Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo, a dissident Cuban rapper who collaborated on a recent pro-democracy hit song, appeared with his face covered in blood in an online video on Monday, accusing state security of gang beating him in broad daylight.
Osorbo is a longstanding dissident voice in the country and a repeat target of Communist Party imprisonment who has, on multiple occasions, sewn his mouth shut to protest the repression of artists in the country. The artist gained international recognition through his appearance on a recently released pro-democracy song, alongside artists who have received support from the Castro regime.
In a video broadcast through Facebook live on Monday, Osorbo said he was walking in his Havana neighborhood when several assailants cornered him and began to punch him in the face. The assailants were reportedly not wearing uniforms or overtly part of Communist Party police, but Osorbo said he was certain they were working with State Security and that government agents were present and filming the assault.
Walking out of his home, he said, “I see the same thing as always, a bunch of State Security agents doing their thing. I start to walk, I reach Belascoaín and from behind a column, a black guy like me comes out, from a meter away, and punches me [in the nose].”
“I jump to the other side and there was another one that I didn’t see.. [and] another punch, and they started to beat me there,” Osorbo said.
The rapper said a Communist Party agent “was filming everything” and that the attackers stole his mobile phone and destroyed it. Osorbo added that he did not attack in response to the beating and that he would never do so, referring to the government as “murderers.” He appeared on video with what appeared to be an open wound on his nose.
Osorbo is a member of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), a collective of artists and intellectuals who have organized collective actions urging the Castro regime to adopt democratic reforms. While the organization received support from anti-communist leaders abroad, the head of the group, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, bizarrely stated last month of the group, “we do not want to overthrow the dictatorship.” Alcántara lent his Facebook profile to Osorbo to broadcast his statement on Monday as the attackers had destroyed his phone.
Osorbo appeared to again face arrest on Monday following his accusations against the state when he was apprehended by apparent State Security officials without being given any reason for the detention. The arrest was short-lived and he was released within hours. As human rights organizations escalated pressure on the Castro regime to cease its repression of political dissidents, the regime diminished the number of formal political prisoners taken hostage and instead implemented a strategy of short-term apprehensions, beatings, and police interrogations in which dissidents are not formally charged with anything and thus never appear as official “prisoners.”
In the most extreme cases, such as that of Ladies in White leader Berta Soler, the government’s most loathed dissidents face beatings and arrests on a weekly basis but, as they are never formally charged, they do not count as political prisoners in tallies compiled by international groups.
Osorbo’s advocacy escalated in 2018 after the debut of a Communist Party law known as Decree 359, which required all artists to receive government permits for any piece of art they planned to create. To publish an individual song, or online video, or draw a sketch or painting, a Cuban artist would now need to go to a Ministry of Culture office and describe what they plan on creating, giving the government a chance to ban dissident art before it is created. Osorbo was arrested in September 2018 for organizing an “illegal” concert featuring dissident artists in condemnation of the decree. He sewed his mouth shut while in prison as a form of protest.
Osorbo, Alcántara, and other MSI members organized a collective hunger strike last year also in an attempt to pressure the regime into ceasing its censorship and repression of artists. The hunger strike triggered one of the largest protests in recent memory on the island in which hundreds surrounded the Ministry of Culture in Havana and demanded reforms. As the demands were not specific – and the crowd was infiltrated by regime-friendly artists – the protest has yet to yield any significant changes for Cuban artists.
Osorbo resurfaced again on the popular track “Patria y Vida” (“Fatherland and Life”), a spin on the Communist Party slogan “fatherland or death,” debuting in February. The rapper is the only authentic dissident on the song, whose title has become a slogan for pro-democracy reform. Alongside Osorbo appeared Yotuel Romero, co-founder of the Cuban rap group Orishas; the reggaeton group Gente de Zona, and songwriter Descemer Bueno.
The Orishas have long enjoyed positive coverage in Communist Party media since their founding in the 1990s. Romero himself appears in an interview in the official Party newspaper Granma stating, “we have always had good relations with our country.” The group was also allowed to perform without government intervention in the island, a luxury dissident artists like Osorbo have never known.
Gente de Zone grew tremendously popular in the United States following the release of their 2016 album Visualízate but faced significant backlash from the Cuban exile community in Miami after a video surfaced in which the musicians appear on stage in Cuba, performing while dictator Raúl Castro’s grandson, also Raúl, danced on stage with them. The incident cost them the key to the city of Miami and several lucrative gigs in the city … shortly before they appeared on the apparently anti-regime track.
Descemer Bueno also appeared positively in the pages of Granma after years of insisting he was not “political,” then calling for the U.S. to lift sanctions on the regime imposed in the aftermath of Fidel Castro’s violent takeover in 1959.