I spoke with Maykel Osorbo the morning of his arrest, on Tuesday, May 18th. By that date the rapper had been away from the streets and social media. It was his third day back in Old Havana, after one month of the State Security (Seguridad del Estado) not allowing him to do so.
Shortly before we spoke, I was secretly sent the phone number I should contact him with. The WhatsApp profile picture was that of a woman. Maykel had to use that incognito number because every time the Cuban police figured out the phone line he was using, they would cut it, in complicity with ETECSA, the only telephone company in the country.
I wanted Maykel to tell me what had been happening in his life during the last month and a half, following the afternoon of April 4th, when a policeman tried to arrest him without any justification, and several neighbors helped him escape while a handcuff was still on his wrist. Everything was recorded, and in the images you can see how a group of people blocked the police car so that it couldn’t reach the “Patria y Vida” singer, while someone let him borrow a bike for him to escape.
I also wanted to know what had happened at the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement when the State Security agents arrived in order to carry out “damage control”, after El Funky, together with Luis Manuel Otero and dozens of neighbors from Belen and San Isidro scared away the police while chanting “Fuck Díaz Canel” (Díaz Canel singao).
Something remains clear, and it’s that after April 4th Maykel’s life was not the same. When we spoke, he told me: “Repression has increased 200 percent”.
The State Security’s siege became so tight that even several policemen were witnesses to an aggression against the rapper one morning, when a group of men broke his septum, and suspiciously none of the policemen intervened.
In regard to what happened on April 4th, art curator Anamely Ramos, who was part of the group quartered in San Isidro this past November, told me several days later that something had been made evident, which she had been observing during her stay in these areas: the creation of a bridge between nearby neighborhoods like Belen and San Isidro.
“Maykel and Esteban are actually from Belen. Luis in San Isidro, and them in Belen, were able to create a responsive community that started to expand throughout Old Havana, and the government is afraid of that, because besides being an old area, with historical legitimacy, it’s also a place with many problems, where people live in crowded spaces, and there is prostitution, poverty, and drugs. They are areas that on their own are already time bombs, and their presence interacting with the people, trying to find solutions, taking a position against violence, generates a lot of support,” explains Ramos.
Maykel’s life in his home neighborhood, as he likes to call it, has been difficult. When he was ten years old the balseros (rafters) crisis started, and his mother disappeared. She didn’t say anything, but she left in a makeshift vessel towards Florida. His father never took care of him. He was imprisoned for the first time when he was 16 years old, and at 37 years of age, he has spent 16 of them behind bars.
In an interview published shortly after his arrest, Osorbo confessed that his mother’s absence “derailed” him. “When your mother is missing, everything is missing, and a great part of having gone astray for me was the fact that I didn’t have a mother. She left and I was very little. Can you imagine that figure disappearing because of problems with the system, and that figure that is supposed to teach you, educate you, and guide you disappearing because of problems with the regime? That was super sad for me. I didn’t see her for 20 years.”
The day we spoke he told me that the State Security was afraid of his relationship with the Belen neighborhood.
“In this neighborhood I have suffered, and I have had happy times. Imagine, I have walked this neighborhood from end to end barefoot. They know that it’s a lot bigger than San Isidro and that people here support me, because the State Security have informants here that tell them. That’s why the repression against me is a lot stronger. There are about 50 officers involved, between police cars and police officers. They know that my neighborhood, Belen, does stand up. On April 4th they realized that I don’t need to campaign to get the people to stand up,” he said.
Maykel had no idea how much his life was going to change when he went with some friends to Luis Manuel Otero’s house to see the preparations for a children’s event the San Isidro leader was putting together.
His friend El Funky, who is also a rapper and part of “Patria y Vida” told me that that afternoon, while he was looking at Luis Manuel’s artworks, “Maykel got there running with a handcuff in his hand, in a bicycle, and with a police car chasing him.”
“The policeman stood at the door because we started shouting that he could not enter a private home. He went back and got in his police car. Maykel was euphoric. He told us that the police wanted to detain him and were hitting him, but the people helped him and he was able to get away. The previous day six or seven policemen beat him up at Point 30, when we were demanding Luis Manuel’s freedom. His wrists were still inflamed from the pressure of the handcuffs; injuries in his abdomen, and pain in his neck,” tells us the artist, who is also Osorbo’s neighbor and childhood friend.
That day on Damas street, the rapper remembers, one side was full of police cars and on the other side the people. “We decided to play music there, we played Patria y Vida on a speaker, and the people started to sing along and ask that Maykel not be taken away. People empathized with that problem. After that the State Security arrived and promised us that nothing was going to happen to us, but we were conscious of the fact that it was going to have repercussions, that it wasn’t going to stay like that.”
The agents didn’t take action against the artists that afternoon, even though Osorbo was accompanied home by a State Security officer.
The first announcement of retaliation because of the protest was announced by the official spokesperson, Humberto López, on the newscast of April 8th, when he affirmed that “many revolutionaries, many good people of this country feel their blood boil when they see them, and many people are demanding a tough and just response. I personally trust, and I ask you to trust the organisms in charge of investigating, acting, and sanctioning.”
López, a member of the Central Committee for the Cuban Communist Party, assured that the activists would be prosecuted: “On the day of their trial, in spite of everything they have done, yes, they will have, of course, their rights, their guarantees, but they will also have the sanctions that legally correspond, with the severity merited by each of them. As for me, I have no doubts that it will happen this way.”
The friendship between Osorbo and El Funky started when they were children, raised in the same streets, but it was in 2013 that it was solidified forever. After leaving prison, Maykel encouraged his friend, who had retired from music in order to start a café at his house, to go to a studio once again in order to record an album.
Regarding Maykel’s work, El Funky says that “he has talent, he expresses what he feels. I like the way in which he writes his lyrics, because they are very straightforward, about his own life. Anybody that listens to one of his songs is going to identify with it if they are Cuban, even more if it’s a regular, humble Cuban.”
Now, almost ten years later, the rappers have become especially known because of their collaborations with Yotuel Romero, Gente de Zona, and Descemer Bueno in the song “Patria y Vida,” which with more than five million views has become an anthem for many Cubans. They are regularly stopped in their neighborhood, to greet people and take pictures. Not only in Old Havana, but everywhere in Havana.
In spite of the increase in their popularity, Maykel started to feel unsafe every time he left his home alone, because besides the strong surveillance, his street smarts warned him that he could be attacked at any moment.
“In 62 years of dictatorship against the Cuban people, nothing like what happened on April 4th had ever happened before without consequences. I knew it, so much so that they started to harass me using private cars, with tourist license plates, but I knew they were government sent criminals,” Osorbo told me.
“They found a way to push me away from my friends, and they disguised those undercover agents as civilians, they put them in a car, they came to me from behind and they punched me. I knew that was going to happen at any moment, but using my intelligence I had been able to get away, until I made the mistake of going out alone in a neighborhood that wasn’t mine, and they had an opportunity and broke my septum. That was a way of showing me, look at what we are capable of doing. But I am a rebel so I become more upset, and I protest more, and it gives me more courage, because that way I can show the entire world what they truly are,” he added.
During the aggression suffered on April 12th, Maykel lost his cell phone. Four days later, coinciding with the start of the VIII Cuban Communist Party Congress, he was sieged, and he was not able to go out freely until he was officially imprisoned.
The siege by the police began on April 16th, while he was with El Funky and a group of artist friends working in a studio in the Playa neighborhood. After several days of surveillance, the officers separated them and sent each one of them to a different house. They took Maykel to Lawton, to the home of an aunt, where he stayed for a bit more than a week. But that house was too close to the headquarters of the opposition organization Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White), so the State Security chose to take him to a friend’s house in Vedado instead.
After several days of not being allowed to leave the house in Vedado, the rapper became desperate and started to argue with the police officers so they could let him leave, and, as a matter of fact, he left a few times and was detained.
Finally, Maykel chose to not enter the Vedado residence, demanding that they let him go back to his own, in the Belen neighborhood. Because of this he was arrested for two days, until he was finally transferred to his home. He knew that they wouldn’t let him stay there for long.
There is a terrible image from those days, in which a watchman appears seated in a chair in front of Maykel’s house, who took a selfie with El Funky that reminds us of the movie “Santa and Andres,” which was censored, but tragically similar.
During the last months, every time the government police detained Maykel, they took him to a police station and then to a temporary house to try to convince him to leave Cuba. Following the imprisonment of independent journalist Esteban Rodriguez on April 30th, the State Security made an offer to the rapper to free both of them if they left the country. They went as far as offering the possibility of “finding” a place to send them to.
The agents knew that Maykel had requested a visa to visit the United States in relation to his career as a rapper, so with the hope that he would not come back, in the month of March they accompanied him to an immigration office and gave a direct order to make him a passport. He didn’t even have a state issued ID.
Maykel’s reponse was always that he would not leave Cuba under pressure, and even less while his friend Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara was in a hospital with no communication.
On the morning of May 18th, while activists from the San Isidro Movement announced that Otero Alcantara was carrying out a hunger strike inside the Calixto Garcia Hospital, a group of police officers arrested Osorbo and El Funky almost simultaneously.
“The day of the arrest I was in Vedado, coming to Old Havana, and when I was approaching 23rd, a police car took me to the Fourth Unit, in Cerro. There they brought up once again the events of April 4th, they threatened me with accusing me of epidemic propagation, verbal offense to the president, plus resistance and public disturbance. I was detained for 24 hours, they took me from Fourth Unit to the unit in Zanja, and from there they took me back to Fourth, where the lieutenant coronel Kenia and another young man from Villa Marista gave me instructions and gave me a precautionary measure,” El Funky tells us.
That same day my conversation with Maykel was never finished because the police agents arrived and arrested him while he was eating, without shoes or shirt, and they transferred him supposedly to the Lawton police station. Later he was taken to Villa Marista and from there, finally taken to the maximum-security prison of Cinco y Medio in Pinar del Río.
Since his transfer to prison, Maykel has spoken on various occasions with El Funky: “He is well physically and mentally, he is healthy and something positive is that he has faith and is confident that he could leave in any moment, because there are many people helping him. The United Nations, the European Parliament spoke. It makes him sad that Esteben is imprisoned, as well as other friends of his. He asks that the people come out if they feel like it, because sometimes it is hard to feel the support from here, which is necessary. It is very easy to say, ‘go ahead’, but it is everyone’s responsibility that this changes,” says the rapper.
Since his arrest, information about his situation has been confusing and sporadic.
“I entered (the police station of Cuba y Chacón) at 2:30 PM to ask about the whereabouts of Maykel Castillo Pérez. The on-duty officer, who registered my visit, reviewed and assured me that Maykel was not in the system as detained by any political unit. Maykel has been disappeared for more than 72 hours. Where is he? Free him already!”, claimed the artist Camila Lobón in a post on her Facebook profile three days after the rapper’s detention.
Also, the director of the Americas for Amnesty International, Erika Guevara Rosas, wrote on Twitter: “The musician and defender of human rights Maykel Osorbo after more than 72 hours in arbitrary detention, does not appear in the registry of the political system. Unaccounted for, the authorities do not provide information, which could constitute forced disappearance, a crime under international law.”
“A man has been disappeared for four days. They removed him from his house without shoes, without a shirt on. Another has been in the hospital for 20 [days] against his will. They say he is healthy, in the hospital, healthy. They removed him from his home at dawn, in the blind hole of the night, as the delinquents and cowards do,” wrote the art historian Carolina Barrero.
It was not until May 24th, in response to a petition of habeas corpus, that the authorities offered information about Maykel: that he was detained and accused of the crimes of “disobedience, resistance, and disrespect.”
However, the legal consultancy CUBALEX denounced that the First Criminal Chamber of the Havana Court denied information about the activist’s whereabouts, “therefore, Maykel Osorbo is missing for as long as they do not report his location.”
The campaign to free the rapper received an accolade on May 28th, when in response to a complaint by the Prisoners Defenders in front of the Committee against the Forced Disappeared of the United Nations (CED), the United Nations demanded the Cuban government to provide information about his whereabouts and the restoration of his rights.
Based on Article 30 of the Convention for the Protection of all People Against Forced Disappearances, the CED required “the urgent action of the State party to take all necessary measures to look for and locate Mr. Maykel Castillo Pérez and protect his life and personal integrity in accordance with its Convention obligations.
Thirteen days after his arrest, after a lot of international pressure, the rapper was able to communicate for the first time with his relatives, who he told that he had been transferred to the prison of Cinco y Medio, located in the Province of Pinar del Río.
During what could be described as a new “Black Spring”, marked by the imprisonment of more than 40 people in the last three months, the Cuban authorities began a criminal process against Maykel Osorbo, after announcing it through the state portal Cubadebate that he was under the measure of provisional imprisonment and accused of crimes of “assault, public disorder” and “evasion of prison or detained”.
With the inclusion of the last charge, the sanction against the rapper could be for more than a year up to three of deprivation of liberty.
Due to the arbitrary nature of his case, the United Nations was not satisfied with the information of his whereabouts, and on July 3rd, through the Office of the High Commission for Human Rights, demanded the Cuban Government investigate the fourteen day disappearance of the rapper and make sure that he can communicate with his friends and attorney.
Since then, communication between the rapper and his friends has been intermittent. His attorney presented a petition for change of measure, but it was denied. The Prosecutor’s Office said that the investigation was about to end, even though they still had not permitted his legal representative to visit and converse with him, to know his version of the events.
Maykel Osorbo, who served two years in prison for his opposition to Decree 349, told me that for him everything in Cuba “boils down to too much repression”, because in his opinion, the government analyzed “and realized that after April 4th, the situation was getting out of hand.”
“Surveillance has increased with a speed that you are not capable of imagining, but rather than frightening me or being afraid of it, that inspires me more, because they know that I want a change and that the people want a change,” he told me hours before he was imprisoned for his opposition to the Cuban dictatorship.
* This text was translated by Judith Acosta and Jane Marie Russell.