The new image of Cuban dissidence
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.
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.