Cuba is ruled by a brutal dictatorship, and one of the most dangerous things to do on the island is to protest against it.
Since 1959, many who dared to speak out against the regime have faced three harsh futures: death, prison or exile. That’s why it is truly important to support the hundreds of young artists who came out in recent days to defend freedom of creation and expression in Cuba. They are risking everything. If it goes wrong, they could wind up in prison. If it goes right, they could be chipping away at the dictatorship (finally) and opening the possibility of democratic change in Cuba.
The latest revolt in Cuba started after the arrest of rapper Denis Solís. On Nov. 6, around 6:40 pm, a uniformed government agent entered Denis’ home in Havana. The artist, outraged by the intrusion without any sort of legal order, defended himself the only way that dissidents in Cuba can, with his cell phone.
Denis was live on Facebook for more than seven minutes during his exchange with the agent. “Who told you to come in without asking for permission?” Denis asked. “Why are you bothering me? Because, as far as I know, I haven’t killed anybody, haven’t broken a door, haven’t robbed anyone, like your damned murderer does so often. Film me, because I am filming you.” Here’s the link to the video: https://bit.ly/3a5ujkL
In fact, the agent pulled out his cell phone and started to film Denis. A few days later, Denis was arrested, put on trial without a defense attorney or legal guarantees and sentenced to eight months in jail. Just for daring to record and publish the video of an agent who had entered his home without permission.
What Denis highlighted with his phone, for the world to see, was the repressive machinery of the Cuban regime. Fourteen artists and dissidents went on a hunger strike to demand freedom for Denis. Many of them are members of the eclectic San Isidro Movement – named after a Havana neighborhood – made up of singers, writers, scientists, journalists and citizens. The 14 hunger strikers were detained temporarily by state security agents on Nov. 26. One day later, the Cuban government faced one of its largest revolts in years.
Risking arrest, more than 300 artists, youths and students gathered peacefully in front of the Ministry of Culture on Nov. 27 to demand Denis’ release and more freedom in Cuba. The BBC described the protest as “the biggest of its type registered on the island since 1959.”
That unprecedented challenge, which gave rise to the N27 Movement, forced Deputy Culture Minister Fernando Rojas to meet with 30 protesters. They brought into the meeting a list of petitions against repression and harassment. Tania Bruguera, a Cuban artist whose works are frequently shown abroad, was one of those present.
“We are discussing freedom of expression in Cuba, not only for artists but also for citizens,” she told me in an interview from Havana. “Freedom for political dissent in this country.” How do you ask for more freedom in a dictatorship, I asked her.
“We can ask for it because the people are asking for it. The intellectuals are asking for it for their sector. The people are going out to the street. The people are tired already.”
The Cuban government suspended the dialogue after the first session, falsely accusing the artists of being mercenaries financed by the United States.
This is not the first revolt on in Cuba during six decades of tyranny. It’s enough to mention the courageous protests of the Ladies in White, the risky work of independent journalists and the 1994 rebellion known as the Maleconazo. But it is the first time the Castro regime faces a digitally armed opposition (cell phones, the Internet and social networks).
That’s what Tania told me during our talk, on a borrowed laptop. “Nothing like this is possible without the social networks. Extraordinary things have happened in Cuba in these 60 years. There are many people who are extraordinarily courageous. But the difference now is that everyone is hearing about it. Before, no one heard about it. And look, as proof that the government knows the dangers of the social networks, it has started to shut down some applications.” And everyone know that dictatorships start to die when they lose control of social networks. Like it happened with Denis.
“We are super connected,” he said at the end of his defiant video. Without the Internet and social networks, Denis would be a nameless prisoner in one of the black holes of the Cuban prison system. And I would not be writing this column about him and the daring young people of the San Isidro Movement.
What is totally unacceptable is that in 2020 there are still brutal and murderous dictatorships like Cuba’s. Just two people have ruled the island in more than six decades, Raul and Fidel Castro. Two. That’s all. During the rule of Fidel Castro, who died in 2016, “thousands of Cubans were incarcerated in abysmal prisons, thousands more were harassed and intimidated, and entire generations were denied basic political freedoms,” a report by Human Rights Watch noted. “Cuba made improvements in health and education, though many of these gains were undermined by extended periods of economic hardship and by repressive policies.”
That authoritarian system continues still. There’s only one political party. Opposition parties and independent news media are not allowed. Cuba is the only country in the hemisphere that bars entry to human rights and Amnesty International observers. What is it hiding?
It is unforgivable and shameful that there are still governments in Latin America – like Mexico’s, for example – that do not dare to publicly criticize the abuses and crimes of the Cuban dictatorship. It is enormously incongruent to fight for democracy for Mexicans and other Latin Americans, but not Cubans.
We should not leave these artists alone on the island. As Tania Bruguera –who created the concept of “useful art” and who was threatened recently by a state security colonel in front of her house – told me, what is happening in Cuba now “is bigger than any individual wish.”
It is naive to believe this revolt by artists in Cuba can end a 61-year-old dictatorship. But it has shown three things: that the Castro regime is vulnerable, that social networks are creating options for rebellions that were unthinkable until recently, and that there’s nothing more powerful than oppressed people seeking freedom.
Some day, perhaps from a video like the one by Denis, the Cuban Spring will emerge.