On November 9th, 2020, rapper Denis Solís González was arrested and subsequently sentenced to eight months in prison for “contempt” (desacato) after uploading a video to social media of police entering his home in Havana. He is now being held at the maximum-security prison Valle Grande, outside Havana. His arrest and sentencing, considered unfounded by many, led Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara and eight other members of the San Isidro Movement (a.k.a. Movimiento San Isidro or MSI) to begin a hunger strike about ten days ago, with some also refusing water.
The San Isidro Movement was founded by Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, a 32-year-old self-taught performance artist known for his critiques of the Cuban government, and is based in the eponymous neighborhood in Old Havana. The movement is a collective of artists, poets, professors, musicians, and ordinary civilians who denounce government measures they perceive as limiting freedom of expression. For instance, the 2017 Decree 349, which criminalized some forms of artistic expression, and the shutdown of 00Biennial, an alternative to the 13th Havana Biennial in 2018.
In recent years, several journalists and artists have taken to social media to denounce police presence outside their homes and other intimidation tactics. It’s not uncommon for dissidents to be questioned and/or detained for short periods and then released, sometimes in remote locations.
Otero Alcantara was arrested on March 1st in Havana, on his way to join an LGBTQ rally, and was put in “preventative prison” for several weeks before international outcry —including a petition started by fellow artist Coco Fusco— led to his release. At the time, Fusco told ArtNet that the level of support the petition received was a sign “that Cubans inside the country are losing their fear of speaking out.”
According to Danish organization FreeMuse, “On 12 November, several members of the San Isidro Movement protested outside of Cuba y Chacón police station, demanding freedom for Denis Solís. Among them were Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Iliana Hernández, who requested information on the whereabouts of Solís, but were detained while trying to do so.”
Facing what they cite as “the impossibility of a peaceful dialogue with the authorities,” members gathered at the movement’s headquarters to stage a sit-in.
Facing what they cite as “the impossibility of a peaceful dialogue with the authorities,” members gathered at the movement’s headquarters to stage a sit-in. Last week, the members were joined by writer Carlos Manuel Alvarez, who traveled to Cuba and who brought increased visibility to the situation through his recent article in the Washington Post.
According to a letter signed by hundreds of sympathizers and circulating on social media, after two days of peaceful readings with permanent surveillance by State Security, the police intercepted the neighbor who regularly brought food to the movement’s headquarters, cutting off their food supply. Nine members decided to go on hunger strike primarily as a way to sustain the peaceful protest, later adding to their request for Solís’s release, the closure of new government-operated “dollar stores” amidst financial hardship and growing scarcity, and a general denouncement of perceived attacks on civil liberties throughout the island.
Nine members decided to go on hunger strike primarily as a way to sustain the peaceful protest…
On November 21st, after three days of hunger and thirst strike, Luis Manuel Otero called for a peaceful demonstration in the central parks of each province, a protest that was thwarted in Havana’s Parque Central by a group of government-backed civilians.
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Organizations around the world have expressed support for a peaceful end to the situation. In a statement, Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director at Amnesty International, said “Authorities can continue to harass, intimidate, detain, and criminalize artists and alternative thinkers, but they can’t keep their minds in prison.”
Ten years ago, Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a 33-year-old Cuban political activist and prisoner died after fasting for more than eighty days. His death received international attention, and was viewed as a significant setback in U.S.-Cuba relations. President-elect Joe Biden has stated that his Cuba policy will include a focus, in part, on human rights. On November 24th, current U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo weighed in on the situation, tweeting: “We urge the Cuban regime to cease harassment of Movimiento San Isidro protestors and to release musician Denis Solís … The United States stands with Cuba’s people.”
On Thursday evening, Thanksgiving Day in the United States and the day after the publication of this article, authorities broke up the MSI strike, after allegedly taking social media platforms offline in an effort to curb the raid from being broadcast live. Government agents, some dressed as doctors, evicted everyone from the movement’s headquarters, citing a violation of COVID-19 health protocols. Fourteen members were briefly detained and most were released hours later, first the women and then the men. “They entered by force, breaking the door,” said independent journalist Iliana Hernández in a video posted on social media.
…one thing’s for sure: the members of the San Isidro Movement and the hundreds of young people who gathered outside the Ministry of Culture were witness to a historical moment…
The following day, over 300 artists, activists and members of the public gathered outside the culture ministry beginning in the late morning to denounce repression and censorship. On Friday night, Deputy Minister Fernando Rojas agreed to speak with 32 of the protestors, including well-known dissident artist Tania Bruguera and film director Fernando Pérez. Throughout the four-hour discussion, demonstrators stayed vigil, singing popular music and the national anthem. The members emerged late at night having agreed to five major points, including that the ministry would look into the arrests of Solís and Alcántara, and that they would assure the crowd that they would have no trouble returning to their homes that evening.
On Saturday, state television ran a 90-minute special attacking the many of the demonstrators and accusing the US of being behind Movimiento San Isidro. On Sunday, the Cuban government convened a “spontaneous” rally to show support for the Revolution, despite previous efforts to restrict gatherings given the current Coronavirus epidemic. According to Reuters, thousands of young people showed up at Havana’s Parque Trillo for the rally.
Despite the subsequent Revolutionary show of force, one thing’s for sure: the members of the San Isidro Movement and the hundreds of young people who gathered outside the Ministry of Culture were witness to a historical moment as a generation glimpsed the possibility of dialogue in their struggle for freedom of expression.
Updated 8:00 PM ET, Mon November 30, 2020