Cuban prosecutors are asking for seven and ten-year prison sentences for the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and musician Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo Pérez, respectively.
On March 17, 2022, activist and curator Anamely Ramos González had published the order of the People’s Municipal Court of Centro Habana declaring that Luis Manuel Otero, Maykel Castillo, Félix Roque Delgado, Juslid Justiz Lazo and Reina Sierra Duvergel would be put on trial —among others— for the events that took place on April 4, 2021, in the San Isidro neighborhood.
Ramos González —who had denounced for several days that, although the file was in the Court, the lawyers did not have the indictment— announced almost a month later (April 7, 2022) that she had received the provisional summing-up.
What are the charges against the defendants in this file? What is the reasoning of the Prosecutor’s Office and what is behind of the sentences requested? To what extent are they questionable?
The provisional summing-up of the trial of Luis Manuel Otero and Maykel Castillo demonstrate the Cuban government’s decision to take advantage of the wave of repression that intensified after July 11 to legitimize the imprisonment of those they had decided not to prosecute.
At the beginning of 2020, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara carried out the performance “Drapeau.” At that time, the performance generated controversy and unleashed the government repression against Otero Alcántara, who was imprisoned for 13 days for that reason. During his imprisonment, the authorities even set a tentative date for his trial. However, the trial was suspended and Otero Alcántara was let free after a campaign for his release by Cuban and international civil society actors.
Two years after his release, and when everything seemed to be forgotten, the Cuban authorities are once again demanding accountability from Luis Manuel for his performance. They maintain that, by doing so, Luis Manuel committed a crime of outrage against the symbols of the homeland of a continuous nature and, for that reason, he deserves to be in imprisoned for one year and six months.
On the other hand, Maykel Castillo Pérez is accused for things he said in 2020 and for which he was also not held accountable. Decree Law 370, commonly employed to sanction anti-government expressions —like Maykel’s— in social networks, was not even used against him.
Among the statements for which “Osorbo” will have to answer in the trial one stands out that, apparently, he did while broadcasting a direct message from his Facebook profile on September 29, 2020. According to the criteria of the Prosecutor’s Office, in that live broadcast Castillo “unjustifiably blamed the deputies to the National Assembly of People’s Power, Miguel Mario Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, president of the Republic of Cuba, and Manuel Marrero Cruz, prime minister, for the lack of medical resources to solve the diseases presented by the population as a result of COVID-19.”
If anyone needs another confirmation that in Cuba demanding accountability from those in power is seen as an offense and a crime, look at the accusation the musician Maykel Castillo is facing today. An accusation that shows in black and white that on the island there is no freedom of expression or to hold those in power accountable for the results of an administration that only they are responsible for.
For this and other things he said, Maykel Castillo is considered responsible for a crime of aggravated contempt and another of defamation of institutions and organizations and of heroes and martyrs.
In addition to these conducts attributed individually to Luis Manuel and Maykel, the Prosecutor’s Office considers that the accused have additional responsibilities for their participation in the events of April 4, 2021. The institution asserts that, on that day, two police officers requested Juslid Justiz Lazo —who was accompanying Maykel— to wear her face mask. Then they affirm that, in response to this request, Maykel “assaulted and offended the officers” by telling them that “he was ‘El Osorbo’ [and] that no one was going to wear their face masks.” It also claims that immediately and to attract the attention of the neighbors Maykel shouted “homeland y life” and “down with the dictatorship,” which is why the agents decided to detain him.
The accuser asserts that Maykel assaulted the policemen to avoid the arrest and even tried to take the standard-issue firearm from one of the officers. Ramón Macías Núñez —the prosecutor who signed the provisional conclusions— affirms that the defendants Félix Roque Delgado, Juslid Justiz Lazo and Reina Sierra Duvergel also assaulted the police officers to prevent Maykel Castillo’s arrest. He also claims that, after avoiding arrest, Maykel took refuge in Luis Manuel Otero’s house. There, outside the house, they sang the song “Patria y Vida” and “a song by the group Los Aldeanos which contains a refrain offensive to Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez, president of the Republic of Cuba, which says: “when I say Díaz-Canel” you say ‘son of a bitch’… Díaz-Canel… ‘son of a bitch.’”
The Prosecutor’s Office makes it clear —once again— that singing “Patria y Vida” in the Cuban streets is a crime of public disorder and that shouting “Díaz-Canel, son of a bitch” is an act of disrespect. Therefore, Macías Núñez considered that both Maykel and Luis Manuel are responsible for both crimes.
Maykel is also being accused —together with Félix Roque Delgado, Juslid Justiz Lazo and Reina Sierra Duvergel— of one offense of assault and another of resistance for allegedly resisting arrest and assaulting the police officers who tried to detain him.
Due to these alleged criminal conducts, the Prosecutor’s Office requests that Luis Manuel Otero and Maykel Castillo be sentenced to seven and ten years in prison, respectively. Likewise, it is interested in sentencing Félix Roque Delgado to five years in prison, Juslid Justiz Lazo to five years in a camp controlled by the Ministry of the Interior (MININT) and Reina Sierra Duvergel to three years under a supervision regime known in Cuba as “from home to work.”
The Illegal Selectivity of Political Repression in Cuba
Two years have passed since Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara carried out his performance “Drapeau”. More than three months elapsed between the events of April 4 and his arrest on July 11, 2021. More than a year passed between Maykel Castillo’s statements on social networks and his definitive arrest on May 18, 2021.
During that period, not only did the time pass, but both suffered arbitrary detentions and humiliations. The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention acknowledged that the imprisonment suffered by Maykel Castillo Pérez is illegal and contrary to several articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. To reach this conclusion, the institution used different reports; one of them asserts that, between December 14, 2019 and May 18, 2021, Maykel Castillo was detained 121 times.
Regardless of the evidence presented by the Cuban authorities against Castillo Pérez, few should deny that doubt favors him when he is accused of assaulting policemen who follow the orders of those who —at least on 121 previous occasions— ordered his illegal imprisonment in reprisal for his anti-government statements and attitudes. Attitudes and statements that now the authorities are using to aggravate a sanction that on previous occasions they imposed through physical and psychological violence and not through prosecution.
During the two years prior to the arrest of Luis Manuel, on July 11, the activist also suffered dozens of arrests, imprisonment for days at a time and mandatory hospital confinement. On those occasions —despite the fact that his performance had already taken place— the Prosecutor’s Office did not insist on the accusation of insulting the symbols of the homeland. Nor did it insist on, until July 11 —even after Maykel Castillo was detained—, an accusation against the visual artist for the events of April 4, 2021. In this last case, the selectivity of the Prosecutor’s Office stands out more because that day there were many in San Isidro who chanted “homeland y life” and sang the song by Los Aldeanos. However, only two poor and “politically uncomfortable” black men will answer for this challenge to power.
Before January 1, 2022, Cuban authorities could not choose which crimes or perpetrators to prosecute. The law established that, once the authorities knew of the possible commission of a crime, they were compelled to report it, investigate it and take all relevant measures to hold the perpetrators accountable. Why in the cases of Maykel and Luis Manuel did the Cuban government not act in accordance with its own law? Why, if they knew of their criminal conduct, did they never prosecute them as they now intend to do?
Because in Cuba there is no rule of law, but of personal wills. The rule of the wills of those who asses on the basis of political criteria when, how, and whom it is convenient to repress.
The political context in Cuba has changed. Cuba after July 11 is not the same as it was in 2020 when the drive of the San Isidro Movement seemed unstoppable. July 11 forced the Cuban Government to repress in a public and stark manner a depoliticized sector of the population. It has repressed them physically and judicially because, despite the political cost, its survival depends on it. Now that the political instability is apparently under control, and fear is back again in full force, they are also taking the opportunity to isolate and prosecute those who would have been costlier to do so before the social outbreak.
Today, the waves of solidarity are concentrated on the jailed children, on the people who did not have a first-hand knowledge of repression and who are being sentenced to dozens of years in prison.
The shifting of the attention from the Cuban political prisoners from before July 11 and from the better known opponents imprisoned because the government used the outbreak as an excuse has been a collateral damage of the protests. The prosecution of Maykel Castillo Pérez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara —as well as that of Félix Navarro or the imprisonment of José Daniel Ferrer— are part of this process.
Only in this context can such a crude accusation as the one made by the Prosecutor’s Office against Luis Manuel Otero and Maykel Castillo go unnoticed. It is up to the Cuban civil society —disarticulated and affected by exile— and the solidarity of those who unrestrictedly respect human rights to ensure that this does not happen.
* This article was originally published in El Toque Jurídico.