CubaBrief: Cuban prisoners of conscience awarded 2022 Freedom Award. At least 9 dead after explosion hits hotel in downtown Havana

Cuban artist and dissident Anamely Ramos accepting the Freedom Award for two jailed Cuban artists

In recognition of their activism under the repressive Cuban regime, Freedom House awarded Maykel Castillo Pérez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, leaders of Cuba’s Movimiento San Isidro (MSI), its 2022 Freedom Award. The organization also presented its Leadership Award to Carl Gershman, founding president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), who headed the organization for nearly 40 years.

The honorees received the awards at Freedom House’s 2022 Annual Awards Dinner held on May 4th at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC.

Prisoners of conscience Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo Pérez awarded 2022 Freedom Award

Castillo Pérez and Otero Alcántara have been detained for their human rights work since 2021 and remain in prison today. Accepting the award on their behalf was Anamely Ramos, an artist and defender of cultural rights in Cuba who has collaborated with MSI on campaigns to promote free expression and counter censorship. She has repeatedly tried to return home to Cuba and been denied that fundamental right by the Cuban dictatorship with the complicity of American Airlines.

“The Cuban state bets that repressing the body will repress the soul,” said Anamely Ramos upon accepting the 2022 Freedom Award on behalf of Cuban civil society activists Maykel Castillo Perez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. (Source: Freedom House ). Freedom House provided the following background information on the two prisoners of conscience, and their movement.

Maykel Castillo Pérez, known in the cultural and activist world as Maykel Osorbo, is a music artist who cowrote the 2021 Grammy award–winning song “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), which has become a resistance anthem of the Cuban people. He has been detained by the Cuban authorities since May 2021 and now faces up to 10 years in prison on fabricated charges.

In November 2020, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara led a hunger strike of a dozen other MSI activists in Havana, which ended with a violent intervention by local police. He has been detained by the Cuban authorities since July 11, 2021, when state security forces arrested him in Havana on his way to participate in island-wide prodemocracy demonstrations. He had previously been arrested in May 2021 while peacefully conducting an eight-day hunger and thirst strike in protest of the illegal confiscation of his art by state security officers, and has been subject to other past arrests and surveillance. He now faces up to seven years in prison.

Movimiento San Isidro is a group of Cuban artists and intellectuals that have mobilized against government censorship of artistic expression in Cuba. MSI was founded in 2018 to protest Cuba’s Decree Law 349, which requires the Cuban Ministry of Culture to approve all public and private cultural activities and empowers the government to ban artistic production based on arbitrary criteria.

This is the video Freedom House produced about the two imprisoned Cuban artists and human rights defenders for the awards ceremony.

The Center is saddened to report that a deadly explosion has killed at least nine, and injured over 40 in Havana and wrecked the Hotel Saratoga, a five star hotel that was under renovation. The apparent cause of the blast according to official channels was a gas leak.

These tragedies are not unique to Cuba, and also happen in the free world, but in Cuba warning about a potential disaster can get you punished, and jailed.

Silverio Portal Contreras was sentenced to four years in prison for alleged crimes of “public disorder” and “contempt” after leading several public protests demanding decent housing for all Cubans. He was detained on June 20, 2016 in Havana and the court document states that “the behavior of the accused is particularly offensive because it took place in a touristic area.” The document further describes the accused as having “bad social and moral behavior” and mentions that he fails to participate in pro-government activities. According to Silverio’s wife, before his arrest he had campaigned against the collapse of dilapidated buildings in Havana. Silverio was recognized as a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International on August 26, 2019. He was beaten by prison officials in mid-May 2020 and lost sight in one eye, and spent 2 years and 9 months unjustly imprisoned. He suffered a stroke during his imprisonment and is now in fragile health.

Government officials, who jailed Silverio, did not heed his warnings regarding dilapidated buildings. On January 27, 2020 three school girls died when a balcony collapsed on them in Old Havana. María Karla Fuentes and Lisnavy Valdés Rodríguez, both 12 years old, and Rocío García Nápoles, 11 years old were killed.

NBC News, May 6, 2022

At least 9 dead after explosion hits hotel in downtown Havana, Cuban officials say

A student told NBC News that the explosion woke him. “I was at home and heard a loud noise,” the person said.

Rescuers work after an explosion at the Hotel Saratoga in Havana on May 6, 2022.Adalberto Roque / AFP – Getty Images

May 6, 2022, 12:34 PM EDT / Updated May 6, 2022, 4:03 PM EDT

By Elisha Fieldstadt, Maria Piñero and Reuters

At least nine people are dead and others could still be trapped after an explosion hit a downtown Havana hotel Friday, the office of the Cuban president and witnesses said.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel was at the scene of the Hotel Saratoga, where early investigations show the explosion was likely caused by a gas leak, according to updates on the president’s Twitter account. Initially, there were eight fatalities but the president said in an update late Friday afternoon that the number had increased to nine. About 40 people are injured, he tweeted.

Search and rescue is underway at the hotel, according to the updates, citing Luis Antonio Torres Iribar, the first secretary of the Party in Havana.

Iribar said Friday afternoon that people are still trapped alive in the rubble and officials are preparing to rescue them.

The president’s office said Old Havana Mayor Alexis Acosta Silva informed them that the children from a school near the hotel were evacuated, and none were hurt.

A student told NBC News that the explosion woke him. “I was at home and heard a loud noise and I stood in my balcony and looked in that direction,” the student said in Spanish. “I thought it was coming from the store, but no, it came from Saratoga.”

“It was a large explosion. I felt it, I was asleep and it woke me,” he said. Another witness saw smoke and flames coming from the building, according to Reuters.

Photos from Granma, the Cuban communist party’s official daily, showed images of the multistory Hotel Saratoga whose walls appeared to have been blown out by the blast up several stories.

Police and rescue workers flocked to the scene, cordoning off key points and buildings nearby, including the historic Capitolio building.

The Hotel Saratoga is on the prohibited accommodations list for U.S. citizens, issued by the U.S. Department of State in 2020.

Previously, the premier hotel was frequented by U.S. celebrities.

This is a breaking news story. Please return for updates.

https://www.nbcnews.com/news/latino/strong-explosion-reported-hotel-downtown-havana-cuban-state-media-says-rcna27679

Freedom House, May 4, 2022

Freedom House to Present Annual Awards to Cuban Activists, Founding President of the National Endowment for Democracy

Cuban artists and activists Maykel Castillo Pérez (known as Maykel Osorbo) and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara will receive the 2022 Freedom Award. NED founder and longtime leader Carl Gershman will receive the 2022 Leadership Award.

In recognition of their activism under the repressive Cuban regime, Freedom House will award Maykel Castillo Pérez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, leaders of Cuba’s Movimiento San Isidro (MSI), its 2022 Freedom Award. The organization will also present its Leadership Award to Carl Gershman, founding president of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), who headed the organization for nearly 40 years.

The honorees will receive the awards at Freedom House’s 2022 Annual Awards Dinner on May 4 at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, DC.

Castillo Pérez and Otero Alcántara have been detained for their human rights work since 2021 and remain in prison today. Accepting the award on their behalf will be Anamely Ramos, an artist and defender of cultural rights in Cuba who has collaborated with MSI on campaigns to promote free expression and counter censorship.

“As we face enormous challenges to freedom around the world, it is an honor to celebrate the incredible courage of this year’s awardees in standing up to tyranny,” said Michael J. Abramowitz, president of Freedom House. “Despite repression and setbacks, the human desire for freedom is only growing stronger. Its champions around the world—like Maykel, Luis Manuel, and their brave compatriots who last year staged the largest prodemocracy demonstration in Cuba since 1959—need support from democratic powers and international organizations if they are to prevail. Freedom House expresses its solidarity with the Cuban people, supporting their quest for freedom for as long as it takes to achieve the rights and liberties that all people deserve.”

“I am also thrilled Freedom House is honoring Carl Gershman, an unflagging and fierce defender of freedom,” Abramowitz continued. “Under his leadership, the National Endowment for Democracy has become a potent bulwark of support for human rights defenders and other activists fighting for freedom all over the world, and a symbol of American’s bipartisan commitment to the cause of global democracy.” 

At this year’s gala, former secretary of homeland security and Freedom House chairman Michael Chertoff will interview Representative Liz Cheney about the health of global democracy. Special remarks will also be delivered by Anastasiia Lykholat, senior program officer for Freedom House in Ukraine.

Background

Maykel Castillo Pérez, known in the cultural and activist world as Maykel Osorbo, is a music artist who cowrote the 2021 Grammy award–winning song “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), which has become a resistance anthem of the Cuban people. He has been detained by the Cuban authorities since May 2021 and now faces up to 10 years in prison on fabricated charges.

In November 2020, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara led a hunger strike of a dozen other MSI activists in Havana, which ended with a violent intervention by local police. He has been detained by the Cuban authorities since July 11, 2021, when state security forces arrested him in Havana on his way to participate in island-wide prodemocracy demonstrations. He had previously been arrested in May 2021 while peacefully conducting an eight-day hunger and thirst strike in protest of the illegal confiscation of his art by state security officers, and has been subject to other past arrests and surveillance. He now faces up to seven years in prison.

Movimiento San Isidro is a group of Cuban artists and intellectuals that have mobilized against government censorship of artistic expression in Cuba. MSI was founded in 2018 to protest Cuba’s Decree Law 349, which requires the Cuban Ministry of Culture to approve all public and private cultural activities and empowers the government to ban artistic production based on arbitrary criteria.

Carl Gershman is a lifelong champion of human rights and democracy. Prior to serving as president of the National Endowment for Democracy, he was senior counselor to the US Representative to the United Nations and a resident scholar at Freedom House. As NED president, Gershman oversaw the creation of the quarterly Journal of Democracy, the International Forum for Democratic Studies, the Reagan-Fascell Democracy Fellows Program, and the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA). The NED is an independent, nonprofit foundation dedicated to the growth and strengthening of democratic institutions around the world. Each year, NED makes more than 2,000 grants to support the projects of nongovernmental groups abroad who are working for democratic goals in more than 100 countries.

For 80 years, Freedom House has worked to defend and expand freedom globally. To help create a world where all people are free, Freedom House identifies threats to freedom, spurs collective action to counter those threats, and supports activists working to defend and expand freedom. Since 1943, Freedom House has recognized outstanding leaders who have championed freedom and democracy. Past recipients of the Freedom Award include His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama; Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; Vaclav Havel, the playwright, dissident, and first postcommunist president of Czechoslovakia; Saudi activist Hala Al-Dosari; journalist Edward R. Murrow; Uyghur activist Ilham Tohti; and Spanish musician and opponent of the Franco dictatorship Pablo Casals. Recent recipients of the Leadership Award include then Vice President Joe Biden, Senator John McCain, Senator Bob Corker, House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, and Senator Lindsay Graham.

Freedom House is grateful to our Anniversary Sponsors—Robert Tuttle and Maria Hummer-Tuttle—and Freedom Supporters—Thomas and Susan Kahn, and Nilita and Vivek Paul—for their support of this year’s event.

https://freedomhouse.org/article/freedom-house-present-annual-awards-cuban-activists-founding-president-national-endowment