CubaBrief: The Art of Repression in Cuba Clashes with the Art of Dissent. The hunger and thirst strike is not a performance, but an act of nonviolent resistance.

Source: Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara's Facebook page

Source: Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara’s Facebook page

On April 16, 2021 over Facebook, Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, one of the leaders of the San Isidro Movement announced a performance to dramatize the vulnerability of dissidents on the island. The headquarters of the movement is located at Luis Manuel’s home.The San Isidro Movement, a dissident movement made up of artists that came into existence in 2018 to protest Decree 349, a new law that further tightened the dictatorship’s grip over the arts in Cuba. headquarters in Old Havana. Their mission is to campaign against Decree 349 and defend the freedom of expression of artists. Luis Manuel in the above mentioned Facebook explained the dramatic protest he was undertaking.

“From today I will be for 8 h daily for 5 days, sitting in a Garrote, days when I remain besieged by the DSE (State Security), I call on the authorities to turn this lathe and execute me publicly. Today Cuban activists and opponents live more vulnerable than ever, every day we are more exposed, and that vulnerability is coming from a dictatorship that is 62 years old. That 62-year-old dictatorship that copies the most repressive models of many dictatorships and security and repression organs like Russia, and those of the world.

This work is the result of a series of videos where we denounce the arbitrary way in which activists and opponents in Cuba are accused. From Law 88 that can sentence you to up to 20 years in jail, coming with the black spring, to the charge of contempt, a crime for which Denis Solis is now in prison, and Luis Robles is also in prison for expressing himself .. The law against insulting patriotic symbols is another one of those laws that criminalize free speech, crimes made up by State security. This performance is based on the garrote technique of killing activists or criminals in dictatorships like Franco’s and in the Spanish Colonies. It is a wake-up call to what this dictatorship is capable of doing. Imagine if Luis Robles was handed down a six years prison sentence for expressing himself with a sign, what can happen to an activist who actually succeeds in having millions of followers for Cuban Freedom?”

The political police arrived that same day and took him away then returned to seize and steal or destroy his artwork located there at his home and studio. It was captured on video by a neighbor. The Cuban American artist Coco Fusco obtained a copy of the video and edited it with some questions added for those still sympathetic with the Castro dictatorship.

Repression against artists in Cuba stretches back 60 years to the early months of the Revolution and it was clearly explained by the late Cuban dictator. On June 30, 1961 Fidel Castro gave his speech to [Cuba’s] intellectuals where he summed up the limits of artistic expression: ‘Within the revolution, everything; outside of it, nothing,’ he told intellectuals and artists. Nearly a decade later on April 27, 1971 the case of Heberto Padilla underscored the limits of artistic expression. [This episode was explored in yesterday’s CubaBrief.] Index on Censorship described the aftermath of Padilla’s interrogation and self-criticism stating, “whatever the reason for his confession, it 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.” This was how intellectuals and artists would be dealt with who strayed out of the prescribed limits imposed by the Castro regime.

The war on artistic freedom is not unique to the Castro regime, or a mistake, but a feature of communist and fascist systems. Totalitarians have had a hostile relationship with the arts, and with artists seeking to control them. In the Soviet Union modern art was declared subversive by Josef Stalin, and socialist realism with an optimistic tone the politically correct style. Artists destroyed or hid their work that did not accord with the new aesthetic. In Nazi Germany, modern art was declared degenerate and a style that mirrored in appearance their Soviet counterparts, and repression was visited upon artists that did not adhere to the official style.

The 1984 documentary Improper Conduct outlines how Cuban artists that did not conform, or were deemed to be engaged in “extravagant behavior” were sent to work camps or forced into exile by the Castro regime. Cuban poet Heberto Padilla, who went into exile in 1979, is interviewed.

The patterns of repression have continued to the present day. Technology has improved, and new opportunities arise for activists to be able to communicate, but old methods should not be replaced, but complemented. Michael Lima Cuadra, of Democratic Spaces, translated to English and transcribed Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara’s statement following his release from his April 16, 2021 arbitrary detention.

“Following his release, [Luis Manuel] had planned to protest the repeated persecution he and other independent artists have faced in recent months at the parliament building in Havana, but officials blocked his movements, reportedly throwing him in jail every time he attempted to leave his apartment. Authorities have reportedly cut off his internet access, and police have surrounded his apartment, preventing anyone from entering. On Sunday [April 25, 2021], Otero Alcántara announced his hunger and thirst strike, intended as an act of protest against the seizure of his works and the ongoing persecution of artists,” reported PEN America on April 26, 2021. They are arbitrarily detaining activists, like rapper and poet AfrikReina for trying to visit him at his home.

This is not a performance or a work of art, it is demanding rights‘ in a protest that is life threatening to Luis Manuel. Havana Times on April 28, 2021 also outlined the circumstances that led to the hunger and thirst strike, and listed the demands of the San Isidro Movement for it to end.

1- Lift the police cordon on Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara in force since November 2020, and get rid of the state of siege as a practice to stop the free movement of artists, journalists and activists.

2- Return the art works that were stolen from Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and compensate him for any damages that they’ve incurred.

3- Respect for Cuban artists and them exercising their freedoms fully.

The first two demands are specific to Luis Manuel, but the third reflects a broader crackdown underway against Cuban artists and intellectuals. Carolina Barrero, a graduate of the Faculty of Art History at the University of Havana and worked at the Wifredo Lam Center of Contemporary Art, has been targeted by the political police for not remaining in the space permitted by the political commissars.

“Since [March 25, 2021], the Cuban government placed yellow tape for 25 days across the door to Carolina Barrero’s apartment, confining her to de facto house arrest during this period. On April 23, once the tape was removed, Barrero went out and was arrested. Something similar happened on the following day, when she was detained and released very late at night. This confirms once again what we have always known: that the only art that thrives in Cuba is the art of repression,” reports Alexis Romay in MoMA on April 28, 2021. There are more like her, they are also being targeted, and Luis Manuel is putting his life on the line for them too.

The Castro regime will not respond positively to any dissident’s hunger strike, but it can gain media attention and enhance the commitment of supporters. Those activists and people of good will who have demonstrated their solidarity with Luis Manuel and the San Isidro Movement in the past need to mobilize and generate pressure on the dictatorship to meet the three demands listed above. Both inside and outside of Cuba, now is the time to identify pressure points in the regime, and its international networks and leverage them to save Luis Manuel and defend artistic freedom on the island.

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Havana Times, April 28, 2021

Cuban Artist Luis Manuel Otero Holds Hunger Strike

Luis Manuel Otero executing his performance piece “Garrote Vil”

Luis Manuel Otero executing his performance piece “Garrote Vil”

By Havana Times

HAVANA TIMES – On April 16th, a police operation and undercover agents entered the San Isidro Movement’s headquarters in Old Havana. Their mission was to take Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara away with them, who was executing his performance piece entitled “Garrote Vil”.

Dressed in white, his hands tied behind his back and sitting in a garrote chair he built with his own two hands, Luis Manuel had spent hours in front of the camera that watches over him. Once Otero was arrested, they returned to his home/studio and stole the artist’s work. This can all be seen in a video that went viral on social media.

Ever since his release, Luis Manuel has tried to break the around the clock police cordon around his home.  He demands his art works be returned or for them to pay him the compensation he deserves if they’ve been destroyed.  Every time he tries to leave, the police arrest him again.

On the eighth day, he was led into a cell with two alleged criminals who attacked him for hours with shouting, insults and threats. When he left, Otero thought to himself that he no longer wants to play this game that is wearing him down: he is the only owner of his body. So, he decided to hold a hunger and thirst strike that has been going on for three days now.

This isn’t only a matter of his artwork being stolen, or of an artist being passionate about their work. It is a matter of a human being who feels that their basic rights are constantly being violated. Luis Manuel has been suffering police abuse for years now, because he defends freedom of creation, speech and movement.

Last November, he held a hunger strike in the same place, with many activists and friends, so his body has already dealt with the deterioration that happens when it goes without water and food.

This time, people who love him and admire him are twice as worried because he is alone. The government has made sure to isolate him: they have cut his access to the Internet and don’t always allow him to receive or make phone calls.

Plus, the San Isidro neighborhood is militarized, so his friends or neighbors can’t reach him; those who have tried have been arrested.

The San Isidro Movement has publicly announced its demands: 

1- Lift the police cordon on Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara in force since November 2020, and get rid of the state of siege as a practice to stop the free movement of artists, journalists and activists.

2- Return the art works that were stolen from Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and compensate him for any damages that they’ve incurred.

3- Respect for Cuban artists and them exercising their freedoms fully.

https://havanatimes.org/news/cuban-artist-luis-manuel-otero-holds-hunger-strike/

Freemuse, April 27, 2021

Cuba: Artists arbitrarily detained

27 April 2021

Image: Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara (Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara on Facebook) and AfrikReina (AfrikReina BV on Facebook)

Image: Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara (Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara on Facebook) and AfrikReina (AfrikReina BV on Facebook)

18 April 2021: Cuban visual artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was detained after he was released from a previous arrest on 17 April 2021, when rapper and poet AfrikReina was also arrested, reported CiberCuba.

The artists were detained during the raid on the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) headquarters on 17 April 2021. Otero Alcántara was detained again on 18 April when he tried to retrieve his artworks seized by State Security Officers during the raid. 

According to ADN Cuba, visual artist and poet Amaury Pacheco was detained when he left his house to demand the return of Otero Alcántara’s works stolen during the raid.

Poster reads: "Where are my works of art?" Artwork by Wilmar Verdecia Fuentes

Poster reads: “Where are my works of art?” Artwork by Wilmar Verdecia Fuentes

One of the stolen artworks was a wooden structure used by Otero Alcántara during a performance denouncing imprisonment of artists under house arrest and arbitrary detentions.

According to Freemuse’s report on the State of Artistic Freedom 2021, at least 22 artists were arbitrarily arrested in Cuba for exercising their right to freedom of expression or assembly.

https://freemuse.org/news/cuba-artists-arbitrarily-detained/

Index on Censorship, April 27, 2021

ARTISTIC FREEDOM

Heberto Padillo’s ‘confession’ 50 years on

As Cuba once again cracks down on artists and intellectuals, twenty have joined together with artist Coco Fusco to recreate the Cuban poet’s act of public penance

27 Apr 2021

BY MARK FRARY

Heberto Padilla, photo: Elisa Cabot, CC BY-SA 2.0

Heberto Padilla, photo: Elisa Cabot, CC BY-SA 2.0

Fifty years ago today, the Cuban poet Heberto Padilla made a dramatic public confession at the Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba under the watchful eye of State Security agents.

In his auto-da-fe, Padilla denounced himself, his wife and several close friends as counterrevolutionaries.

The confession sent shockwaves around the world.

Two days earlier, Padilla had been released from a 36-day detention at Cuba’s State Security headquarters.

Padilla had fallen foul of the island’s authorities after 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’s ritualised public penance sent ripples across the literary world while the Cuban government tried to use his “confessions” as proof of its right to imprison the poet.

Internationally, Padilla’s confession was seen as Cuba’s version of a Stalinist show trial – footage of the confession was suppressed by the authorities.

However, his supporters were conflicted. Index wrote at the time how the feeling began to grow that Padilla’s confession had been forced in some way and that perhaps he had been subjected to brainwashing techniques or possibly even torture.

“A majority of the original letter’s signatories seemed to share this view and signed another letter of protest against the whole affair while a minority accepted the confession at its face value and supported the government position. As a result, progressive left-wing literary circles were split in their assessment of the affair and this led to a series of charges and counter-charges that continued for many months,” we wrote.

Whatever the reason for his confession, it 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.

The passage of five decades means that Padilla’s public show of defiance has been largely forgotten internationally but the words he spoke retain their power even today.

Cuba’s government is once again cracking down again on a new generation of Cuban artists and intellectuals, portraying them as lackeys of foreign powers.

On 17 April, the headquarters of the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI) was raided and the visual artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara (winner of a 2018 Freedom of Expression award with the Museum of Dissidence), and the rapper and poet AfrikReina detained.

It is against this backdrop that Padilla’s words are again being spoken as part of Padilla’s Shadow, a project of MSI and 27N, which protest against state censorship of artistic freedom in the country.

Twenty Cuban intellectuals and artists, including  Hamlet Lavastida and Cuban poets Néstor Díaz de Villegas and Katherine Bisquet , will today livestream a choral reading of Padilla’s confession under the direction of Cuban American artist Coco Fusco.

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.

Néstor Díaz de Villegas said, “In stark contrast to History Will Absolve Me, the self-defence speech that Fidel Castro gave in court in 1953, Heberto Padilla indicted history by incriminating himself with his auto-da-fe. His confession is the definitive comedy of errors of the Cuban Revolution.”

Hamlet Lavastida, who has designed the commemorative project, said, “Heberto Padilla’s confession represents the irruption of Sovietism in Cuban cultural life. In order to create ‘perfect literature’ it became necessary to purge from the creator everything that was antagonistic to the great disciplinary story of the State.

“Skepticism, disenchantment, cosmopolitanism and existentialism had to be extirpated. This form of cultural repression was undoubtedly and absolutely novel in the Latin American cosmos. Never before had State Communism been so effectively virulent within Latin American culture. This was its contribution, its regrettable contribution, one contribution that is ongoing.”

Katherine Bisquet said, “The confession is disturbing. It plunges you into a desolate time, not because of its vitality, because of its existential nullity.”

“Those words tell me emphatically that we have had to stop feeling everything we could feel, which is to say we had to fake madness in order to survive the real induced madness, the madness from which we do not return.”

You can read Padillo’s poetry that Index published here and watch the 50th anniversary commemorative project, Padillo’s Shadow, below:

Mark Frary

Associate editor at Index on Censorship

Mark is an award-winning journalist who has worked for The Times, Sunday Times, Daily Telegraph, Evening Standard and other publications. He is the author of 11 books and is regularly asked to speak on radio, TV and at conferences.

https://www.indexoncensorship.org/2021/04/heberto-padillos-confession-50-years-on/


Slate, April 28, 2021

Cubans Are Using Twitter’s New Live Audio Platform to Slip Past Government Censors

Clandestinely installed point-to-point wireless bridge antennas on the roof of a Havana building, used by Cubans to receive the state-internet signal from a park to their homes in Havana, on July 29, 2019. STR/Getty Images

Clandestinely installed point-to-point wireless bridge antennas on the roof of a Havana building, used by Cubans to receive the state-internet signal from a park to their homes in Havana, on July 29, 2019. STR/Getty Images

By John Sakellariadis

Every Friday night for the past five weeks, hundreds of young Cubans have stayed up into the early morning to start their weekend off with a taste of something illicit: uncensored information.

They are slipping past one of the world’s strictest censorship regimes to tune into “This Week in Cuba,” a Twitter-based live audio chatroom where prominent activists and social media influencers lead an open discussion of Cuban politics and current events.

While the Cuban government does not forbid Twitter use on the island, Cubans who use the platform to tweet against the regime risk harassment, intimidation, and arrest. Yet the intimate and ephemeral nature of the live audio discussions is encouraging Cubans to speak up about the problems plaguing their country—or simply to listen to their peers.

“The purpose of these spaces is to show people that there is more out there than what the government shows you,” said Daniel Gonzalez, who organized and hosts the chats, at the opening of last Friday’s edition of “This Week in Cuba.” “The goal is simply to talk: to talk about what happened in Cuba this week, to say what you think, and to learn how to be respectful to those who disagree with you.”

With roughly 200 users attending the latest get-together, “This Week in Cuba” has thus far built a modest following. Nonetheless, the free-flowing discussions—which touch regularly on sensitive issues like political reform, anti-surveillance measures, and the conditions of “hunger, misery and privation” in Cuba, as one participant described it two weeks ago—have already attracted some of Cuba’s most high-profile dissidents and journalists. And they are poised to grow further.

The majority of mobile internet users in Cuba use Android, meaning they have never accessed Clubhouse, the iOS-based live audio application that caught fire last fall. “This Week in Cuba” is hosted on Twitter’s new live-audio platform, Spaces, which launched in March. The weekly chats therefore offer many Cubans their first taste of the live audio format that has already caused such a stir elsewhere in the world.

“This is a much more participatory and interactive medium,” said Rafael Santos, a 25-year-old based in Havana who participated in the second “This Week in Cuba.” “It is a better platform for debate and exchange than what is available on YouTube or Facebook.”

Santos said he decided to participate in the chats because “it became impossible to ignore what is happening in Cuba.” Due to the pandemic and the foibles of state-run economic planning, Cuba’s economy has cratered over the past year, sparking some of the largest protests against Cuba’s Communist Party in decades.

While it is difficult to know for sure the demographics of the audience members who have attended each event, Gonzalez’s promotional strategy has thus far catered to the young—and not necessarily to those who are politically active. To attract a broad audience to the events, Gonzalez, who left Cuba four years ago and now lives in Miami, enlisted the support of Cuban social media influencers, many of them in their early 20s. While some frequently posted about politics, many built their followings by dint of memes about sports, video games, and pop culture.

“This … would be unthinkable in Cuba five years ago,” said 21-year-old Ariel Falcón, one such social media influencer who has participated in the chats and helped promote them to his 17,000 Twitter followers. “People live in different realities here in Cuba. Just to communicate and see what we have in common—there’s no culture of doing that in Cuba.”

Enthusiasm for the live audio medium and savvy marketing are hardly the only reasons that the chats exhibit a high potential for growth.

Cuba’s sky-high mobile data prices and its stagnant economy can constrain Cuban internet users’ browsing habits. But “This Week in Cuba,” which so far has run for three to six hours at a time, has mitigated those challenges by exploiting a quirk of Cuba’s internet economy.

By starting late on Friday nights, “This Week in Cuba” coincides with a half-price discount in mobile data that Cuba’s sole telecommunications provider, ETECSA, offers daily between 1 and 6 a.m. The audio-only chats cost far less for Cubans than other media common among activists, such as streaming via Facebook or YouTube.

In some ways, the excitement surrounding “This Week in Cuba” echoes what happened earlier this year in China, where internet users flocked to Clubhouse and spoke freely about issues censored on the country’s other social media platforms. But whereas China quickly stanched access to Clubhouse through the Great Firewall, Cuban authorities face few simple alternatives for suppressing “This Week in Cuba.”

Through ETECSA, the Cuban Communist Party routinely throttles internet access to outspoken dissidents and activists. Control over internet traffic down to the IP, HTTP, and DNS levels also enables it to block access to foreign news publications. But audio chats supported by multiple users on social media platforms lack an equivalent point of failure. Technically feasible solutions, like a wholesale ban on Twitter, would be costly politically.

Still, it would be naïve to ignore the possibility that politics might limit the growth of “This Week in Cuba.”

The open nature of Twitter Spaces, which any Twitter user can join, renders government surveillance trivial. And with internet censorship at the top of the Cuban Communist Party’s agenda during its recent party congress, many fear the government is readying to tighten the reins over online speech. Even if it cannot block the discussions directly, the government could throttle individual users’ internet access, monitor what the participants say, or intimidate and coerce the attendees offline.

One participant in a recent “This Week in Cuba” event, a woman, declined to speak on the record about her experience. Asked why she felt comfortable talking within the chats but not to the press, she explained that she did not feel safe in the chats either. “In reality, I don’t think we feel safe. But for a little you forget that you live in a dictatorship and you express yourself freely, without worrying about the consequences.”

Several participants of “This Week in Cuba,” including Gonzalez, the organizer, said they operate under the assumption that the government is already monitoring the discussions. While some insisted that the chats did not cross any line or that the ephemeral nature of live audio insulated them against punishment, it is clear that the future of the chats is precarious.

Twenty-two-year-old activist Ruhama Fernandez has participated in each edition of “This Week in Cuba.” A recipient of multiple death threats, constant surveillance, and two interrogations for her outspoken criticism of Cuba’s Communist Party, Fernandez said she now lives alone to protect her family members from being swept up in the government’s efforts to silence her.

While she is skeptical that the chats can last much longer in their current form or that serious political reform is imminent within Cuba, Fernandez said it brings her joy to see how the chats, and social media more broadly, are changing the way Cuba’s youth see the world.

“What’s happening with the young is incredible,” said Fernandez, who maintains a YouTube channel with more than 15,000 followers. “They don’t believe anymore in the lies of the revolution. They are starting to study beyond what they are taught in school.”

Falcón, the 21-year-old social media influencer, also strikes a bittersweet tone when talking about the importance of participating in open forums like “This Week in Cuba.”

“When you live in Cuba, you lose this sentiment of being optimistic,” he said. “I know the odds are a million to one that we can make a lasting change. But if we can make 10 people think in a better way, I can be happy with our accomplishments.”

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

https://slate.com/technology/2021/04/twitter-spaces-this-week-in-cuba.html

PEN America, April 26, 2021

Cuban Artist Under House Arrest Begins Hunger and Thirst Strike

Officials have repeatedly targeted Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara for his work and for speaking out against Cuba’s government

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

April 26, 2021

**PEN America experts are available for interviews in English and Spanish//Los expertos de PEN América están disponibles para entrevistas en inglés y español.**

(New York, NY) — Independent Cuban artist and activist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara announced that he would begin a hunger and thirst strike this week after being placed under de facto house arrest. In a statement today, PEN America condemned the Cuban government’s ongoing harassment of Otero Alcántara and said it was part of an ongoing campaign to restrict artistic freedom of expression on the island.

On April 16, police raided Otero Alcántara’s apartment and reportedly seized multiple works of art before taking him without a warrant to an unknown location overnight. Following his release, he had planned to protest the repeated persecution he and other independent artists have faced in recent months at the parliament building in Havana, but officials blocked his movements, reportedly throwing him in jail every time he attempted to leave his apartment. Authorities have reportedly cut off his internet access, and police have surrounded his apartment, preventing anyone from entering. On Sunday, Otero Alcántara announced his hunger and thirst strike, intended as an act of protest against the seizure of his works and the ongoing persecution of artists.

“Once again, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara’s life and livelihood is in grave danger because of Cuban authorities’ incessant disregard for freedom of expression and basic human decency,” said Julie Trebault, director of the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) at PEN America. “Otero Alcántara has been targeted time and time again for his peaceful expression. This hunger strike is clearly an act of last resort, to decry all that he has undergone: unjust surveillance, house arrest, imprisonment, and destruction of his works. Artists should not have to put their health and well-being on the line simply to stand up for their right to express themselves. We call on Cuban authorities to immediately cease their campaign of harassment against Otero Alcántara before his health situation grows any more dire.”

Since 2017, Otero Alcántara has faced arrest on numerous occasions for his outspoken criticism of the Cuban government. His persecution is part of a broader crackdown on artistic expression in Cuba that began in the wake of Decree 349, a 2018 regulation that gives the government-wide purview to restrict the cultural sphere. Artists, writers, and activists have faced particularly heightened dangers in Cuba in recent months. Following the unjust arrest and sentencing of rapper Denis Solís Gonzalez last November, protestors in the San Isidro Movement, which Otero Alcántara helps lead, and the 27N Movement, have faced a wave of brutal crackdowns

PEN America leads the Artists at Risk Connection (ARC), a program dedicated to assisting imperiled artists and fortifying the field of organizations that support them. ARC recently released A Safety Guide For Artists, a resource that offers practical strategies to help artists understand, navigate, and overcome risk, and features an interview with Cuban artist Tania Bruguera about the state of free expression on the island. If you or someone you know is an artist at risk, contact ARC.

https://pen.org/press-release/cuban-artist-under-house-arrest-begins-hunger-and-thirst-strike/


MoMA, April 28, 2021

Op-Ed

Cuba and the Art of Repression

The Cuban regime must stop harassing and detaining its artists.

Alexis Romay

Carolina Barrero, Camila Ramirez Lobon, and Juliana Rabelo with a petition demanding an end to the harassment and detainment of Cuban artists. Photo: Juliana Rabelo

Carolina Barrero, Camila Ramirez Lobon, and Juliana Rabelo with a petition demanding an end to the harassment and detainment of Cuban artists. Photo: Juliana Rabelo

January 27, 2021, is a day that will live in infamy in the history of Cuba. A group of young Cuban intellectuals gathered in front of the Ministry of Culture to speak with its representatives. Their goals were to discuss the glaring lack of civil liberties in Cuba and to seek an institutional commitment to freedom of expression. The group also sought to obtain an official Ministry statement supporting Cuban artists—who have frequently and repeatedly been harassed and detained by the regime—and to stand in solidarity with these artists. The government’s response seemed preordained. And so nobody was surprised when the Minister of Culture himself walked outside—in broad daylight and in front of the phones and cameras that were filming and broadcasting live—and slapped and physically attacked those who had gathered at the building’s entrance to call for an inclusive Cuba. Surrounded by a claque of white-haired men, this government official reminded the hopeful audience that Cuba is no country for the young. The video of the arrest of the peaceful demonstrators and their screams as they were punched while being dragged to a police bus have since become part of the soundtrack of my life, and will leave another scar on the recent memory of a forgetful nation.

January 27 is also the eve of the birthday of the poet, philosopher, and political theorist José Martí, in whose name the Cuban nation has been built and destroyed so many times. To commemorate the occasion, art historian Carolina Barrero recited some of his poems and handed out a printed image of José Martí wearing a shirt with stars on it. Since then, State Security has accused Barrero of a Kafkaesque crime—“Clandestine Printing”—which appears in Article 210 of the same penal code that does not recognize gender violence. Given that the case against Barrero was moving at a fast pace, on March 21, in an act of courage and dignity, artist Camila Ramírez Lobón identified herself as the author of that beautiful image and challenged the Cuban authorities: “The law that you want to apply against the beauty, in the full sense of the word, that Carolina embodies, you will have to use against me, too,” she wrote. It is hard to read her statement and refrain from crying. I couldn’t. I cried from anger and indignation but also in gratitude and solidarity. After more than a half century of verbal and physical abuse, of ubiquitous terror, of a bunch of men gesticulating, of a dynasty that has perpetuated itself in power dictating the destiny of an island adrift, seeing a group of women confront and say “no” to a regime that survives through lies and police brutality is something that inspires and moves me.

A print of José Martí by Carolina Barrero and Camila Ramírez Lobón. The inscription reads, “I have two homelands: Cuba and the night. Or are they one and the same?”

A print of José Martí by Carolina Barrero and Camila
Ramírez Lobón. The inscription reads, “I have two homelands:
Cuba and the night. Or are they one and the same?”

On January 28, during the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the José Martí Memorial, over 20 artists—sponsored by the same regime that harassed Barrero and Ramírez Lobón—launched a collective exhibition dedicated to the Cuban poet and icon in which Martí’s image appears everywhere. But since the artists participated in this exhibition with the consent of the Cuban government and in an official setting, not only are they not in trouble, but are being celebrated by the regime. That’s the fascinating thing about dictatorships: that the same action, happening a few hours and a few miles apart, can be both lawful and unlawful. What’s being criminalized is the context and a specific group. To make this distinction more abundantly clear, consider the famous phrase from Fidel Castro’s 1961 speech “Words to the Intellectuals”: “Within the Revolution, everything; against the Revolution, nothing. (This was a monologue; he spoke at, not with, the intellectuals). Since they were uttered, these words have dictated what is and isn’t permissible in Cuban life.

In this Facebook album you can see—until further notice, or until it is set to private mode or deleted—the photos of the works with which the regime “paid homage” to the most beloved of all Cubans. Since I am not writing a review, I will pass no aesthetic judgement on the paintings and installations that populate the walls of this governmental institution. Feel free to click and draw your own conclusions.

To put it in terms of the “savage capitalism” which the Cuban government has railed against for decades: what we have here is a case of copyright infringement. The Cuban regime, since it came to power 62 years ago, has granted itself the exclusive rights to the Martí “brand.” It trademarked the national hero, and is ready to fight for it, guns blazing. Which is to say that any likeness, quote, reference, T-shirt, book, text, banner, sign, mural, or mention that names or alludes to him must have the Castro imprimatur, or trigger the most severe legal penalties.

On March 25, the same political apparatus that attempted to intimidate Barrero had to drop the charges due to lack of evidence. This episode marks a before-and-after in the history of the nation. Since then, the Cuban government placed yellow tape for 25 days across the door to Carolina Barrero’s apartment, confining her to de facto house arrest during this period. On April 23, once the tape was removed, Barrero went out and was arrested. Something similar happened on the following day, when she was detained and released very late at night. This confirms once again what we have always known: that the only art that thrives in Cuba is the art of repression.

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Y cómo es él by Camila Ramírez Lobón

https://www.moma.org/magazine/articles/549