Cuban Artist’s Message of Defiance From Prison

Cuban artist and political prisoner Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has been incarcerated for over two years. The island’s best-known political artist and co-founder of the San Isidro Movement was sentenced to five years for alleged “contempt, defamation, and public disorder” charges. Prior to his sentencing, he had been arrested more than 50 times for his performances, hunger strikes, and street protests between 2017 and 2021. He serves time at Guanajay, a maximum-security prison 30 miles from Havana. Amnesty International named him a prisoner of conscience in 2021.

Ahead of the third anniversary of the Cuban government’s assault on the San Isidro Movement headquarters on November 26, 2020, during which he and several other activists went on hunger strikes to protest the arbitrary arrest of a colleague and the general lack of civil rights, Otero Alcántara has issued a public statement from prison, delivered by phone and transcribed by his friends. I’ve translated the statement, included here in full, from Spanish to English.

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On the Third Anniversary of the Attack on the San Isidro Movement Headquarters in Cuba

November 2023

In 2011, I cast off the shackles of fear and staged my first exhibition “Our Heroes Are Neither Valued nor Respected,” which was inspired by the veterans of the war in Angola. This was my first political manifesto and the starting point of my attempt to usher in change in Cuba, a society paralyzed by fear, apathy, a lack of hope, in which people do not have the power to decide their future. 

On the road that I have traveled since, I have been joined by beings of light, friends with limited economic resources, terminal illnesses, people being cared for by siblings, people with young children, people with differing poetics, people from different social strata and faiths, but all rich in artistic resources. All are full of love for others, and united by their love of freedom. From these exchanges emerged the plan to create an independent #00Biennial, for which we drew on the preceding experiences that the legendary group Omni Zona Franca had with their annual poetry festivals and other endeavors. We organized dozens of concerts and exhibitions. We galvanized a collective movement against Decree 349, the 2018 law that criminalized independent artistic activity that was not authorized by the state. This movement succeeded in politicizing the entire Cuban arts sector, giving rise to more collective action. The San Isidro Movement emerged, and then Hunger Strikers of San Isidro barricaded themselves into the San Isidro headquarters. The Cuban government’s break-in and the arrest of our members, which was documented live on social media, produced an unprecedented public gathering in protest of state power: more than 400 young people carried out a sit-in outside the Ministry of Culture to demand all kinds of freedoms that our people have been denied for so long. More movements and campaigns emerged, such as “Express Yourself,” calling on Cubans to assert their human right to freedom of expression. The San Isidro Movement’s continued protests and hunger strikes forced the rusty wheels of Cuban civil society to begin to turn again. And on Sunday, July 11, 2021, tens of thousands of Cubans took to the streets to demand democracy.

2023 is coming to an end. More than two years have passed since the 11th of July 2021. There are more than a thousand political prisoners that have been in prison ever since that great day, including myself. At present, we are beings living in limbo without legal rights, with harsher sentences in many cases than those given to murderers, without options or benefits such as parole, despite our disciplined behavior. While we have been imprisoned, we have lost wives, husbands, and family members. We have missed celebrations, births, watching our children grow. We miss our friends …

In the past year, international figures that allegedly support human rights visited Cuba, but none of them have been able to change our situation. So, I wonder, after shaking President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s hand, did they ask about us? Will we have to wait another four or five years for another UN General Assembly to demand that Cuba respect our human rights? The top leaders of the European Union have visited Havana, but even this highly significant economic partner failed to move the regime so that the political prisoners would not spend another day without embracing their loved ones in freedom, rather than under the watchful eye of a prison guard. 

Some leaders appear not to care about our plight. The president of Mexico and the vice president of Colombia do not recognize the racist, sexist, classist, and ideological repression that exists in Cuba, preferring instead to openly support the regime. 

And despite abundant evidence and international recognition of the regime’s violations of international law regarding human rights, Cuba has a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, together with Iran. 

So here comes another end of the year, another New Year’s dinner in which we will be absent from the family table. 

What are we looking forward to in 2024? The Olympics? Díaz-Canel announces more misery and repression in the name of the eternal struggle of the regime against “the enemy.” Maybe he will even use the firing squad against us. Another Havana Biennial with a coterie of artists and intellectuals that participate as if nothing were happening in Cuba. With so many problems in the world, Cuba fades away, it does not even exist for most people. 

My friends and family urge me to draw on my reserves of mental and physical strength, hoping for a miracle. I for my part, feel that I am still the master of my future. There rises within me a rebellious spirit, that does not allow me to resign myself. I just hope to get through the depression and frustration that comes with the end of the year, surviving in these conditions. I will see what I can come up with to try to alter the reality around me in 2024.

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