Havana’s artists find their voice in a call to defend creative freedom

Fears over state curbs on live shows lead to hunger strike, arrests and street standoff with government

A portly young man leant out of his building’s doorway, flanked by police cars on both sides. Stray cats walked past, looking for scraps in the Havana night.

“I’ve been under surveillance by the police and state security for two days now,” said Esteban Rodríguez, 32, who describes himself as a social media influencer. “They don’t let me leave my house.”

Up rickety stairs, he leads me into his apartment where I’m introduced to Anamely Ramos, an art curator frantically livestreaming on Facebook. Staring intensely into her phone camera, she says: “I’m calling on the international community to look at what’s going on in Cuba.”

Rodríguez and Ramos are members of the San Isidro movement, a collective of artistsopposed to legislation that curbs artistic freedoms The group stages irreverent, often provocative performances to make its case. Little known a few weeks ago, the small group has ignited a large, unprecedented debate around freedom of expression on the Communist-ruled island.

Earlier this month rapper Denis Solis, a member of the group, was jailed for eight months for insulting a police officer who entered his house. The San Isidro movement insisted his incarceration was illegal and members started a hunger strike.

Controversy swirled around the fast: supporters insist one member of the group didn’t eat for 12 days, while the government claims protesters received food deliveries.

At the end of last month, police forcibly entered the group’s headquarters, citing violations of Cuba’s strict Covid laws. Members were detained and taken for Covid tests. All have since been released and are now eating. The following day, more than 200 young artists and activists gathered outside the culture ministry in a rare public protest. For 12 hours demonstrators debated, read poetry, sang and called for dialogue with the government.

Cuban reggaeton singer Dianelys Alfonso, better known as La Diosa, at the protest.
Cuban reggaeton singer Dianelys Alfonso, better known as La Diosa, at the protest. Photograph: Yamil Lage/AFP

“We are not only here for San Isidro, we are here for our rights,” said Yunior Garcia, 28, a playwright. “I want to live and work here as an artist, and to do that I need my creative freedom guaranteed,” he said, adding that he has never had a play censored, but knows colleagues who have.

Affordable access to culture is a hallmark of the Cuban revolution: cinema, theatre and opera tickets usually cost the equivalent of just 30p. However, a sentiment running through the protest was that labelling people and art as either “revolutionary” or ”counter-revolutionary” stifles creativity.

After night fell, 30 protesters were invited into the culture ministry to meet vice-minister Fernando Rojas. After five hours of debate the group emerged, saying authorities had guaranteed all protesters safe passage home, and that talks with the ministry would continue this month.

Installation artist and dissident Tania Bruguera, one of the negotiators, was briefly detained by police and questioned, before being dropped off with other negotiators.

The government has, on the whole, avoided criticising artists and has called for peaceful dialogue. State media has cast the San Isidro movement as US mercenaries. State TV released a video in which Solis tells interrogators that a Cuban-American in Florida offered him $200 to carry out political work. “I was interested in the money,” he said.

There is clear evidence that some in the San Isidro Movement have ties with the US government.

Esteban Rodriguez works for ADN Cuba, a Florida-based online news outlet that was awarded a $410,710 grant in September from USAID, a US government agency. The US spends $20m annually on anti-government media and “democracy promotion” programmes (which critics say are better described as “regime change” programmes).

Rodriguez describes measures taken by the White House last month to prohibit remittances to Cubans from family in the US as “perfect” – falsely claiming the bulk of the money sent ends up in state coffers. “If I was in the US, I’d have voted Trump,” he adds.

Last week, the government organised a rally in a central Havana park to marshal support. President Miguel Diáz-Canel told 5,000 people that recent events were “a media show” and part of “a strategy of non-conventional warfare aimed at overthrowing the revolution”. In Cuba there is “space for dialogue for everything that’s revolutionary”, he said.

Rey Montalvo, 31, a troubadour who played at the rally, said he had only recently heard of the movement on social media, but did not like its methods. “Dialogue among Cubans is important, but I don’t believe in anybody who asks for dialogue if the US is behind them,” he said. “Too much blood has been spilt.”

The backdrop to the protests is the country’s dire economic situation. Over the past two years, the Trump administration imposed a string of potent sanctions that have compounded already long queues for basic goods. Covid has made things even worse.

Negotiations between the culture ministry and the artists broke down on Friday, as some artists reported police vehicles outside their homes and house arrests lasting hours. Special forces have been deployed in key public places. There’s an ominous feeling that if no agreement is reached, sparks could fly.


Ed Augustin

The GuardianTramp

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