CubaBrief: An Update on the Push for Democracy in Cuba. Will the Havana Biennial be a smokescreen for more repression?

On September 20, 2021 The Daily Signal Podcast released an interview conducted by Virginia Allen with the Center for a Free Cuba (CFC) executive director on “Whatever Happened to Those Pro-Democracy Protests in Cuba?” and is available to listen to online. It focuses on the factors that led to the pro-democracy protests in mid-July 2021, and the aftermath.

From left to right: Maykel Castillo Osorbo(jailed), Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara (jailed and recovering from COVID-19), Eliecer Márquez Duany "El Funky"(under house arrest)

From left to right: Maykel Castillo Osorbo(jailed), Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara (jailed and recovering from COVID-19), Eliecer Márquez Duany “El Funky”(under house arrest)

CFC’s executive director highlighted the cases of three Cuban artists who performed in the music video “Patria y Vida.” Maykel Castillo Osorbo, Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara are both jailed, and Eliecer Márquez Duany “El Funky” who is under house arrest. (Pen America highlighted these and other artists on August 16th in a public statement). Also focused on the plight of two longtime human rights defenders, Felix Navarro Rodriguez, then on hunger strike, and Virgilio Mantilla Arango, who was suffering from COVID-19.

Jailed human rights defenders: Virgilio Mantilla Arango and Felix Navarro Rodriguez

Jailed human rights defenders: Virgilio Mantilla Arango and Felix Navarro Rodriguez

A more concise breakdown of the interview was published in PJMedia on September 21, 2021 where author A.J. Kaufman offered his own commentary from a conservative perspective.

Coco Fusco in the OpEd, “Cuba Is Plowing Ahead With the Havana Biennial—But Don’t Expect the Government to Allow Artists Who Participated in the Recent Protests“, published in artnet on September 21, 2021 offers a different perspective from the art world, but in outlining the recent history of the actions by the opposition and the repressive reaction by the Cuban state there is common agreement.

artnet, September 21, 2021


Cuba Is Plowing Ahead With the Havana Biennial—But Don’t Expect the Government to Allow Artists Who Participated in the Recent Protests

Artists may want to think twice before participating in this winter’s event.

Coco Fusco, September 21, 2021

Cuban-American artist Carlos Martiel stands inside his art project The Blood of Cain at the Malecon waterfront during the 13th Havana Biennial art fair, on April 14, 2019, in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images.

Cuban-American artist Carlos Martiel stands inside his art project The Blood of Cain at the Malecon waterfront during the 13th Havana Biennial art fair, on April 14, 2019, in Havana, Cuba. Photo: Sven Creutzmann/Mambo photo/Getty Images.

It’s not unheard of for big art events to take place in locations that have experienced all sorts of upheaval. Prospect New Orleans emerged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; Documenta rose from the ashes of Nazi Germany. And it’s not uncommon for advocates of such events to argue that they revitalize economies in troubled spots. 

The Havana Biennial has always faced challenges stemming from restrictions imposed by the United States, but its most recent postponement, in 2017, was due to damage caused by Hurricane Irma. This year, it might have expected another delay, as many major biennials have been rescheduled due to the pandemic, but the Cuban cultural ministry plans to forge ahead with the 14th edition. In light of the political conflicts that have been central to the news about Cuba this year, it would be hard not to see the next biennial as something of a smokescreen.

The Havana Biennial is slated to begin with a conference in mid-November, followed by exhibitions opening on December 6 and March 25, 2022. The government’s recent decision to reopen the country to tourism (for vaccinated visitors only) on November 15 seems perfectly timed to allow for such an international event. 

While this might appear to be a courageous move on Cuba’s part, the country’s ongoing crises are unlikely to be smoothed over by a quick fix. Last July, the largest street protests in decades rocked the island and led to a massive wave of arrests. A recent report by the human rights nonprofit Prisoner Defenders alleges that more 5,000 people were detained and hundreds remain in jail.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara in September 2019. Courtesy of the artist’s Instagram.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara in September 2019. Courtesy of the artist’s Instagram.

Among those still detained are performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and rapper Maykel Osorbo. Both are members of the San Isidro Movement, the collective of poets, artists, and musicians that has become a thorn in the side of the Cuban government in the past three years due to its advocacy on behalf of expressive freedoms. Otero Alcántara and Osorbo were featured in the mega-hit music video for “Patria y Vida that has become the anthem of government opponents. Anyelo Troya, the Havana-based videographer that secretly recorded their segments for the video, was later arrested during the protests and received a 10-month sentence in a summary judgement.

Visual artist Hamlet Lavastida was taken into custody two weeks before the protests began, when he returned to Cuba after a year abroad. He is accused of inciting others to commit crimes based on an idea shared in a private chat that was never realized. Although he was already in police custody with the July protests began, his interrogators have insinuated that Lavastida is somehow responsible for the unrest. In addition to these detentions, dozens of other artists, curators, activists, and independent journalists who have protested escalating repression of civil liberties have been subject to under house arrest for months.

Tania Bruguera speaks with other artists gathered outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana on November 27, 2020. Photo by Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images.

Tania Bruguera speaks with other artists gathered outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana on November 27, 2020. Photo by Yamil Lage/AFP via Getty Images.

Among them is artist Tania Bruguera, who recently left Cuba after enduring months of forced confinement, threats, and periodic hostile interrogations. Despite denunciations of state repressions from Amnesty InternationalHuman Rights Watch, and the European Parliament, the Cuban government is not showing signs of letting up; on the contrary, the new law known as Decree 35 will criminalize social media posts and other digital publications that are critical of the government. 

The political climate on the island is itself plenty of reason to give potential visitors pause, but Cuba’s problems don’t stop there. While the rate of COVID-19 infections on the island was relatively low for the first year of the pandemic, the government’s decision last spring to allow Russian tourists into the Varadero resort area led to an outbreak of the Delta variant that has since spread throughout the island, making Cuba the Latin American country with the highest number of cases per capita.

Just two months ago, the Cuban government was celebrating the success rate of its home-grown COVID-19 vaccines, but immunization has been slow. This week, Cuban authorities announced that Chinese vaccines were being imported to speed up the process—which, it is hoped, will enable more tourists to return.

The conflicts between the government and the more independence-minded Cuban artists made international headlines last November, when hundreds of cultural workers held a sit-in in front of the Ministry of Culture to demand a cessation of police violence against members of the San Isidro Movement, and to insist on the need for dialogue with authorities about restrictions on creative expression. Out of that confrontation emerged the 27N group that has continued to work on artistic and activist projects focusing on civil rights. Internationally recognized Cuban artists such as Hamlet Lavastida, Bruguera, Reynier Leyva Novo, Leandro Feal, and Julio Llópiz-Casal are all active members.

After that, officials quickly reneged on their original promise for dialogue, denouncing the protesters as provocateurs and mercenaries on the U.S. government payroll. While Cuban artists have organized independent exhibitions during previous biennials to showcase work that would not be presented in state venues, it’s highly unlikely that any of those who have been involved in recent protests will be allowed to stage anything given the current political climate.

The July 11 protests in Cuba. Photo by Leonardo Fernández.

The July 11 protests in Cuba. Photo by Leonardo Fernández.

Several prominent cultural figures in Cuba have publicly disagreed with the state’s treatment of protesters, but there are some well-known Cuban artists who have remained silent throughout the recent unrest. Considering the long history in Cuba of making political loyalty a condition of professional advancement, it is reasonable to expect that those that have avoided publicly criticizing the government or participating in protests will figure among participants in the 14th Havana Biennial. KCHO, Wilfredo Prieto, and Humberto Díaz have already appeared on the biennial’s Facebook page in photos and videos that suggest they are involved in planning and promotion. Others who have been absent from public debates, such as Yornel Martinez, José Toirac, and Mabel Poblet are likely candidates as well. 

Despite its status as a symbol of Third World independence, Cuba has long depended on foreign subsidy for the Havana Biennial. The event is as much a boon for the local arts community as it is for the government: The arrival of hundreds of arts professionals and collectors provides enough money from art sales and invitations abroad to keep many Cubans afloat for a year or two. European foundations have supported the publication of biennial catalogues, embassies have hosted exhibitions and events, and foreign artists invited to participate are usually expected to secure their own support for production of their work and travel. 

U.S. foundation involvement is limited by the strictures of the embargo, but in the past the American Friends of the Ludwig Foundation and the Copperbridge Foundation have organized group excursions for arts patrons. Neither of these foundations responded when I asked about their plans for future involvement in the biennial. On the other hand, Ben Rodriguez-Cubeñas of the Cuban Artists Fund says he hopes to be able to continue support for American-based artists participating in “Behind the Wall” (renamed “The Juan Delgado Cultural Project” after its recently deceased founder), a public art exhibition along Havana’s Malecón that is the best-known collateral venture during the biennial.

What remains to be seen is the extent to which the new iteration of the biennial represents the interests of the Cuban state over and above the aspirations of its artists.

Coco Fusco is an artist and writer.

PJMedia , September 21, 2021

An Update on the Push for Democracy in Cuba

By A.J. Kaufman Sep 21, 2021

AP Photo/Ismael Francisco

AP Photo/Ismael Francisco

It’s been more than two months since thousands of Cubans poured into the streets to protest the nation’s Communist government. The grassroots revolt dominated the news cycle for weeks. But with constantly-evolving tragedies from Afghanistan to the Southern border and Chicago under President Joe Biden’s watch, it’s hard to keep track of every issue.

The Cuban demonstrations were prompted by short-term shortages of food, COVID-19 vaccines, and long-term dissatisfaction with the hardships created by the nation’s bureaucratic economic controls. Protesters clashed with Cuban police, and the left-wing government cracked down on the island’s already limited internet access to quell any uprisings organized over social media.

Homeland Secretary Security Alejandro Mayorkas, who still refuses to admit there’s a crisis on the Mexico-United States border, is not keen on allowing Cubans asylum in the United States. The cruelty is remarkable, considering Mayorkas was born in Havana just before the Cuban Revolution, and his family was lucky enough to flee to America.

The Heritage Foundation had a 30-minute interview Monday with John Suarez, executive director at the Center for a Free Cuba. He discussed the endurance of the pro-democracy movement in Cuba and how Americans can play a role in pushing the island nation toward freedom.

Suarez said that while protests still take place, the Communist regime passed a law in August called Decree 35, “basically threatening people who videotape, who share things on social media with fines and prison, and also encouraging their cadres to physically assault them.”

“So, if they see somebody taking a video of a protest or some sort of atrocity being committed by the government, if you’re caught doing it, you can be fined or jailed,” Suarez continued. “If a regime agent is in the vicinity or someone sympathetic to the regime, you can be physically assaulted and have the equipment you’re using taken away from you. So, it’s going to be more difficult to get those images out.”

Suarez said he remains optimistic, because “there’s a profound desire by Cubans for change.”

“What we need is international solidarity, not just in the United States, but from the democratic world more broadly,” he explained. “The consequences of not backing democracy in Cuba has been dire. We see it the way the Cubans have been able to extend their influence into places like Venezuela, Nicaragua, and the humanitarian disasters that are occurring there. And you have a presence of Cuban troops, Cuban intelligence officers, they are torturing Venezuelans and Nicaraguans today.”

When it comes to the global pandemic, Suarez also believes Cuba is following Communist China by underreporting cases and fatalities.

“The regime has been underreporting COVID deaths and trying to spin its propaganda as a medical power,” he stated. “But the reality is, we know anecdotally, a lot of people are dying. A lot of prisoners have contracted COVID, and people who never should have been in prison in the first place.”

In the end, a refocus on Cuba is important for the West. Ignore the lies from Bernie Sanders types, realize Cuba maintains extensive trade relationships with countries around the world, and any so-called embargo does not restrict food or medicine.

There is a reason why brave Cubans in the streets chanted ‘Down with the dictatorship!’ and not “Down with the embargo!”

What’s going on in the Caribbean is not about trade or health care; it is the result of ruthless socialist despots who violently repress people 90 miles from our shores.

PenAmerica , September 16, 2021

Cuba: Writers and artists remain threatened and imprisoned two months after protests

September 16, 2021

Screen Shot 2021-09-22 at 6.38.37 PM.png

In the two months since historic mass demonstrations swept through Cuba on July 11, drawing national and international attention to the island’s deteriorating socio-political conditions, there have been at least 39 documented arrests of artists related to the protests, four of whom were subjected to trial without a jury. At least 55 artists and writers are currently either under house arrest, imprisoned, or under investigation.

Cuba remains in a devastating social, cultural, health, economic, and political crisis. This crisis includes food shortages, power outages, and insufficient medical services to address the pandemic—all while officials continue to treat peaceful criticism of government policies as criminal behavior. In response to the crisis, thousands of Cubans took to the streets around the country demanding reform.

Cuban authorities have responded with widespread repression of the protests, including police violence, digital censorship, and the passage of Decree-Law 35, which penalizes the publication of information critical of the government. At least 1,000 arrests have been recorded, and countless others were temporarily disappeared or forced to go into hiding. 

The undersigned organizations, representing authors, artists, human rights defenders, journalists, and intellectuals, urgently call on the government of Cuba to stop the systematic harassment of writers and artists; to immediately release all those who have been arbitrarily detained, arrested, or disappeared; and to respect freedom of expression and artistic freedom, rather than silencing creatives critical of government policies.


We urge that the Cuban government immediately release the following artists:

Didier Almagro
Ernesto Pacheco López
Hamlet Lavastida
Lázaro Rodríguez Betancourt (Pupito En Sy)
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara
Maykel Castillo Pérez (“Maykel Osorbo”)
Randy Arteaga Rivera

We also demand an end to police and judicial harassment, house arrests, and arbitrary detentions against the following artists, musicians, and writers, who remain under threat:

Abel Lescay
Adonis Milan
Alina Palmero
Amaury Pacheco
Aminta D’Cárdenas
Ángel Santiesteban
Anyelo Troya
Camila Ramírez Lobón
Carlos González Acosta
Carolina Barrero
Chabelly Díaz
Claudia Genlui Hidalgo
Daniel Triana
David de Omni
Daisy Martínez
Denis Solís
Edel Carrero
Eliecer Márquez Funky Duany ”(“ Eliecer Márquez Funky Duany)
Enrique Alonso (Kike Stories)
Ever Fonseca
Fernando Ginarte Mora
Gerson Manuel Montero Soler
Gretel Medina Mendieta
Iris Mariño
Iris Ruiz
Javier Sánchez
Juan Carlos Saénz de la Calahorra
Julio Llópiz-Casal
Katherine Bisquet
Manuel de la Cruz
Manuel Alejandro Rodríguez Yong
María Matienzo
Mario Miguel García Piña
Mavel Alonso
Mijail Rodríguez
Milton Macdonald aka Black Bandanaz
Mityl Font
Omar Mena
Osvaldo Navarro (“Navy Pro”)
Ramón López Díaz (“The Invader”)
Raúl Prado
Reiner Díaz Vega
Richard Adrián Zamora Brito (“The Radikal”)
Roberto Hidalgo Puentes “Yomil”
Solveig Font
Yasser Castellanos
Yunior García Aguilera


Albanian PEN
Article 19, Office for Mexico and Central America
Association Cubains en France pour Cuba Démocratique
Asociación por Libertad de Prensa
Club de las Letras, Nicaragua
Croatian PEN
Cuban Writers in Exile PEN Center
Cuban-Canadians for a Democratic Cuba
Danish PEN
English PEN
Ghanaian PEN
German PEN
Irish PEN / PEN na hÉirean
International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights
PEN Afghanistan
PEN Afrikaans
PEN America
PEN Argentina
PEN Bangladesh
PEN Belarus
PEN Bolivia
PEN Canada
PEN Centre of Bosnia & Herzegovina
PEN Chiapas Pluricultural
PEN Chile
PEN Club de France
PEN Ecuador
PEN Eritrea
PEN Esperanto
PEN Haiti
PEN International
PEN Malta
PEN Melbourne
PEN Norway
PEN Nigeria
PEN Quebec
PEN Puerto Rico
PEN Romania
PEN Sierra Leone
PEN South Africa
PEN Turkey
PEN Venezuela
Perth PEN
San Miguel PEN
Sloven PEN
South India PEN Centre
Swedish PEN | Svenska PEN
Ugandan PEN
Vietnamese Abroad PEN Centre