HAVANA TIMES – Over 300 celebrities from the art world signed a joint declaration on December 8, 2021, with the organizations PEN International, Artists at Risk Connection (ARC) belonging to PEN America, and Human Rights Watch to end repression against artists and for respect for freedom of speech in Cuba.
The statement calls for an end of abuse against their Cuban counterparts, objects of State launched slander campaigns, as well as the increased harassment since the gathering outside the Ministry of Culture on November 27, 2020.
Signees of the letter include US actors Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and John Lithgow; writers Paul Auster, J. M. Coetzee, Jonathan Franzen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Mario Vargas Llosa, Elena Poniatowska, Gioconda Belli and Isabel Allende; US cartoonist Jules Feiffer; painter Sergio Ramirez; and filmmaker Arturo Ripstein. Cuban signees included artivist Tania Bruguera, writer Wendy Guerra and visual artist Hamlet Lavastida.
The signees stress that artists have acted as a bridge in communicating to the world, the abuse committed by the Government against its own citizens. It also highlights the leading and unifying role of art in the country; it reads: “Cuban artists, including those who form part of the San Isidro Movement, 27N and Archipielago, have managed to draw attention, both in the country and internationally, to the Cuban Government’s complete disdain for human rights. They set the scene which led to for the mass protests that took place across the country on July 11, 2021.”
Art was also present at the anti-government protests that took place nationwide on July 11th and 12th; the song “Patria y Vida”, which won two Latin Grammy Awards, became an anthem for some protestors.
The document also points out that “the Cuban Government should immediately end its constant abuse against artists, releasing everyone […] who has been arbitrarily arrested and dismiss the charges against them.”
One of the singers of “Patria y Vida”, rapper Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo, was arrested on May 18, 2021, and was charged with the crimes of disobedience, contempt and resistance, for the events in the San Isidro neighborhood in Old Havana on April 4th. The police tried to arrest him there, but neighbors from the community helped him escape. A handcuff was still hanging off his wrist, and this is the image of the rapper that has traveled the world over. Osorbo is currently being held at the 5 y ½ prison in Pinar del Rio and several reports from the San Isidro Movement (MSI) indicate that his health is at risk.
Other rappers behind bars include Lazaro Rodriguez Betancourt, better known as “Pupito en Sy” and Didier Almagro. The former was arrested in November 2019 for not allowing a worker from the anti-mosquito campaign into his home. He is serving a four-year prison sentence for attack and the propagation of an epidemic.
Twenty-three-year-old Almagro has been in prison since August 4th 2020, for having taken part in a cacerolazo (protest with pots and pans) in Placetas, Villa Clara. He has a three-year prison sentence weighing over his head. In December, the NGO Freemuse launched a campaign for his release.
After the 11J protests, State harassment of Cuban artists has been stepped up, “artists have complained that they were intercepted, arrested or placed under house arrest. Some of them are still being held and are facing baseless criminal charges. Others are under house arrest and under constant police surveillance. Many have fled the country and are not being allowed to return to Cuba and will remain in exile indefinitely,” the statement explains.
In recent months, artists who have gone into exile include Hamlet Lavastida – who was released and taken straight to the airport after having being held at State Security’s Villa Marista prison for over eight months -, Tania Bruguera and Camila Lobon, poet Katherine Bisquet, rapper Eliecer Marquez Duany “El Funky” and art curator Claudia Genlui also had to leave the country.
Within the context of the 11J protests, MSI leader and artivist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara was arrested, whom the Government proposed exile to as a get out of jail card, he said. Otero Alcantara, who was chosen by Time magazine as one of 100 most influential people in 2021 and was honored with the Oxi al Coraje Award, rejected this proposition.
Another two artists under house arrest right now, for having protested on July 11 are Poet and University of the Arts (ISA) student Abel Gonzalez Lescay, and Rapper Richard Zamora.
Gozalez’s trial has been postponed to the upcoming year. He protested on the streets of Bejucal, in the Mayabeque province and the Public Prosecutor’s Office is seeking a seven-year jail sentence for him.
Zamora, known as El Radikal, was held at the Combinado Sur prison in Matanzas for 40 days; the Public Prosecutor’s sentence request for him is still unknown.
The statement also says that the Government has “no valid justification for persecuting artists for their opinions” and urges it not to punish artistic or political dissent in Cuba.
“Locking up artists or forcing them into exile forever because of their artistic work, their words and ideas is abusive and inhumane. We proudly support Cuban artists and stand with them in solidarity.”
“Art needs to be free of censorship and repression, in Cuba and everywhere else in the world,” it concludes.
CUBALEX organization has reported a total of 1312 arrests as a result of the 11J protests. For now, 701 people remain behind bars in Cuba because they exercised their right to freely protest.