Cuba: Police Attack Unprecedented, Hundreds-Strong Artist Protest

A group of young intellectuals and artists demonstrate at the doors of the Ministry of Culture during a protest in Havana, early on November 28, 2020. - About 200 Cuban artists demonstrated outside the country's culture ministry on November 27 in a rare protest over freedom of expression that received …
YAMIL LAGE/AFP via Getty Images

A rare protest attracting an estimated 300 people in front of Cuba’s Ministry of Culture this weekend prompted police violence, dissidents said, including the use of tear gas and/or pepper spray in the dead of night.

The protest followed over a week of hunger and thirst strikes by the members of the San Isidro Movement, a collective of anti-communist artists, demanding the release of one of their colleagues, Denis Solís. Solís, a rapper, was arrested and sentenced to eight months in prison for the crime of “disrespect” after not allowing a police officer to enter his home without a warrant and filming the exchange. The video, international legal experts have affirmed, proves that the officer, and not Solís, violated Cuban law by entering his home illegally.

“Disrespect” or “contempt” (desacato) is a catch-all crime often used to persecute pro-democracy dissidents.

The protest, which began on Friday night, ended after reports surfaced of attacks with a noxious substance — varying reports identified it as either tear gas or pepper spray — and with regime officials engaging in “talks” with 30 chosen members of the crowd, which towards the end included several actors and other prominent artists known to be friendly to the regime. The “talks” resulted in five agreements, three of which dissidents said the Cuban regime had already broken by Monday.

As of Monday morning, only one of the at one point 15 dissidents on hunger strike for Solís, rapper Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo, remained on hunger strike. Castillo and the head of the San Isidro Movement, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, engaged in both a hunger and thirst strike until the end of last week, when both decided to drink some water to continue protesting. Otero is currently being held in a Havana hospital with very little, police-controlled access to visitors. Authorities have not let him back into his home since a raid on the property on Thursday night.

Friday night’s protest was a response to the raid, which resulted in the arrest and temporary disappearance of several San Isidro Movement members. Cuban authorities justified the removal of the artists from the premises claiming that they were at risk of contracting the Chinese coronavirus.

In addition to demanding Solís’s freedom, the group demanded expanded freedom for artists, who under dictator Raúl Castro have seen the codification of decades-old repression at the hands of the Communist Party.

In 2018, Havana issued a command known as “Decree 349” which legally banned the creation of any art without a government permit. Filmmakers, writer, musicians, and all other forms of artists are required to go to the Ministry of Culture and apply for a permit anytime they wish to write a song, a work of literature, or plan a performance. Each individual piece of art — a rap song, for example — needs a government permit before it can be performed in public or recorded. The San Isidro Movement is in part a reaction to Decree 349, which arrived at a time in which Cuban dance music was experiencing a resurgence in popularity around the world.

Videos outside the Ministry of Culture late on Friday and into the early hours of Saturday, when police had not clarified the whereabouts of several San Isidro members still on hunger strike, show large crowds surrounding the entrance to the building.

Dissidents present at the protest reported the police use of eye irritants to disperse the crowd. The outlet ADN Cuba reported that some present managed to record videos of the chaos when they were attacked, showing dissidents shouting “down with the dictatorship!” and other anti-communist slogans. Another Cuban outlet, Diario de Cuba, reported that police brought attack dogs to the scene to intimidate protesters. The attacks reportedly occurred after the ministry allowed 30 hand-picked members of the crowd to enter the building for “dialogue.”

Following the alleged “dialogue,” the Communist Party regime organized what it claimed to be a “spontaneous” assembly in Havana on Sunday, attended by President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who answers to Castro. The “rally,” the Communist Party newspaper Granma reported, was meant to “incarnate the dignity of the nation before another manipulation designed against the island by the United States and energetically rejected by thousands of youths.” Díaz-Canel asserted that the rally was “in defense of the Revolution” and urged the public to sing songs by Silvio Rodríguez, a communist songwriter, whose birthday was Sunday.

Díaz-Canel also took to Twitter to accuse the San Isidro Movement of being “an imperialist reality show.”

By Monday, at least one of the artists among the 30 allowed into the Ministry of Culture, Tania Bruguera, said that the regime had already violated most of the agreements they made on Friday. High on that list was the proposed release of Denis Solís, who remains behind bars.

“There are police officers in the homes of artists, journalists, and art critics. Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is being held in a hospital against his will when we demanded he be allowed home,” Bruguera told 14 y Medio, an independent Cuban online outlet. “Plus, [Minister of Culture] Fernando Rojas presented a distorted image of what happened at the meeting. To summarize: in less than 24 hours, the agreements were broken.”

Otero was arrested during Thursday’s raid on his home, which also serves as the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement. When police released him on Friday, he attempted to enter his own home, but authorities blocked him from doing so. According to his uncle, Enix Berrio, Otero was forcibly hospitalized and is undergoing, among other procedures, “psychiatric evaluations” under government custody. Police allowed Berrio to visit Otero for ten minutes, the uncle said, but while being monitored and under orders not to discuss “counter-revolutionary” topics.

The Cuban Communist Party has used “psychiatry” for decades to torture dissidents. In a recent example, the Castro regime forced Daniel Llorente, a dissident with no ties to any dissident organization, to spend a year in a mental institution after he interrupted the 2017 Marxist May Day parade by running ahead of it waving an American flag. After receiving a public beating on camera, Communist Party agents asserted that Llorente was mentally ill because he “believed in God.” Llorente accused the regime of using electricity to torture him in the mental health facility. The Castro regime has since forcibly removed Llorente from Cuba, abducting him and placing him on a one-way flight to Guyana.

Otero, a performance artist, organized an homage to Llorente — a run through the streets of Havana waving American flags — in 2019.

Berrio said Otero had ceased his hunger strike to recover and join the protest movement outside of the hospital.

Follow Frances Martel on Facebook and Twitter.

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