They are dying in Cuba, and yes, this is about systemic racism too

Movimiento San Isidro aims at the heart of whatever is left of the Cuban Revolution, and it is acting by positioning its members’ bodies to die. Eleven activists have already gone on hunger strike in the last seven days, some of them without drinking water. They are protesting the imprisonment of the young Cuban rapper Denis Solis, whom the police abducted from his home and sentenced to eight months in prison within two days. Subsequently, the group called for public demonstrations in front of police stations involving what it called “susurro poetico” (poetic whispering). All who participated in the readings were temporarily incarcerated every single day. On the fourth day, the group’s members decided to gather at the Museum of Dissidence in Cuba, the home of Movimiento San Isidro. After a few of them reached the building, the Cuban police closed the perimeter and refused to allow anyone to pass. The police even stopped the delivery of food and water supplies at the door. At that point, the group members decided to start a hunger strike demanding the liberation of Denis Solis. Later, they also demanded the closure of the new Cuban stores where basic food and hygienic products were being sold in dollars.

The health of Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and Maykel Castillo, the leaders of Movimiento San Isidro, is deteriorating fast after seven days without food or water. They are talented, young, black, and poor, and maybe because of that, they have created a connection to their people that is difficult to avoid. San Isidro is an impoverished neighborhood in Old Havana with a mostly black population. The grassroots organization brings together independent artists who are willing to engage in an open conversation about Cuban society that centers questions about political power. Movimiento San Isidro has been actively persecuted by police forces and boycotted by state institutions arguing that these are not artists but traitors to the nation. The display of aggression, lies, and discrimination signed yesterday by the Communist Party newspaper is another irrefutable proof of the segregation imposed in Cuban society. The narrative is already designed; they just changed the names by the occasion. Mercenaries and criminals are all those who chose to break the chain.

It will be easy to reduce this story to another event about political persecution in Cuba where freedom of expression and freedom of assembly are clearly violated. These abuses happen so frequently in Cuba that, for many, they have become the normalizing horror of the few that dare to challenge the power of the state. However, what I read in the repression suffered by Movimiento San Isidro is something else. They have uncovered the layers of exclusion in Cuban society. This is not about an abstract right of freedom; what San Isidro brings to the table is the discussion about the systemic exclusion of certain people in Cuba. They have revealed a highly racialized society where if you are black and poor, your voice is less important, and your body is left to die. They have shown the bureaucratic class division that allows certain artists to exist when others are scorned and bullied as the outcasts of the utopic system of education and healthcare for all.

For the last sixty years, Cuban society has been modeled with an exclusionary system that creates social status according to the level of commitment to state institutions. Independent actors are criminals, and more than that, they could not possibly exist according to the state logic. When everyone has a role, everyone becomes a part of the system, except for the political dissident who incarnates the extreme other, the non-us. Movimiento San Isidro put these two sides together to show that you can be both, you can be all, and better than that, you do not need the state’s permission to do it. The intrinsic coloniality of power structures in Cuba depends on exclusion to survive as a dominating force. If the people cross boundaries, for example, if artists become friends with activists, the total power structure starts to crack. That passage from one status to the other, from professor to dissident, from being to not-being, is a gate administered by public officials and cultural personalities.

Colonial structures are designed as a form of exclusion, and the ultimate exclusion is one that differentiates between the human and the non-human. When Abel Prieto, previous minister of culture and now head of Casa de las Américas, refers to the Movimiento San Isidro as marginals impersonating artists’ roles, it goes beyond the social status to the category of the human. These marginals represent the early “social death,” following Orlando Patterson’s terminology, that the Cuban government grants to those who are excluded from its educational system. Not surprisingly, the majority of these people are black and poor. Marginals have no rights, not even the right to believe they can be artists or musicians, not to mention the right to a just trial. Communist society’s extreme puritanism praises the good student who repeats the ideology anthem and punishes the rebel who doesn’t want to talk. What Prieto calls marginals are part of a community that has been targeted for decades with slogans. They were the flesh sent to Angola and those put to misery today with the new dollar stores. They are commonly disregarded and ignored by the elite bourgeoisie that represents the crème de la crème of Cuban culture, but again, these artificial barriers are being shifted by Movimiento San Isidro little by little. The support it has received from Cubans living in Cuba and abroad is unprecedented, at least to the best of my knowledge.

Why is Movimiento San Isidro speaking of the injustice in Cuban society and, furthermore, of systemic racism and class exclusion? First of all, it represents the dispossessed who are willing to die because their existence is known only after death. Today, Luis Manuel, Maykel, and the rest of the people in the group on hunger strike are going through the obscure middle passage of a liberation process in Cuba. They are going from non-human to human, despite the state regulations that keep regarding their existence only in relation to the prison system’s machinery. They are, as Hortense Spillers reminds us, captive flesh, the zero degree of social conceptualization. They are talented, young, black, poor, and they are dying in silence.

María de Lourdes Mariño Fernández (b. Camagüey, 1984). Curator, researcher, and art critic. She has a Master Degree in Public Administration at the University of Delaware (2018) and a Bachelor in Art History (2007) at the University of Havana. Since 2010, she has carried out or participated in several curatorial projects linked to the reconstruction of the historical memory of abandoned spaces in the city of Havana. She has recently organized artistic presentations at the University of New Mexico, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Delaware, among other cultural centers in the United States. She works as art critic for national and international publications. She is currently researching the configuration of Cuban cultural memory through the visual arts.


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