The Cuban government has once again jailed dissenting artists or forced them to flee. But anger at the 60-year dictatorship has spread far beyond artistic circles and the regime no longer has the power to silence people.
It was just over a year ago, on Jan. 27, 2021, when Cuba's Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso slapped a protester in the face at a demonstration at the Ministry of Culture. Other demonstrators were then arrested.
That was the moment the Cuban regime stopped pretending. Just then, it gave up the pretense that its "revolutionary culture" was democratic or critical. And it was at that point in time that the regime and dissidents lay all their cards on the table.
Mass demonstrations v. Marxist jargon
There are no excuses for the decisions to hit a protester, nor is there any Marxist jargon to justify the minister's meanness. Young protesters who were detained that day appeared to be in charge of events. In fact, they had successfully done so two months before, when they forced a meeting to talk about freedom of expression, creativity and an end to political persecutions. They were part of a community of peers that shared — and shares — a particular language and forms of communication.
Their attitude showed they did not have respect, affection or any sense of debt to the Cuban 1959 revolution and its dogmas. They felt no nostalgia for its pantheon of dead heroes, including Fidel Castro. Amid blows and orders to push on against these "enemies," the minister brazenly declared, "You'll shut up because I feel like it." He said it with conviction, because in Cuba, his kind have become the owners of words. Only the artists wouldn't shut up.
The minister can lock up every single artist on the island, but he no longer has the power to shut people up
Within weeks, the song "Patria y Vida" ("Homeland and Life") was launched on YouTube. Two million people listened to it within two days. Hundreds, even thousands, of young Cubans decided to sing it first at home, then on the street. Three words at a time, they urged others to talk.
Patria y Vida became a greeting and a sign among people who want change. Two months later on April 4, other young people gathered in San Isidro, a poor neighborhood of Havana, to shout these same words as they blocked the authorities' attempt to detain to Maykel Osorbo, one of its singers. Finally, on July 11, the voice of these youngsters exploded.
They were fed up, and they were everywhere. It wasn't about Havana or artists or a song anymore. In every corner of the island, online, and in little towns, you heard people demanding freedom, medicines, food and dignity. Today, most of the artists of the Jan. 27 protest are in jail or have fled. Repression today is measured with official figures: 790 people are jailed for exercising their right to protest, including 55 minors.
Dissenting voices are everywhere
In cases, detainees are prosecuted for alleged "sedition," which is punishable by a 25-year prison term. Today, five artists are being held in an ordinary prison for thinking differently. The singer Maykel Osorbo may have an infection inside the Pinar del Rio maximum security prison, for which he will not receive proper medical attention. The artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has been on hunger strike for days and not speaking, while held in isolation.
But the voices are still there: on social media, in taxis, in food queues. Complaining, demanding. The minister can still react and lock up every single artist on the island, but he no longer has the power to shut people up. He never did, in fact, though it seems Cubans only realized this recently. And now, they refuse to keep quiet, whatever the minister may say.
*Cecilia Noce runs the artistic freedoms project at CADAL, a human rights NGO based in Buenos Aires.
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