Anniversary of the Poet’s Confession

A virtual performance that will be streamed on the internet and social media

(In Spanish with English subtitles)

By Coco Fusco

On April 27, 2021, a choral reading of Cuban poet Heberto Padilla’s legendary confession will be streamed via social media throughout the day and night. Twenty Cuban intellectuals from the island and the diaspora have participated in the project, which is directed by Cuban American artist Coco Fusco. To avoid any attempt by Cuban authorities to block participation from island residents, all readings have been pre-recorded and transmitted via encrypted messaging.

Five institutions in the United States and Europe will be presenting Padilla’s Shadow via their web portals: The Showroom in London, The Kunstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, and the Herberger Institute in Arizona, The Perez Art Museum Miami, and Franklin Furnace.

Padilla’s Shadow commemorates the 50th anniversary of one of the defining moments of the Cuban revolution with regard to freedom of expression. In the early 1960s, Heberto Padilla was one of Cuba’s most internationally celebrated poets and a recipient of national awards. Upon his return from an extended stay in the Soviet Union, where he opened Cuba’s first press agency in Moscow and befriended dissident poets, Padilla fell out of favor because of his critical views. He was arrested in 1971, held for thirty-six days at State Security headquarters and subjected to psychological torture. Two day after his release, on April 27, 1971, he made a public confession at the Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba under the watchful eye of State Security agents.

This ritualized public penance, in which the poet denounced himself, his wife and several close friends as counterrevolutionaries, sent shockwaves through literary circles around the world. The Cuban government tried to use the confessions as proof of its right to imprison the poet. However, the gesture was seen abroad as Cuba’s version of a Stalinist show trial. As a result of the international outcry, the film of the confession was suppressed.

Padilla’s confession served as a harbinger of what was to follow: a period known as the Grey Five Years in which dozens of Cuban artists and writers were banished from public life.  The Cuban government’s treatment of Padilla made its protocol for handling intellectuals and artists visible and has since functioned as a warning to those that seek to challenge the primacy of state authority.

This disturbing chapter of Cuban history is still discussed in the Latin American press, but it has been largely forgotten in the United States, even though prominent intellectuals such as Susan Sontag, Jean Paul Sartre and Italo Calvino defended Padilla in the 1970s. In Cuba today, many artists know something about what happened, but few have had access to the words that were uttered on that fateful day. Many of the project’s participants have told Fusco that they are shocked by the text, that it has provoked bouts of anxiety, sleeplessness and nightmares.

Padilla’s confession is a study in political abjection that is painful to witness and reproduce. But it is necessary, especially now when a new generation of Cuban artists and intellectuals are challenging the state’s authority over them. Fifty years after Padilla’s auto-da-fe, the Cuban government continues to demonize critical voices and characterize intellectuals that challenge the revolution as lackeys of foreign powers.

Padilla’s Shadow is a project of the San Isidro International Movement and 27N.

Performers: Carlos Aguilera, Lupe Álvarez,  Katherine Bisquet, María Antonia Cabrera Arus,  Sandra Ceballos, Armando Correa, Mabel Cuesta, Enrique Del Risco, Néstor Díaz de Villegas, Rafael Díaz-Casas Julio Llópiz Casal, Eilyn Lombard, Martica Minipunto,   Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, Amaury Pacheco, Orlando Luis Pardo Lazo, Alexis Romay, Iris Ruiz, Abel Sierra Madero.

Design: Hamlet Lavastida

Translation: Rialta

From the Archives
The New York Times, May 26, 1971

‘Confessions’ of a Cuban Poet  

The Cuban poet Heberto Padilla was arrested in Cuba in March and released last month after “confessing” to wrong doing and wrong thinking. (His treatment prompted sixty European and American intellectuals to write to Premier Fidel Castro to express shame and anger.) The text of Mr. Padilla’s “confession” was distributed in New York by the Cuban Mission to the United Nations with the explanation that the poet had “admitted to counterrevolutionary activities and asked for an opportunity to expose and discuss his conduct publicly.” This article is excerpted from the “confession”:

I have meditated profoundly before deciding to write this letter. I am not doing so through fear of the inevitable and just consequences of my contemptible, well‐known and demonstrated attitudes—demonstrated far beyond what I myself could ever have imagined possible. I am moved by a sincere desire to make amends, to compensate the Revolution for the harm I may have occasioned and to compensate myself spiritually. I may prevent others from losing themselves stupidly.

But, above all, I desperately want to be believed and my action not to be taken for cowardice, although I myself am overcome with shame at my own actions.

For many days I struggled with myself to make the decision to tell the truth. I did not even want my truth to be as it really was. I preferred my disguise, my appearances, my justifications, my evasions. I had become accustomed to living in a deceitful and subtle game. I did not dare to confess how ignoble, how unjust, how unworthy my position was: I really lacked courage to do so.

Under the disguise of the writer in revolt within a socialist society I hid opposition to the Revolution, behind the ostentations of the critical poet. who paraded his morbid irony, the only thing I really sought was to express my counterrevolutionary hostility. Among both Cubans and foreigners I accused the Revolution unjustly of the worst things. Among both Cubans and foreigners I discredited every one of the initiatives of the Revolution, striving to look like an intellectual who was an expert in problems I had no information neither knew anything about; and following this course I committed grave faults against the true intellectual’s moral code, and what is worse, against the Revolution itself.

What I wanted was to call attention to myself, to profit from the scandal. I wanted to be the only writer with a political mind in Cuba, the only writer capable of confronting the revolutionary process and to impose my ideas. Hypocritically and contemptuously, I repeated the old theory that politics is too serious a matter to leave to the politicians.

I who had not achieved anything either before or after the Revolution, I wanted fame and looked for it along a road that could only lead to counter revolution.

My ego-centrism was growing by leaps and bounds. The B.B.C. of London did a long interview with me in color for a program dedicated to Cuban education and culture. A Canadian radio station sought me out for more interviews.

Because my vanity then had no limits I carried my disaffected political positions to heights I never should have scaled: to poetry. I was convinced that a poem which would represent a supposed criticism of the Revolution would awaken the interest of certain international circles: the circles of skepticism and hatred toward Revolutions. That’s how I came to write insidious and provocative poems which, under the clever appearance of dislocations because of the problems and demands of history, expressed no other thing than the temperament of the unbeliever, the cynic, a verse‐maker trapped by his own moral and intellectual limitations.

I have been tremendously ungrateful, unjust with Fidel, and the deep repentance I feel for having acted that way motivates me to make amends for my cowardly and counterrevolutionary virulence.

When I have mentally reviewed the fragments I wrote, parts of the novel, I have felt extraordinary shame. It seems to me incredible that I could have thought that this sickly bundle of papers—containing all my bitterness—could have had some intellectual and human worth. Not only were they politically negative and deformed, not only did they reflect my ideological and counterrevolutionary vacillations, but they also expressed a profound disenchantment with life, with hope and the poetry of life. The man who wrote those pages was a man who was headed toward his own moral and physical destruction.

Only the vanity and petulance of considering myself worthy of all honors could lure me into such a plan— one that as always was linked to the outside world, to the purpose of giving my prestige a boost in the foreign periodicals, editorial and public. And among my most serious mistakes is precisely this one: to think that I, a Cuban, could live a double life: on the one hand vegetate like a parasite in the shadow of the Revolution, while on the other cultivate my literary popularity abroad at the cost of the Revolution and helped by its enemies.