CubaBrief: On this day three years ago, hundreds of artists and academics openly challenged the Ministry of Culture, and officials agreed to talk but later reneged.

Despite the Castro regime’s best efforts to shut down and demolish the San Isidro protest, the dictatorship ended up with a much larger problem than 14 protesters in a humble home in Havana’s San Isidro neighborhood.

Young people, mostly artists and academics, began assembling in front of the Ministry of Culture throughout the day on November 27, 2020, and their numbers continued to swell into the evening, asking that the Minister meet with the demonstrators to negotiate terms for a dialogue.

On a more positive note, a solidarity rally would be conducted on December 3, 2020, at the Cuban Embassy in Washington, DC, with poetry read in tribute to activists on the island. On a more positive note, Maykel Castillo, the last of the hunger strikers, would conclude his strike on November 30, 2020.

Thirty representatives elected by the hundreds present walked in and talked with the officials, emerging with a pledge to dialogue and consideration of the protesters’ views. Meanwhile, the dictatorship dispatched truckloads of plainclothes security to surround and intimidate the demonstrators. They then blocked access to the Ministry of Culture and began using tear gas and physical force to prevent others from joining the demonstrators. Instead of engaging in dialogue to resolve the differences that sparked the protests, the regime launched a media offensive against the San Isidro Movement and the protestors. Havana’s autocrats have reason to be concerned. The protests and the protesters’ demands have received international attention.

Consider that on November 26, 2020, at 8 p.m., the Castro regime shut down internet and cell phone traffic, just before raiding the San Isidro Movement headquarters, and network data from the NetBlocks Internet Observatory confirmed a wider and sustained “partial disruption to social media and streaming platforms in Cuba between Friday 27 November 2020 and Monday 30 November 2020.” The difficulties are likely to hinder the flow of information from Cuba that has been independently verified. The event occurred after three days of limited service and coincides with protests in Havana by an organization advocating for cultural rights.” Twitter and WhatsApp were impacted.

Young Cubans gathered outside the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020

On November 27, 2020, the independent journal Diario de Cuba merged together various recordings from the day before’s raid on the San Isidro headquarters and posted it on Youtube. Regime officials stated that the raid was carried out because of COVID-19 concerns, although the persons masquerading as doctors did not behave like doctors, and the mob that assembled outside to shout revolutionary slogans without mask coverings did not comply with pandemic regulations. Nor did releasing the majority of the San Isidro activists within hours of their arrest at their respective homes.

Despite the communication breakdown and the deception surrounding the attack on the San Isidro Movement headquarters, the truth about what was going on came out and was communicated among many Cubans who wanted to display their solidarity with action.

The Wall Street Journal, on November 30, 2020 in the article “Cuban Leadership Confronts a Rare Dissident Movement” and this newspaper shared their requests. “We demand the right to have rights…The right of free expression, of free creation, the right to dissent,” said Katherine Bisquet, a young poet, reading the activists’ manifesto by the light of cellphones outside of the ministry where streetlights were turned off. Videos posted on social media showed Ms. Bisquet saying that she spoke for all Cuban citizens.”

The dictatorship was prepared for a major crackdown, but opted for a negotiated solution to avoid the spectacle, but then reneged. Reuters reported that “[t]he protest ended before dawn on Saturday only after officials met with 30 of the demonstrators and agreed to continue talking and to urgently review the case of a detained member of the San Isidro crew and a rapper sentenced this month to eight months in jail on charges of contempt. It also agreed to ensure independent artists in the future were not harassed.”

But just hours later “state television ran a 90-minute special attacking the rapper and other dissident artists and broadcasting visuals of their interactions with U.S. diplomats and Miami exiles,” reported Reuters.

This line of attack is hypocritical when one considers that on March 17, 1958 Fidel Castro’s candidate for provisional president Manuel Urrutia, along with a delegation of other supporters in exile of the future Cuban dictator’s July 26th movement, met with officials at the State Department. They successfully lobbied the U.S. government and argued that arms shipments to Cuba were for hemispheric defense, and they claimed that Batista using them against Cuban nationals was in violation of the conditions agreed to between the two countries.

On the same day the Cuban Government presented to the U.S. Embassy in Havana a formal note protesting the delay in the shipment of M-1 rifles to the Cuban Army, and warned that it would weaken  the Cuban government and lead to its possible downfall. 

On March 26, 1958 in another telegram from the State Department to the U.S. Embassy in Havana the view was expressed how the arms embargo could lead to the fall of Batista’s regime:

“Department has considered possibility its actions could have an adverse psychological effect GOC and could unintentionally contribute to or accelerate eventual Batista downfall. On other hand, shipment US combat arms at this time would probably invite increased resentment against US and associate it with Batista strong arm methods, especially following so closely on heels of following developments:

  1. Government publicly desisted from peace efforts.

  2. Government suspended guarantees again.

  3. Batista expressed confidence Government will win elections with his candidate and insists they will be held despite suspension guarantees but has made no real effort to satisfy public opinion on their fairness and effectiveness as possible means achieve fair and acceptable solution.

  4. Batista announced would increase size arms and informed you he would again undertake mass population shift Oriente, and otherwise acted in manner to discourage those who supported or could be brought to support peaceful settlement by constructive negotiations. “

News of the arms embargo on the Batista regime broke in The New York Times on April 3, 1958, the psychological blow was delivered and the days of the Batista regime were numbered. It should not be a surprise that the Castro regime howls when their opponents reach out and lobby U.S. diplomats for a pro-democracy policy, because they did it in 1958 to get rid of the previous dictator using diplomatic maneuvers in addition to their armed struggle. Unlike the Castro brothers and their July 26th Movement, the San Isidro Movement is nonviolent and seeks a negotiated solution for a Cuba where freedom of expression is no longer a crime.

The San Isidro Movement’s Amaury Pacheco takes a photo of demonstrators behind him. He is now exiled.

They are not alone, and scores of civil society organizations from around the world spoke out on their behalf. On November 26, 2020 a long list of international and Cuban civil society organisations, members of Cuban independent media, activists, and Cuban citizens – condemned “the harassment, police violence, human rights violations, and repressive acts perpetrated by Cuban authorities against artists, journalists, and independent civil society actors in response to peaceful demonstrations against the arrest and subsequent arbitrary conviction of the musician and member of Movimiento San Isidro (MSI), Denis Solís González,” and urged “Cuban authorities to act in accordance with their obligation to preserve the life and health, and safety of the 14 activists at the MSI headquarters since November 16, demanding the release of the musician Denis Solis González.” Both the Trump State Department and the Biden National Security team expressed their solidarity with the San Isidro Movement in aftermath of the contested 2020 election.

The Castro dictatorship maintained a heavy militarized presence on the streets, and physically attacked or arbitrarily detained Cubans who demonstrated their solidarity with the San Isidro Movement. Yet, less than nine months later on July 11, 2021 the largest protests in Cuba’s history would break out across the island, and tens of thousands of Cubans would be singing a song penned and sung by one of those San Isidro hunger strikers, Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo.