CubaBrief: Tearing down Cuba’s ‘wall of fear’ and a conversation on the raised fist and its problematic history for Cuban Americans

Maykel Castillo "Osorbo" shows his bloodied nose following an attack engineered by secret police in Cuba

Maykel Castillo “Osorbo” shows his bloodied nose following an attack engineered by secret police in Cuba

Freedom of Religion or Belief in full is a blog by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) that is required reading for human rights defenders. The Monday, June 7, 2021 entry focuses on how freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), freedom of expression and freedom of assembly all came under attack in Cuba over the past year. CSW focuses on three cases in which these rights intersected and were trampled upon by the Castro regime.

First, “Yoel Suárez, an award-winning writer, respected journalist and an evangelical Christian who regularly covers FoRB issues in Cuba has faced consistent harassment by the Cuban government over the past few years. He is currently banned from traveling outside of Cuba, and over the past year he has been arbitrarily summoned for interrogation by State Security multiple times. In addition to this, both his mother and his wife have also been summoned, threatened with the loss of their jobs, and pressured to try to ‘influence’ Mr Suárez to persuade him to stop his journalistic work, specifically his coverage of cases involving violations of FoRB. The government has even gone so far as to threaten to remove their young child from his and his wife’s custody.”

Second, “Luis Manuel Otero Alcantará, an artist and a leader in the San Isidro Movement has repeatedly peacefully protested government violations of freedom of expression. He has been arrested dozens of times in retaliation over the past three years. In April he held a hunger strike in protest of the government’s unjust actions. On April 27, Cuban police and state security forcibly stopped a Roman Catholic priest and lay leader from visiting Mr Otero Alcantará to provide him with spiritual attention, and on May 2 a group of Protestant Christians, including Yoel Suárez, were similarly blocked, in violation of both his and their right to FoRB.”

Third, “Maykel Osorbo, a Cuban rapper based in Havana, was one of the artists involved in Patria y Vida. Since the release of the song and video, he has been repeatedly threatened and arbitrarily detained by the Cuban authorities. On April 12 he was beaten up by individuals who claimed to be part of the Abakuá, a centuries old Afro-Cuban secret society which members believe guards sacred religious beliefs, and which has roots in West Africa. State Security agents not only witnessed the attack on Mr Osorbo, which took place in the middle of the day on a public street, but stood by and recorded the beating, which left Mr Osorbo with a broken nose. The following day, in a video recording posted online, a member of the Abakuá broke secrecy to publicly identify himself as a member of the society and declared that the Abakuá had had no part in the attack on Mr Osorbo. In fact, a number of Abakuá are part of the San Isidro Movement and have been arbitrarily detained. The attack on Mr Osorbo has led to concerns that State Security agents are impersonating members of the Abakuá to carry out acts of violence. In doing so, they are hijacking the secret society in order to cover up the government’s own involvement in acts of violence against Cuban civilians.”  

This entry demonstrates how the Castro regime targets journalists, and their families, from reporting on questions of freedom of religious belief, blocks clergy from visiting individuals in their custody, and apparently has impersonated members of a secret religious society to attack a dissident. Despite this the Cuban government is currently a member of the UN Human Rights Council.

Yoel Suarez and his wife María Antonieta

Yoel Suarez and his wife María Antonieta

Maykel Castillo “Osorbo” was arrested on May 18, 2021 and his whereabouts remained unknown until May 31, 2021 when it was learned that he had been transferred to the “5 y medio’ prison of Pinar del Río, according to the human rights NGO CubaLex. He remains arbitrarily detained and the Cuban dictatorship claims to be building a case against him for disobedience and resistance. The Cuban artist continues to receive support from artists both inside and outside of Cuba. Today, Cuban rapper Keren Kmanwey released a video on the island calling for Maykel’s freedom.

Solidarity with Cuba’s democracy movement has arisen in places that trouble the Cuban dictatorship. “Statement from the David Rockefeller Center for Latin Americans Studies, the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, and the Afro-Latin American Research Institute, Harvard University, on human rights in Cuba” made public on June 1, 2021 declared “Cuban Black lives also matter,” and concludes asking Havana to ” to stop this repression, to release those detained or imprisoned immediately, and to heed the San Isidro Movement’s calls for a peaceful national dialogue.”

This solidarity arises from conversations and accurate information on the situation in the island that challenge Castro regime propaganda, and a new front emerged on June 3, 2021.

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Cuban American Vanessa Garcia wrote an opinion piece in The Hill on June 3, 2021 titled “Why I can’t raise my fist with Black Lives Matter, but I will fight for you” that hopefully is the start of a needed conversation. She supports Black lives, but cannot raise her fist alongside BLM. Here is an excerpt in which she explains why both the raised fist and BLM are problematic for victims of communism.

As most of us know by now, the logo for BLM is a clenched, raised fist. When the movement asked me to show my solidarity by posting this fist on Instagram and Facebook, I just couldn’t do it, despite my very own family being mixed race. I maintained my support for Black lives, used my voice in the ways I could, but I refused the symbol because, for me as a Cuban American, the raised fist also symbolizes a haunting history that has reverberated for generations. 

It represents the rise of a regime that tortured members of my family and has murdered so many of my people. I am not the only Cuban American for whom the raised fist was a highly problematic trigger of past trauma, given the symbol’s roots in Communist movements across time and history. There were other groups who have been affected by Communism’s repressive regimes that felt the same — some Venezuelan Americans, for instance. 

The “fear of the fist” was the fear that BLM was saying: The way to equalize the playing field = Communism. For those of us who know better, who have been directly affected by the outcomes of Communism, who understand how Black lives fare under Communism (not well, to say the least), the fist jolted us. To add to the symbolism, the BLM organization wrote an elegy in Fidel Castro’s defense on Medium after his death, which ended with the words: “Fidel Vive!” Back in 2015, two of BLM’s co-founders even identified themselves as “trained Marxists.”

New generations of Cubans and Cuban Americans are mobilizing in support of a free Cuba, and their voices are being heard in different venues, both nationally and internationally, and they are engaging in conversations around truth, memory, freedom, and justice. These dialogues as Vanessa Garcia demonstrates, may not be easy, but they are necessary. Cuban dissident and martyr Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas in his December 17, 2002 speech accepting the European Union’s Sakharov Prize explained the importance of human rights and solidarity and the consequences of their absence. “The cause of human rights is a single cause, just as the people of the world are a single people. The talk today is of globalization, but we must state that unless there is global solidarity, not only human rights but also the right to remain human will be jeopardized. If there is no solidarity between people we will be unable to preserve a fair world in which it is possible to continue living as human beings.”

FoRB in Full, June 7, 2021

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Tearing down Cuba’s ‘wall of fear’

Posted on 07/06/2021 by cswpress in Cuba, Latin America

No single fundamental human right exists in isolation. There is a significant overlap and interlinking of all rights, exemplified in the relationship between freedom of religion or belief (FoRB), freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. These three rights sit side by side in Articles 18, 19 and 20 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

Over the past year, and especially in recent months, these related rights have increasingly come under attack in Cuba, as members of independent civil society including artists and journalists, some of whom identify with a particular religion or belief, have maintained calls for legal and political reform, in particular coalescing around protests of Legal Decree 370 and Legal Decree 349.

Legal Decree 349 came into force in 2018 and gave the government extensive control over all artistic expression on the island, including mandating that any artistic activity had to be approved in advance by the Ministry of Culture. At the time, many Cubans expressed concern that the law would essentially stamp out freedom of expression in Cuba by only permitting the existence of government approved ‘art’. The same year a group of Cuban artists, journalists and academics came together and formed the San Isidro Movement to peacefully and creatively protest official censorship of artistic expression on the island.

One year later, the government went a step further, enacting Legal Decree 370. This law gives the government the right to fine citizens for publishing content on social media which it interprets as critical of the Cuban government or of the state of affairs in the country.

It became clear that rather than listening and responding to the concerns of the San Isidro Movement in regard to Legal Decree 349, the government was doubling down by attempting to extend its surveillance and control over personal opinions expressed by individual citizens.

On their side, members of the artistic, journalistic and academic community refused to fold, and even upped the stakes, continuing to denounce human rights violations, including violations of FoRB, and maintaining their creative and peaceful protests.

The release of the song by a group of Cuban hip hop artists and rappers living both on and off the island ‘Patria y Vida’ (Homeland and Life, a play on one of Fidel and Raul Castro’s favourite catchphrases ‘Patria o Muerte’, Homeland or Death) and an explosive accompanying video, which made direct calls for political and social change was particularly significant.

Never one to back away from a fight, the Cuban government has met peaceful protests with threats, violence, and arbitrary detention. 

Three recent cases highlight this repressive response and illustrate how acutely the Cuban government understands and fears the intersection especially between FoRB and freedom of expression.  

Yoel Suárez, an award-winning writer, respected journalist and an evangelical Christian who regularly covers FoRB issues in Cuba has faced consistent harassment by the Cuban government over the past few years. He is currently banned from traveling outside of Cuba, and over the past year he has been arbitrarily summoned for interrogation by State Security multiple times.

Yoel Suarez. Credit: Angel del Castillo

Yoel Suarez. Credit: Angel del Castillo

In addition to this, both his mother and his wife have also been summoned, threatened with the loss of their jobs, and pressured to try to ‘influence’ Mr Suárez to persuade him to stop his journalistic work, specifically his coverage of cases involving violations of FoRB. The government has even gone so far as to threaten to remove their young child from his and his wife’s custody.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantará, an artist and a leader in the San Isidro Movement has repeatedly peacefully protested government violations of freedom of expression. He has been arrested dozens of times in retaliation over the past three years. In April he held a hunger strike in protest of the government’s unjust actions. On April 27, Cuban police and state security forcibly stopped a Roman Catholic priest and lay leader from visiting Mr Otero Alcantará to provide him with spiritual attention, and on May 2 a group of Protestant Christians, including Yoel Suárez, were similarly blocked, in violation of both his and their right to FoRB.[1]

Maykel Osorbo, a Cuban rapper based in Havana, was one of the artists involved in Patria y Vida. Since the release of the song and video, he has been repeatedly threatened and arbitrarily detained by the Cuban authorities.

On April 12 he was beaten up by individuals who claimed to be part of the Abakuá, a centuries old Afro-Cuban secret society which members believe guards sacred religious beliefs, and which has roots in West Africa. State Security agents not only witnessed the attack on Mr Osorbo, which took place in the middle of the day on a public street, but stood by and recorded the beating, which left Mr Osorbo with a broken nose.

The following day, in a video recording posted online, a member of the Abakuá broke secrecy to publicly identify himself as a member of the society and declared that the Abakuá had had no part in the attack on Mr Osorbo. In fact, a number of Abakuá are part of the San Isidro Movement and have been arbitrarily detained.

The attack on Mr Osorbo has led to concerns that State Security agents are impersonating members of the Abakuá to carry out acts of violence. In doing so, they are hijacking the secret society in order to cover up the government’s own involvement in acts of violence against Cuban civilians.  

The Inter American Commission on Human Rights has called for ‘precautionary measures of protection’ for Yoel Suárez, as an individual, and for the members of the San Isidro Movement, as a group.

Despite all of this, these three men and hundreds of others, not just in the artistic community but more broadly within Cuban independent civil society, are not backing down. Inspired in some cases by their faith, and in many cases supported by people of faith, they are continuing to push back at government attempts to control their thoughts and beliefs and the expression of those thoughts and beliefs.

The government’s harsh reaction, ironically, proves to those it is targeting just how much it fears this powerful combination. In attempting to insert its heavy hand into the very heart of its people, the Cuban Communist Party may in fact be tearing down the wall of fear that has held it up for so long. 

By CSW’s Head of Advocacy Anna-Lee Stangl

[1] Shortly after these incidents, Mr. Otero Alcantará was forcibly admitted to hospital. He was released from hospital detention on May 31.

https://forbinfull.org/2021/06/07/tearing-down-cubas-wall-of-fear/


The Hill, June 3, 2021

Why I can’t raise my fist with Black Lives Matter, but I will fight for you

As a Cuban American, I must reconcile with the symbol of the raised first, its haunting history in Cuba, and what it means to be an ally. 

By Vanessa Garcia, Opinion Contributor

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Last year, as protesters marched for Black Lives Matter, I stood in solidarity with the Black community, and, like everyone I knew, I wanted justice not only for George Floyd but for the long line of Black lives who have suffered due to a racial inequity in our country that haunts us not just as a nation but as a human race; a generational playing field made uneven by the echoes of ghosts we can still hear coming from the chained bowels of ships that reached our shores across the Middle Passage. We trafficked in human beings, we sold souls. Reparations should have come a long time ago. 

I support Black lives. But I could not and still cannot raise my fist alongside BLM. 

As most of us know by now, the logo for BLM is a clenched, raised fist. When the movement asked me to show my solidarity by posting this fist on Instagram and Facebook, I just couldn’t do it, despite my very own family being mixed race. I maintained my support for Black lives, used my voice in the ways I could, but I refused the symbol because, for me as a Cuban American, the raised fist also symbolizes a haunting history that has reverberated for generations. 

It represents the rise of a regime that tortured members of my family and has murdered so many of my people. I am not the only Cuban American for whom the raised fist was a highly problematic trigger of past trauma, given the symbol’s roots in Communist movements across time and history. There were other groups who have been affected by Communism’s repressive regimes that felt the same — some Venezuelan Americans, for instance. 

The “fear of the fist” was the fear that BLM was saying: The way to equalize the playing field = Communism. For those of us who know better, who have been directly affected by the outcomes of Communism, who understand how Black lives fare under Communism (not well, to say the least), the fist jolted us. To add to the symbolism, the BLM organization wrote an elegy in Fidel Castro’s defense on Medium after his death, which ended with the words: “Fidel Vive!” Back in 2015, two of BLM’s co-founders even identified themselves as “trained Marxists.”

Despite the fact that the movement now includes people that would never call themselves “Marxists,” the word itself and what it stands for — alongside phrases like “Fidel Vive!” clenched inside a fist – is chilling for many Cuban Americans.

Last year, I wanted, more than anything, to explain where that chill came from, but I feared that saying anything at the time, could draw light from where it absolutely needed to collectively shine at that moment: on Black lives. 

Now, however, I think it’s important to share what I couldn’t then if I am to be a true ally and, also, to ask for allyship in return. I believe true allyship must be founded in mutual understanding. 

To fully understand my trigger, you would have to know that I am the daughter of Cuban refugees. That my grandfather spent 15 years as a political prisoner in Cuba. That my other grandfather’s brother was also a political prisoner; given electroshocks as a form of torture in prison. To understand my trigger, you would have to know that many of my Cuban refugee friends are artists who cannot live or work freely in Cuba because the law is, literally, codified to instill the fear of imprisonment and death against those who speak out against the State. Cuba is, simply put, not free.

Beyond my own personal experience, Cuba is a country where unlawful and politically motivated torture and murder of its own people still exists. One has to simply read through the 2020 reports on Human Rights practices issued by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, to see what’s happening in Cuba today: “Disappearance … torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment, or punishment … arbitrary arrests or detention … denial of free public trials … unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, [and] correspondence…” The list goes on and on.  

It was hard to grapple with BLM’s fist as a signifier when the raised-fist symbol triggered everything that had tried to destroy members of my family and still enslaves my motherland. This conflict was made exponential because members of my family, both immediate and extended, are both Cuban and Black. 

Last year, we felt racism and prejudice breathing down our necks, as we tried to catch our own breaths underneath our masks. At one point during the pandemic, my sister and her family — a family comprised of a Black man, a Hispanic woman, and mixed-race children — considered driving from California, where they live, to Miami, where I live. It had been the longest time we’d ever gone without seeing each other, and we were getting desperate. But, we were also really scared they might be pulled over, or that there might be some violent action taken against them on the road, especially given the heightened racial tensions of the moment. We were, in other words, scared of what it could mean for a Black family to drive across the South at night. That we are still afraid of this is an American tragedy.

This fear is not unfounded. My sister and her family, just a few years ago, had rocks hurled at their home in Sherman Oaks, California. It was, as we understand it, a hate crime. One that pushed them from their house and neighborhood. My niece and goddaughter, who was close to 3 years old at the time, tried to grasp what was happening as one rock after another was thrown at her window. One day, she will piece what happened together, and what she will see breaks my heart in half. For now, she just refers to that house as “the broken house.” 

The side of myself that wanted to make sure not a single stone was ever hurled in hate again prevented what my Cuban side felt from speaking fully at the time or making a big deal about the fist. BLM was and is, too, necessary. And more so, I was grateful to be able to do, in the United States, what is not allowed in Cuba: to protest freely.

Some Cuban Americans, Venezuelan Americans, and Nicaraguan Americans who brought up their feelings against BLM’s symbol in everyday conversation were shunned as a result, called “crazy Trumpers,” even when they were not aligned with former President Trump — their own pain and marginalization belittled and ignored. Others were called “right-wing nutjobs” under the stereotype that “all Cuban Americans are hardline Republicans,” even though that is also untrue. For me, it was a constant battle between factions that shouldn’t have been battling to begin with, as we were and are all seeking liberation. 

I understand that there are moments when we all need to come together and bring the sun to shine on one particular issue, so that, finally, we can all see that issue. Sometimes it takes hundreds of years to drag the sun to a field that’s lived in dark and dying shadow for all those centuries. I understand that this is why “All Lives Matter” was so enraging and painful a response to “Black Lives Matter.” Like having those who have held the sun all the while, who have finally lent it out, ask for it back, relegating that dark corner to darkness once more. As someone whose own history still lives in veiled shadow, I understand that. 

I also long for light. 

If allyship is about bringing the periphery to the center, or marginalized and oppressed groups to the light, then what happens when marginalized groups are allies for each other? What if what we think we know about a group, isn’t the reality because that group sits in darkness too? At some point, we do actually have to listen to each story, and our knee-jerk reaction cannot be to kick each other out of the light. 

Most recently, I was invited to speak on a panel about the San Isidro Movement, an urgent movement of young Cubans inside Cuba who are fighting for the right to be free from tyranny. Currently, its members — who are bravely and outwardly calling the island “a grand center for torture” — are under threat of death by the regime. They disappear from one day to the next and are being held hostage by the government. 

The poster for this event was a raised fist wrapped in the Cuban flag. Talk about a paradox. On one level, you could say that the event appropriated BLM’s raised fist, which had, in turn, appropriated the Cuban Revolution’s raised fist. But that complexity is way too simplistic. It’s even more layered than that. There is context and history about what it means to take back imagery, particularly that of propaganda, and complicate it. Make it multiple, a multiplicity upon which our democracy and American future stands. A multiplicity upon which true allyship stands. A multiplicity which is, in fact, the meaning of allyship. And herein, is where the paradox comes full circle and I can almost begin to see a moment where the symbol of the fist can continue to evolve, and I can raise mine, alongside the Black community and my own Cuban people. Because in the places we share story, we can see and share light.

We’re all fighting against injustice and inequity. For freedom and joy, and quality of life. For life itself. For breath. And no, this is not the same as saying “All Lives Matter” because what I’m aiming for here is a conversation, not a slogan – a bridge not a dam. An understanding that you cannot assume there is not darkness where you cannot see – that’s the definition of darkness. The Cuban people, too, are begging to be released from their yoke, needing light. And not light which shines on the oppressor, like an elegy to Fidel does, but one that listens to activists like Luis Manuel Alcántara, an artist who was, until recently, held captive by the Cuban regime. He and others are risking their lives daily as we speak in order to fight for a better one.

I cannot yet raise my fist for BLM, but I can still be a strong and strident ally. And I can share this story, and, in sharing this story, I can be an even stronger one. This is the beauty of being American.

Vanessa Garcia is an award-winning novelist, playwright, screenwriter, and journalist. She has a PhD from the University of California Irvine in Creative Nonfiction. Her debut novel, “White Light,” was published in 2015, to critical acclaim. Named one of the Best Books of 2015 by NPR, Al Dia, Flavorwire, and numerous other publications and institutions, it also won an International Latino Book Award. Her plays have been produced in Edinburgh, Miami, Los Angeles, New York, and other cities around the world. Most recently, she produced Ich Bin Ein Berliner, a hybrid audio play about the fall of the Berlin Wall, its connection to Cuba, and why it all matters right here, right now. As a journalist, feature writer, and essayist, her pieces have appeared in The LA Times, The Miami Herald, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Narrative.ly,and American Theatre Magazine, among numerous other publications. 

Published on Jun 03, 2021

https://thehill.com/changing-america/opinion/556714-why-i-cant-raise-my-fist-with-black-lives-matter-but-i-will-fight