CubaBrief: Two Cuban Artists face seven and 10 years in prison for living as free men and exercising their basic rights

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo Pérez “Osorbo”: Jailed in Cuba for living in freedom, and exercising their fundamental human rights.

Freedom  /ˈfrēdəm/ noun: The power or right to act, speak, or think as one wants without hindrance or restraint. Absence of subjection to foreign domination or despotic government. The state of not being imprisoned or enslaved. Similar: liberty, liberation,independence, self-government, self-determination,  democracy, individualism, emancipation

Freedom is a criminal offense in Cuba. The new penal code in Cuba explicitly punishes the right to speak, or think as one wants if it is critical of the government. The dictatorship in Cuba is a despotic government.

Thousands of Cubans were jailed during and after the nonviolent protests that demanded change in the streets of Cuba between July 11 – 13, 2021. Some protesters were shot by paramilitaries, and the police. Some of the protesters were killed by regime agents. Hundreds have been subjected to political show trials, and sentenced to prison sentences of up to 30 years.

The political show trials continue, but the “trial” of two artists concluded yesterday that has drawn more international scrutiny than the others.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is a visual artist. He was last arrested, and detained on July 11, 2021 before he could join in the 11J protests mentioned above. In 2021, Time Magazine recognized Luis Manuel as one of the 100 most influential people.

Maykel Castillo Pérez “Osorbo” is a rap singer and he has been in pre-trial detention for over a year. He was taken by the political police on May 18, 2021. He is also a two-time Latin Grammy winner for the song he co-wrote and performed with other Cuban artists in 2021 called Patria y Vida.

“Castillo’s last statement to the judge during the trial was, ‘Espero que la sentencia de usted, señora jueza, sea la de su conciencia,’ which translates to: ‘I hope your sentence, madame judge, is one dictated by your conscience.,” reported NBC News.

On May 17, 2022 Luis Manuel delivered a message from prison. “In an audio recording from his prison cell at Guanajay on May 17, Otero Alcántara said: ‘I dream that no Cuban will be the enemy of any other Cuban. Today for these dreams I am ready to sacrifice the artist’s flesh, my artist’s flesh, and my freedom-loving spirit,'” reported PEN International.

The full audio message with English subtitles is available below.

The dictatorship’s prosecutor has requested that Luis Manuel be sentenced to seven and Maykel Castillo to ten years in prison” on a range of charges related to their participation in a peaceful demonstration and an artistic performance, and their criticism of President Miguel Díaz-Canel”, reports Amnesty International.

People of good will are not remaining passive before this injustice. Protests were carried out in Miami, Madrid, New York and elsewhere to demonstrate solidarity with Luis Manuel and Maykel.

Reuters reported today that “the U.S. Embassy in Havana on [June 1, 2022] criticized the trial of two Cuban artist-dissidents as neither ‘free nor fair’ on social media, fueling a growing standoff over human rights just weeks after Washington moved to ease sanctions on the island nation.”

However, one need not rely on U.S. diplomats on the reality that trials in Cuba are neither “free nor fair.” The president of the Supreme People’s Court (TSP), Rubén Remigio Ferro, dispelled them in a video revealed by DIARIO DE CUBA entitled “How Justice Is Decided in Cuba” that demonstrates that the judiciary is subordinate to the Cuban Communist Party, the Council of State, and works with the secret police, and prosecutors office to ensure that acquittals are kept at a minimum.

This is a political trial and a mockery of justice. We call on members of the international community to demand the immediate release of these two imprisoned artists and human rights defenders. #FreeMaykelOsorbo and #FreeLuisMa.

Translating Cuba, May 31, 2022

In Havana, It is Not Two Men Who Are Judged, But a Symbol

Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo in Havana, when they were still free. (Anamely Ramos)

14ymedio, Yoani Sánchez, Generation Y, 31 May 2022 — The last Monday of May dawned cloudy and humid in Havana. However, it was not the possibility of a shower or the difficulties of getting around in a city paralyzed by the fuel crisis that were the main features of the day. In the Court of Marianao, a neighborhood in the western part of the Cuban capital, a trial is taking place that thousands of eyes are watching. The artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and the rapper Maykel Castillo Osorbo are the accused.

Although in recent months oral hearings against those who participated in the popular demonstrations of last July, or to sentence citizens who show their disagreement on social networks have become common, this week’s process marks a climax of repression in the country. Otero Alcántara is being tried, among other crimes, for placing the Cuban flag on his body for days, in an artistic action that has annoyed a ruling party that hijacked the national emblems for its particular ideological and partisan crusade.

For his part, Osorbo is blamed for having insulted the figure of the ruler Miguel Díaz-Canel and for holding Prime Minister Manuel Marrero responsible for the lack of supplies in hospitals. Both accusations, with a prosecutor’s request for seven and ten years respectively, would hardly carry a small fine in democratic nations or, simply, would not constitute a crime under a rule of law. But the two artists have been in jail for long months and are only now being brought before a court, whose ruling is governed more by the whims of a group in power than by the rigors of justice.

To avoid showing solidarity with the defendants, the surroundings of the Court woke up under a strong police and security services operation, the telephone lines and Internet access of innumerable activists and independent journalists were cut, and an intense campaign of demonization was deployed on social networks to try to counter any show of support for Otero Alcántara and Osorbo. But the effect of this offensive seems to be just the opposite of what the regime is seeking: people who were not aware of the trial have found out after inquiring about the many uniformed men they have seen in that part of the city, and the insistence on defining them as “criminals” in the official media has aroused more sympathy than rejection.

In the hands of Castroism — like a hot potato that burns if held between the fingers and ridicules if it is dropped — are the lives of two young people who represent the failure of a system. Coming from a humble neighborhood, both were supposed to blindly embrace the political model established in the country more than six decades ago because, according to official propaganda, they are part of the sectors most favored by the Revolution. But instead of that, Otero Alcántara and Osorbo have denounced the lies and arbitrariness of the leaders in olive green, the poverty of their neighborhood of San Isidro and police impunity.

By arresting and judging them, the Cuban system itself is showing that it only accepts total obedience from citizens, never criticism or dissidence in any of its forms. It has turned them into a banner of the fragility of a citizenry that has been cut off from all peaceful paths to change the status quo.

In the next few days the sentence against the two artists will be known. It is very likely that they are sentences designed to send an exemplary message to the rest of the population. But the Cuban regime has already lost this battle, it can lock up their bodies for years but it will not be able to put behind bars the symbol they have become.


Editorial Note: This text was originally published in Deutsche Welle in Spanish.

Reuters, June 1, 2022

U.S. embassy says trial of Cuban artist-activists ‘neither free nor fair’

Jun 1, 2022 | 2:51 PM

HAVANA (Reuters) – The U.S. Embassy in Havana on Wednesday criticized the trial of two Cuban artist-dissidents as neither “free nor fair” on social media, fueling a growing standoff over human rights just weeks after Washington moved to ease sanctions on the island nation.

Activists Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and Maykel Castillo were awaiting announcement a verdict after standing trial in Havana on Monday and Tuesday. They face seven and 10 years in jail, respectively, for alleged crimes ranging from contempt to assault.

The U.S. Embassy said on Twitter that the trial violated the human rights of Otero Alcantara and Castillo and called for their immediate release.

“To no one’s surprise, the trial was neither free nor fair. The regime used trumped up charges. They are being persecuted for their art and opinions,” the U.S. Embassy said.

Neither a group of European diplomats nor foreign journalists were authorized to attend this week’s trial. Reuters submitted a request to the Cuban government to enter the courthouse but did not receive a response.

A Cuban state-run radio program on Tuesday accused the U.S. Embassy of “politicizing” a normal judicial process, saying the alleged crimes at issue in the trial were clearly described in Cuba’s penal code.

“No profession exonerates anyone from being brought to trial for a crime. If you are an artist and you commit a crime, you must respond to the law,” the radio report said.

Otero Alcantara and Castillo are members of a Havana-based artists collective that spearheaded an unusual wave of small protests before most left Cuba, alleging repression. Both men also appeared in the music video for the Latin Grammy-winning song Patria y Vida, the unofficial anthem of widespread anti-government protests on the island last July 11.

Cuban state media have called Castillo and Otero Alcantara’s San Isidro Movement part of a U.S.-directed “soft coup” attempt, charges they deny.

The U.S. Embassy has continued to blast Cuba’s handling of trials – and has moved to limit Cuba’s participation in the upcoming regional Summit of the Americas – even as the administration of President Joe Biden moved to ease sanctions on the island in May.

(Reporting by Dave Sherwood and Nelson Acosta; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

NBC News, May 31, 2022

In Cuba, trial against high profile anti-government activists concludes

Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and rapper Maykel Castillo now await sentencing, as international groups call for their release.

Police officers guard the entrance to the Marianao Municipal Court in Havana, on May 31, 2022, where the trials of Cuban dissident artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo are being held. Yamil Lage / AFP – Getty Images

May 31, 2022, 5:51 PM EDT

By Carmen Sesin

The trial of artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and rapper Maykel Castillo, two of the most prominent anti-government activists in Cuba, concluded Tuesday.

A verdict is expected in the next two weeks, though it can take longer, according to Cuban activist Anamely Ramos.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have been calling for their release.

Trials in Cuba are closed to the media and only relatives are allowed in the courtroom.

Otero Alcántara is facing seven years in prison on charges of defaming the Cuban flag, contempt and public disorder. Castillo is charged with contempt, resisting arrest, assault and defamation of national institutions. He faces up to 10 years in jail, according to Ramos.

Cuban activists have insisted both men are innocent of the charges.

Otero Alcántara was detained on July 11, 2021, the day the island exploded in protests against the Communist government. Castillo was detained in May 2021.

The joint trial has garnered worldwide attention. Castillo was one of the composers of the Latin Grammy award-winning song “Patria y Vida” (“Homeland and Life”), which became an anthem during the July protests. Images of Otero Alcántara appear in the music video as well. Time magazine named Otero Alcántara one of the 100 most influential people of 2021.

Both men were involved with the San Isidro Movement, a collective of artists and activists who are critical of the government’s censorship. It was named after the Havana neighborhood where Otero Alcántara resides.

Many of the members of the San Isidro Movement are no longer in Cuba; Ramos is one of them. The activist, who is in contact with relatives who attended the trial, told NBC News from New York that Castillo’s last statement to the judge during the trial was, “Espero que la sentencia de usted, señora jueza, sea la de su conciencia,” which translates to: “I hope your sentence, madame judge, is one dictated by your conscience.”

Castillo had to find a new attorney just three days before the trial began, Ramos said, because the lawyer who had worked on his defense for months was removed. Ramos called the trial a “circus.”

Ramos is stranded in the U.S. after she was prevented in February from boarding a flight to Havana from Miami; she said she has been barred from re-entering her country.

Cuba’s government has not commented publicly on the cases of Otero Alcántara and Castillo. State-run media has previously said both men receive funds from the U.S. government and has called the San Isidro Movement a “farce.”

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Diario de Cuba, May 31, 2022


‘Justice the Cuban Way’: Collusion between the Supreme Court, the Prosecutor’s Office and the MININT

The President of the Supreme People’s Court admits that, according to the universal theory of criminal law, Cuban judges’ impartiality is compromised.

Lucía Alfonso Mirabal

La Habana 31 Mayo 2022

If there were any doubts as to the subordination to the regime of those charged with administering justice in Cuba (and therefore, in theory, being impartial) the president of the Supreme People’s Court (TSP), Rubén Remigio Ferro, dispelled them in a video revealed by DIARIO DE CUBA entitled “How Justice Is Decided in Cuba.”

The material is of a meeting chaired by the TSP’s president, with Attorney General Yamila Peña Ojeda and TSP Vice-President Marisela Sosa Ravelo in attendance. Also present are the president of the TSP’s Criminal Court, that of the State Security Crimes Court, and all the heads, at the national and provincial levels, of the Ministry of the Interior’s (MININT) General Directorate of Criminal Investigation and Operations.

Although it is a November 2018 video, the trials of the 11J protesters, and the magistrate’s words when referring to the “current and prospective context,” show that nothing had changed in 2021, two years after the entry into force of the Constitution approved in 2019, or in 2022, when the trials and sentences continue against Cubans who dared in July 2021 to demand changes and the end of Communism on the island.

Remigio Ferro makes it clear that judges in Cuba are “judges of the Revolution and the Party.” The TSP president himself recognizes that a meeting like the one we see in the video would be “unthinkable” in another country.

In democratic countries, where there is a separation of powers, and where defendants have the right to a fair trial, where judges have the duty to recuse themselves if for any reason they have a conflict of interest compromising their impartiality in a certain judicial process, there are no meetings in which the president of a court arranges with the prosecutor, behind the defense lawyers’ backs, how he should proceed.

The President of the TSP forgot about Article 57 of the Constitution, which states that “the function of dispensing justice emanates from the people and is exercised on their behalf by the People’s Supreme Court and the other courts established by law.”

The people of Cuba, however, are not the Communist Party of Cuba (CCP). In fact, president Miguel Díaz-Canel himself recently acknowledged that of the little more than 10 million people who live on the island, only a little more than 1 million (including members of the UJC, the Young Communists Union, even though not all of them wish to join the ranks of the Party) belong to the PCC.

Therefore, judges in Cuba represent just only 10% of the population – the 10% that belongs to the Party. And, as the disproportionate prosecutorial demands and sentences of the 11J protesters have shown, those who challenge the Party and the Revolution, to which the judges bear allegiance, do not receive justice. Remigio Ferro himself contradicted the regime’s position when, after the protests, he stated that demonstrating, or exercising one’s freedom of opinion, of the press, of belief, and even of political and ideological affiliation, does not constitute a crime. In his own words, protesting was “an individual’s constitutional right.”

But constitutional rights in Cuba are curtailed, as evidenced by the new Penal Code, which criminalizes the “excessive exercise of constitutional rights.” And the parameters governing the enjoyment of these rights are not determined by the freedom or rights of other citizens, but rather by the interests of the Party to which, Rubén Remigio Ferro acknowledges, judges in Cuba are beholden.

It should also be kept in mind that this video, recorded with the knowledge of those present, to be circulated only between the presidents and vice-presidents of the Cuban provincial courts, dates from to a time when the approval of the Constitution, to replace that of 1976, was being promoted

The Constitution approved in 2019, on paper, and according to the Cuban regime and the TSP president himself, does more to guarantee individuals rights than the previous one. For Remigio Ferro, however, these guarantees are a problem, as is the fact that the defendants in a trial can count on defense lawyers, from the beginning.

The magistrate refers to defense lawyers as “dogs in the tobacco” (that is, a nuisance), a position at odds with the impartiality that judges are supposed to embrace, especially him, as president of the TSP and its Governing Council.

It is somewhat understandable for the police and State Security officers to consider the presence of defense lawyers from the beginning of the justice process to be irksome, but it is outrageous that this is the view of those charged with ensuring that justice, absolute equality between the parties, and respect for due process, prevail.

The collusion between the president of the TSP, the Prosecutor’s Office and the MININT against lawyers and defendants (note that any lawyers from the state’s Organization of Collective Law Firms were conspicuously missing from the meeting) is completely laid bare when Remigio Ferro addressed the issue of returning case files to the prosecution, which usually rankles public prosecutors and investigators.

By returning the files, however, the courts send “a signal,” as explained by the TSP president, for the prosecution to redress deficiencies and weaknesses in the evidence that could end up forcing the judge to acquit the accused.

Remigio Ferro explains that if there are fewer returns there will be more acquittals (which in Cuba only constitute between 6% and 8% of the cases processed, which he considers good numbers).

His words were “we could remove the stress entailed by the returns (…) but you’d  see the number of acquittals rise.”

The president of the TSP admits that, according to the theory of criminal law, it is not proper for the court to return files, as this means that it is compromising its impartiality, and that this is a “universal theory taught at universities.” But these universal theories do not count in Cuba, where justice is imparted “the Cuban way,” the magistrate acknowledged.

Although the meeting addressed common crimes and made no reference to prosecutions against citizens for opposing the regime (though this is never recognized in the country, where dissidents and activists are, formally, imprisoned for alleged common crimes) it is easy to deduce what those who openly demonstrate against the Government and the PCC can expect from the justice system.

The President of the TSP’s remarks at this meeting in 2018 bear out the statements given by former prosecutor Raucel Ocaña Parada, from Palma Soriano (Santiago de Cuba) to the Cuban Observatory of Human Rights (OCDH) in early May 2022.

Ocaña Parada, now in exile, protested that the trials against 11J demonstrators were being manipulated by “bodies and institutions subject to the interests of the State, the Government and the Communist Party of Cuba” and that it was “in the interest of the Government, the State and the Party” that they be sanctioned with the greatest possible severity, “without any kind of benevolence.”