40 Degrees of Repression in Cuba

The temperature of repression in Cuba rises like the fever on the days of a pandemic. It is a systematic, casuistic, cellular repression ―the first thing that the political police do when they arrest an artist is to seize and erase their cell phone― that wants to become routine, normal, but does not succeed at it. Some episodes, increasingly frequent, such as the arrests of the artist Tania Bruguera and the harassment of the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism (INSTAR) or the imprisonment, after an irregular process, of the also artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, some months ago, shake the abulia.

The San Isidro Movement is a collective of young visual artists, poets, musicians and intellectuals, based in one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods. In early November, police broke into the home of one of its members, rapper Denis Solís. After an exchange of verbal offenses, the young man was arrested, summarily tried, and sentenced to eight months in prison for contempt. The members of the collective mobilized, made inquiries at police stations and, instead of answers, received arbitrary arrests. They held vigils in city parks and were forcibly dispersed.

Faced with their limited alternatives, they chose to meet at the headquarters of the movement, on Damas Street, and peacefully demand, through the social networks, the release of their comrade. The State Security and the political and cultural bureaucracy of the island also deemed this option subversive and tried, by various means, to make them leave the headquarters. Several times they forced the door, attacked them verbally and physically, and contaminated the house cistern. It was then that some of them decided to declare a hunger and thirst strike, while the rest accompanied and aided them.

As soon as the strike reached the social networks and a limited number of independent and international media, the power elite went to their default response: slander. Mariela Castro, Raúl’s daughter and director of the National Center for Sex Education (Cenesex), tweeted that the youth of San Isidro were “vulgar, unrefined and nasty”. Abel Prieto, former minister of culture, former presidential advisor and now president of Casa de las Américas, said they were “dropouts” and “criminals”. In any Latin American country, those adjectives, aimed at young black, mestizo and poor people, like those of San Isidro, would be reflections of the classism and racism of the government.

The main official media —Granma, Cubadebate and the accounts of government propagandists in the social networks– added to the slander the familiar accusation of “agents of imperialism”. According to the usual script, the young people, whom the official discourse itself described as “destitute” and “dropouts”, received large sums of money from the US government, had links with “terrorists” from Miami and the CIA, and were in favor of Donald Trump’s reelection. Although some may have shown sympathy for Trump, this was not the identity of such a heterogeneous group.

Another aspect of the official campaign against San Isidro was to deny that the hunger strike was real. Although images of the weakening of some, such as Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Osorbo, were convincing, official media implied that the strikers were eating and drinking. Under a regime like the Cuban, which lives on the symbolic legitimization of a revolutionary epic, there can be no heroism or epic among the opposition or the dissidence. The emphasis by the official media on the falsehood of the strike contradicted the urgency of the police to evict the headquarters.

The aim of the powers that be has always been the disintegration, the silencing of the public voice of this independent group. When they cordoned off the street and prevented the access of family and friends, the argument was that these were health measures to prevent the spread of COVID 19. The arrival in Damas 955 of the writer and journalist Carlos Manuel Álvarez, editor in chief of El Estornudo, one of the few publications that, together with Rialta, El Toque, Cibercuba and others, carried out a precise and truthful coverage of the conflict from the beginning, functioned as a poorly disguised pretext to intervene in the headquarters for health purposes.

Álvarez, author of a couple of essential books to understand today’s Cuba —La Tribu (2017) and Los caídos (2019), both published by Sexto Piso– arrived from New York and was tested for the coronavirus at the Havana airport. Shortly before the raid on Damas 955, three agents showed up and told him that the test had been “doubtful” or “altered” and that he had to undergo a new one. When the writer responded that the test could be applied at the movement’s own headquarters, the agents said no, that it should be taken at a polyclinic.

After the eviction and arrest of the strikers, most were taken to their homes, although Otero Alcántara remained in detention and the curator Anamely Ramos, a student at the Ibero in Mexico, was arrested the next day. The headquarters of the San Isidro Movement was closed and the government gave its finishing touches to the public health narrative: the violent intervention was due to the fact that, with the arrival of Álvarez, public health protocols had been violated and there was a risk of spreading the pandemic.

This episode of repression in Cuba can be added to the many authoritarian uses of the coronavirus, in Latin America and the Caribbean, to limit civil and political rights. But it is important not to entrap the analysis in immediate or temporary approaches: the cellular almost intimate repression, especially against the new generation of Cuban independent artists, filmmakers, writers, journalists and intellectuals, does not respond, stricto sensu, to the pandemic, to the change of administration in the United States or to how US politicians like Mike Pompeo or Michael Kozak could take advantage of what happened.

As could be seen outside the Ministry of Culture, for hours and hours last Friday, November 27, that youth that showed so much public-spiritedness is not a subject easily manipulated by the actors that have hegemonized the Cuban conflict for decades. They are not puppets, as the official press and their most extreme rivals insist on presenting them obsessively. Nor are they unaware that a set of concrete demands does not dispel the possibility of a greater change.

We have seen in Cuba in recent days the repressive systematicity of a state that aspires to the unrestricted control of a generation that has expressed in many ways its rejection of the laws that limit the freedoms of expression and association. Nothing more and nothing less than a generalized rejection of decree 349, which decides who is and who is not an artist, and of decree 373, which regulates the practice of independent cinema. Rejections that, in essence, imply a profound disagreement with the way in which the new Constitution and the Penal Code impede human rights on the island.

The same media that for weeks justified the repression against the San Isidro Movement hid the protest that lasted for more than twelve hours in front of the Ministry of Culture. The greatest achievement of that long Friday was not the promise to stop the repression ―a pledge that a state like Cuba will never fulfill― but to have forced the powers that be to negotiate. Whatever bureaucrats and propagandists might say, this is something that cannot be taken away from the San Isidro strikers.

Rafael Rojas (Santa Clara, Cuba, 1965). He is a historian and essayist. He has a degree in Philosophy from the University of Havana and a PhD in History from El Colegio de México. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Letras Libres and the newspaper El País, and is a member of the editorial board of the magazine Istor of the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE). He has published the books: Un banquete canónico (2000), Revolución, disidencias y exilio intelectual cubano (2006), La vanguardia peregrina. El escritor cubano, la tradición y el exilio (2013), among others. Since July 2019, he occupies chair 11 of the Mexican Academy of History.


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