Cuba: A Fist Raised with Handcuffs Hanging

The new image of Cuban dissidence

Rapper Maykel Castillo with MSI movement supporters in the Old Havana neighborhood of San Isidro.

By Cubaencuentro

HAVANA TIMES – A picture went viral on social media in Cuba last week: a dissident with his fist raised and handcuffs hanging off his wrist, after friends and neighbors helped him to evade arrest in Havana, Reuters news agency reported.

The image is captured in a video that shows rapper Maykel Castillo celebrating his escape from the police, surrounded by dissidents and residents in the San Isidro neighborhood of Havana, on Sunday. Some of them joined in and sang an anti-establishment song in unison, criticizing president Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Castillo told Reuters over the phone, from his home, that this attempt to arrest him was one more in a series of arrests that he believes are arbitrary, to try and intimidate him and others in the group of dissident artists in the San Isidro Movement (MSI), in Havana.

When asked about the incident, the Center for International Press at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (which receives foreign journalists’ requests when preparing reports about state institutions), told Reuters that it would not be making any comment.

State-controlled media such as Granma newspaper, belonging to the Communist Party, label Castillo and the MSI as participants in a “soft coup” attempt, over the past five months, which they claim is being orchestrated by the US.

The Government describes dissidents as being members of small groups paid by the US to try and provoke unrest and promote their efforts to overthrow the government in recent decades.

In the eyes of those who want to see an end of the single-party State, 37-year-old Castillo is a hero. Other people see him as a social misfit.

The image shows how public breakaway groups, even if they are uncommon in Cuba, is becoming less and less so. This is partly due to Internet access on cellphones and growing frustrations with the Government during the worst economic crisis on the island in decades.

Tougher sanctions from the US and the pandemic, which has decimated the tourism industry, have reduced hard-currency revenue and hit the public sector of the economy, which shrunk by 11% in 2020, amid increasing medicine and food shortages.

The MSI has held events and provocative exhibitions livestreamed ever since it was founded three years ago. They have dealt with censorship firstly, but now also about everyday problems.

The group has transformed public dissidence into something more than traditional political activism. It has attracted support from groups in the artistic community and among some citizens. There are no independent opinion surveys, so it isn’t possible to gauge just how much popular support they have.

One of its main organizers, 33-year-old Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara told Reuters at the MSI base, that between 80-90% of their funding comes straight from the artists themselves, through the sales of their art.

Otero Alcantara said that the fact that ordinary citizens are standing by MSI’s side against the police and joined a protest, shows that they are beginning to overcome their fear of the consequences if they speak out.

“This is an example of what is happening all over Cuba. It’s not only happening in this neighborhood. We are artists and are a lot more visible,” he added.

Growing frustration

Small protests – against censorship, bureaucratic redtape considered excessive or animal rights – have recently emerged across the country.

Analysts say that the launch of Internet mobile access in 2018 changed the rules of the game because it allowed Cubans to access information outside of national media, controlled by the State.

“This allows the frustration and dissent of one person or a community to spread in real time so that other people who hold similar frustrations also discover they are not alone, and they lose their fear of speaking out,” noted Ted Henken from Baruch College in New York, and author of Cuba’s Digital Revolution.

Internet access has allowed new online and independent media platforms to emerge and has allowed Cuban activists on the island to better connect with the Cuban-American diaspora that emerged after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.

The anti-establishment song “Patria y Vida”, harmonized by San Isidro residents, was a hit that was released in February with some of Cuba’s most popular contemporary musicians that now live in Miami, such as duo Gente de Zona, and it also featured Castillo and another dissident rapper on the island.

The Cuban government has dealt with some of the specific issues that dissidents have raised, for example, it announced in February that it would be introducing a decree on Animal Rights.

The government attacks critics that seek political reform, such as the MSI and independent journalists. State-controlled TV has dedicated prime-time shows to belittle them and refers to them as “The old script against Cuba and its new puppets.”

“We support members of civil society in Cuba and around the world, who are defending their rights or fighting for freedom,” a US Department of State spokesperson said.

Some activists and independent journalists have publicly stated that they aren’t receiving orders from Washington, but they recognize that they receive foreign grants, even from US organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy, which is mostly funded by US Congress.

Dissidents such as MSI members have live streamed their repeated home arrests and other types of harassment, on social media. At least 10 renowned independent journalists have left Cuba in recent years, after complaining of state repression, according to an informal count by Reuters.

Even so, some dissidents told Reuters that they don’t succumb to this intimidation.

“No matter how much they try and defame the work we are doing, it won’t work,” Castillo said. “I’m not anyone’s agent. I’m a free citizen. I have family in the US, friends and supporters who help me and my art,” he added.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.

10 thoughts on “Cuba: A Fist Raised with Handcuffs Hanging

  • For an “anti imperialist” you sure talk a lot of garbage. You obviously didn’t read or understand my 2nd comment. I don’t disagree with the dissident’s agenda, I am only against US financial support of them and the prominent dissidents do live better than average Cubans. In Miami, anti-Castroism is an industry and if relations are normalized, these organizations will lose a lot of money. That is why they were against Obama’s overture. Before San Isidro, they used the Ladies of White to justify keeping the embargo. By getting themselves arrested every Sunday, This was to show that repression got worse after 2014.

  • Curt, you don’t approve of criticism of the Cuban government/system of human rights abuses such as no freedom of speech, press, association, etc. because the situation is worse in other countries. But curiously those other countries don’t claim to be a workers’ paradise and the most democratic. Maybe you should stop criticizing the US, where you have those freedoms, because there are countries that are worse. Maybe you should support suppression of all dissent in the US, because things are worse in Russia, Hong Kong, or Burma to name a few on a long list. I’ll bet you never would… but you have the gall to virtually tell Cubans to shut up and put up because other countries have even more horrendous human rights abuses. You can have your cake and eat it too. How nice.

  • My comment wasn’t about criticizing the dissidents and their agenda. It is a criticism of US policy on Cuba, which hasn’t worked in 62 years. Those who say that things didn’t improve after Obama normalized diplomatic relations with Cuba, I have a bridge to sell them. When I went there in 2016, I saw optimism and joy among the Cuban people that I didn’t see during previous visits. People were opening up there own businesses and were thriving. You can’t expect the human rights situation to change overnight but it was a very good start. Besides I never understood why Cuba has to be held to a higher standard on human rights than other countries that we have normal diplomatic relations with. Trump’s Cuba policy, which was orchestrated by hardline morons like Marco Rubio, killed any hopes that the Cuban people had.

  • What a bunch of gobbly goop Nick. You enjoy free speech and the right to association and think that anyone in a totalitarian environment without those rights shouldn’t be listened to because they may get outside funding, in this case from your and Curt’s enemy, the US. As someone with a lifetime of opposing US foreign policy and meddling, I tend to look at the issues more than anything. I feel the same way about the Cuban government’s media and 100% paid off journalists, producers and TV hosts. If they make good arguments to defend a policy great. If they don’t, instead of attacking them for being on the government payroll 100%, I would critize the argument I disagree with. What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.

  • Free speech as a principal is a good thing.
    But free speech that is funded by a country’s enemy is, by definition, not free.
    It’s bought.
    I wouldn’t claim that I know how many of these participants are on the payroll of the USA. But my experience teaches me to be cynical on the matter.
    And if anyone suggests that none of them at all are on the payroll, I would say, well go buy a lottery ticket because the odds are probably similar.
    For example- There is a guy within this ‘movement’ who works for a Florida based news outlet who are part funded by USAID. His name is Esteban Rodriguez. He takes his 30 pieces of silver from the USA but says he is in favour of trump’s restrictions on remittances.
    The usual double standards. Total hypocrisy.
    I have met people in Cuba who are on the USA’s payroll. I don’t regard myself as a better person than they are. But just don’t try and kid me that your ‘free speech’ is free when it clearly ain’t free – it’s paid for.
    There will be people in this movement paid by the USA. And don’t forget, quite possibly also people within this movement paid by the Cuban Government. Same old story.
    Anyone who takes a risk and demonstrates for free speech – I wouldn’t criticise.
    I would just say be careful who you mix with.

  • Curt lives in a Cold War time warp. His enemy is the US and any government that opposes it is in effect his friend. Then comes the need to justify the friend and criticize any detractors. They are all on the CIA or US government take, he claims, and that disqualifies anything they say. Forget the issues involved and attack the messengers. Curt himself doesn’t want to live in a country without any civil rights, including freedom of expression, press, association, self employment, business etc. However, since the Cuban government is the friend, anybody that criticizes any policy or leader is on the take from the US and that disqualifies their demands for freedoms and policy changes.

    Curt doesn’t mention that every journalist or program host appearing on the State monopoly Cuban media, is on the take 100% from the Cuban government/Party. If they touch on forbidden subjects or criticize those who cannot be criticized, they are fired and won’t be working again in any legal media. If they tow the Party line they might get a bit of gasoline for a 30 or 40 year old car and a week vacation once a year. They might even get a bag of food and hygiene products every once in a while.

    However Curt’s habit of shooting the messenger and failing to discuss the subject matter is nothing new. Trump and his supporters often use the same tactic in attacking their enemies, guilt by association.

  • Curt, people in Cuba are not paid by the USA, which pays nothing. look at the image of mostly poor blacks and tell me that they are living a comfortable life. we have had enough and keep your dollars (and troops) in the USA. we don’t need them.

  • Curt. Don’t worry about it. If the San Isidro or other dissidents group are paid by the CIA or the US government the money goes to the Castro’s Ranch. See, everything in Cuba is owned by the Castro Family and the top military. The ppl paid spend the money in the Ranch (the island of Cuba) and the money goes back to the Castros, how the Castros would use it is another story. Maybe they´ll buy more handcuffs from China. I can’t believe some ppl still believe in and defend such a horrible regime.

  • The Cuban government is correct when they say that most dissident groups are being paid by the US, per Helms Burton, in which millions of our tax dollars are being used to fund “civil society”. It’s all a part of the “Democracy” programs” created by the US. The San Isidro group is a prime example of this. In the meantime, the Cuban citizens who aren’t US funded dissidents are starving because of Draconian US sanctions, and sadly the incompetence of the a Cuban government. I would rather see my hard earned tax dollars being used to send food and medicine for all Cubans, instead of just those who are being paid by the US, who live much better than the average Cuban.

  • The people of Cuba have learned not to be afraid anymore of the Cuban dictatorship in power for 62 years based on the terror imposed on citizens even outside the island. If you publicly manifest any dissatisfaction or participate in any protests against the Castro regime outside of Cuba the regime will not allow you to visit your Family and friends anymore. The ppl inside face the fabrication of crimes and long sentences. They are terrified to raise theirs voices but this is changing and hopefully the Cuban ppl will enjoy freedom and democracy soon. Enough! 62 years of repression and an unproductive system. It’s a lot to put up with.

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