I Was a Witness in the Trial against Luis Manuel Otero

The courts in Cuba are places where punishment is administered. Justice is conceived as the safeguard of an order of things whose questioning is penalized, in one way or another, by the government statutes. The trial against artivist Luis Manuel Otero, held last May 30 and 31, seemed to me just that: the administration of a punitive package intending to deprive him of his individual freedom for years.[1] All of which has included a series of mistreatments and violations of rights, first of all, because throughout the whole process —starting with almost a year of unjustified pre-trial detention— he has been treated as just another common vandal and not as the visual artist he is. The law in Cuba works as a catalyst-inhibitor that accelerates or slows down the making of a “criminal”, according to certain relationships of convenience.

I was not going to be a defense witness in the trial against Luis Manuel Otero.

Yanelis Nuñez, a curator, researcher, and member of the San Isidro Movement based in Madrid, contacted me on May 19 and asked me to stand in for someone who would no longer be able to testify due to a health issue. I gladly accepted. The other witness would be visual artist Lázaro Saavedra.

Three days before the trial, we were summoned by the defense attorney to a meeting at his law office in the municipality of Arroyo Naranjo. Luis Manuel Otero’s sister and aunt also attended. The lawyer explained to us how the trials in Cuba operate both technically and protocol-wise, and also what were the specific reasons why each of us would be called as witnesses.

The lawyer would ask the sister and the aunt about Luis Manuel Otero’s relationship with his family members and how he behaved with neighbors and other people in his community.

Illustration: Julio Llópiz-Casal.

In the case of Saavedra and myself, the aim was to shed light on the defendant’s status as a visual artist. The prosecutor’s petition against Luis Manuel Otero ignored his status as an artist, and insisted on the description of “a life beyond his economic possibilities”, without mentioning what those “possibilities” should be, or according to what parameters.

On the one hand, Saavedra is an artist and a scholar of outstanding trajectory in the context of Cuban art; someone whose pedagogic performance is not only influential, but unimpeachable.

In my case, I am an artist of the same generation as Luis Manuel Otero. We have known each other for ten years. We have exhibited our work simultaneously and exchanged ideas regarding art during all that time.

The defense attorney said that he would ask us what performance is from the perspective of visual arts; from there he would address the artwork in question, that is, the one that allegedly justified the accusation of “defilement of the patriotic symbols.” In 2019, Luis Manuel Otero staged a performance— as a symbolic protest after the enactment of the National Symbols Law in Cuba— that consisted of permanently wearing the national flag around his body for a certain amount of time, using it as a sort of protective cloak while carrying out his daily activities. The work was recorded in a sequence of photos later published on his Facebook profile.

Finally, the lawyer wanted us to explain which documents and credentials endorse an artist as such before the Cuban state institutions.

***

Monday, May 30, the day of the trial. I had arranged with Lázaro Saavedra to go together to the court, located at the intersection of 100th and 33rd streets in Marianao, Havana. We left in the morning from 23rd and 26th streets in Vedado. His wife accompanied us.

A cab dropped us off a few blocks away. We walked a few minutes in apparent normality until we got to about 600 meters from our destination. The atmosphere became tense as soon as we entered the radius of action of a joint operation of regular police and plainclothes agents of the political police (State Security).

Saavedra, who knows the neighborhood because he lived there part of his childhood, led us through an alternative route. A shortcut. Unpaved, makeshift dwellings. He asked an older man if the road led to the courthouse. He replied that it did, and alerted us to the presence ahead of a police patrol that would surely block our way. We continued on our way, confident that since we had official citations for the trial, we would have no difficulty. Two women, who were walking in the opposite direction, said with apparent naturalness as they passed by us: “I hope they put all those people from San Isidro in jail…”.

As expected, one of the patrolmen quickly accosted us, asking where we were headed. We showed him our subpoenas and said we were witnesses in the trial taking place in court. He let us go on.

But, a few steps ahead, we were asked the same question by an officer in civilian clothes. His manner was much less friendly than the cold automatism of the previous officer. His cell phone rang twice and he took the calls before finally telling us that we had to walk even further to get to our destination. He would not allow us to continue down that street.

For the rest of the way we saw at least five more patrol cars, dozens of uniformed officers and several plainclothes officers with their supposedly natural poses and intimidating looks. Less than a hundred meters from the entrance, we were approached yet again by a plainclothes officer. He was accompanied by at least a dozen colleagues. He checked the subpoenas and our identity documents, and led us to the entrance of the courthouse. Another group of uniformed police from the Ministry of the Interior waited there; more patrols, an ambulance and a bus.

As we entered we were asked again, by at least four people, who we were and what we were doing there. Between the corridors, the inner courtyard and the second floor of the building, there seemed to be twice as many State Security agents as outside. Men and women (uniformed or not) approached us and gave us more or less contradictory directions. They kept us there for about five minutes.

They finally took us to a room with wooden benches where Luis Manuel Otero’s aunt and sister were already waiting for us, together with a neighbor of theirs who had also been called to testify by the defense.

We could not leave until we testified. A plainclothes agent was all the time attentive to those of us who were talking to each other.

We were there from noon until almost five in the afternoon. We had to ask permission to go to the bathroom, and return immediately. It was the only time we were allowed to leave the room. They only gave us water, which we also had to ask for. Instead, we noticed the movement and heard the references to lunch among the officers. The wait within those four walls was uncomfortable, exhausting, and I was growing drowsy.

A State Security officer approached and indicated the order in which we would go into the courtroom. I was the first to be taken to testify. Only one witness entered at a time; I would leave and then the next one would enter.

The courtroom was occupied by the judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney. Next to them were six people wearing robes, but who never opened their mouths. The benches for the public were occupied by 30 or 40 uniformed officers from the Ministry of the Interior. There were three cameramen documenting the process, and a microphone in front of which I stood to speak. I assume that Luis Manuel Otero was also there, but I did not manage to see him. Perhaps because of my nerves.

As soon as I entered the room, they began to tell me what to do. They showed me how to place my hands and how to hold my sunglasses… How far to lower my mask to speak… Then, the judge informed me, as protocol dictates, that not telling the truth is a crime. Then the questions began.

The lawyer asked me, in effect, what had been agreed at the meeting.

After inquiring about my relationship with Luis Manuel Otero, and about performance art, he asked me a series of questions about the legal status that allows him to commercialize his work, like any other artist in the country. The judge interrupted him and stated that these questions were outside the subject of the trial. But the lawyer answered that it was a matter that did need precision, from his perspective. He pointed out how the prosecutor’s approach was overlooking the defendant’s status as an artist, and how previously the criminal investigator of the case had stated: “He says (referring to Otero) that he is an artist”. He asked for permission to continue, and then the judge said: “Continue”. The lawyer continued with his questionnaire. I answered. And he said he had no more questions.

The prosecutor was terse, and maintained an intimidating tone. He asked me only two questions. One: when was the last time Luis Manuel Otero had exhibited. I answered that a few months ago in Vienna (an exhibition in which, by the way, both of us had participated together with other Cuban colleagues). The prosecutor then specified that he wasn’t inquiring about exhibitions abroad, but in Cuba. I answered that several years ago (I could not remember exactly) at the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Center. He then asked if I did not know that the law in Cuba places limits on freedom of speech. I answered that yes, but that I thought that there was nothing that could limit freedom of artistic expression.

While the prosecutor was questioning me, I could not stop shaking. I like to believe that I noticed little or none of that trembling. I don’t know. The energy in the place seemed to enforce the condition of guilt. Not only for Luis Manuel Otero, but for everyone who was not in that room playing a role in favor of his punishment.

After the prosecutor, the defense attorney requested permission to ask me a few more questions: did I know the performance work of Cuban artist Manuel Mendive? I answered yes. He then asked what it consisted of. I answered that it was an artist who painted, with his characteristic style, the naked bodies of dancers who then danced in public. He asked if something like that could be offensive to certain sensibilities. I said that it might, but that in any case Mendive had never suffered any legal consequences for it. The lawyer concluded after that. There were no further questions. They returned my identity card and asked me to leave.

For me the trial had begun outside the courthouse, in the middle of the police operation. And it is a process that somehow continues. It is not only about Luis Manuel Otero, or the rapper Maykel Osorbo Castillo, who was also on trial there. I believe that on that day an attitude was being judged. Anyone who feels the need to be honest in Cuba is potentially a criminal, and will potentially be prosecuted for it as long as political dissent is criminalized.


[1] The Prosecutor’s Office in the case against Cuban artist and dissident Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is asking for seven years of imprisonment for alleged crimes of “attack”, “disrespect”, “public disorder” and “incitement to commit a crime”. On similar charges, up to ten years in prison were requested against rapper Maykel Castillo Perez, also a member of the San Isidro Movement, who was tried on the same occasion. Both have been remanded in custody since May (Castillo Pérez) and July (Otero Alcántara) of 2021. [Editor’s Note].

 

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JULIO LLÓPIZ CASAL
JULIO LLÓPIZ CASAL
Julio Llópiz-Casal (Havana, 1984). Visual artist who works with installation, performance, photography, video, design and writing. His creative process consists of translating moods into images, from notions such as history, mass culture and poetry. He holds a degree in Art History from the University of Havana (2011). He has participated in several group exhibitions in Cuba and abroad.

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