An artist critical of government policies and a leader of the San Isidro Movement
HAVANA TIMES – Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara is the most visible face of San Isidro Movement (MSI). The group of artists and intellectuals presents the Cuban government its greatest challenge in recent years.
Otero and 13 others barricaded at his home in the San Isidro neighborhood of Old Havana and several went on a hunger strike. They were demanding the release of rapper Denis Solis, summarily sentenced to 8 months in jail for contempt. The police evicted them by force on the night of November 26th.
The violent assault lit a spark among the outraged Cuban cultural world. On November 27th, during Otero’s reclusion in a hospital where he was taken against his will, an unprecedented clustering of over 300 creators met outside the Ministry of Culture. They were demanding freedom of expression and the cessation of police harassment.
They managed to attract the world’s attention and open an unprecedented channel for dialogue with the authorities.
“Luisma”, as his friends call him, was released from the hospital on Tuesday. On Wednesday he was arrested and released a few hours later. Not being allowed to return to his home in San Isidro, he is staying with relatives in El Cerro neighborhood. Here he receives EFE on Thursday December 3rd for this interview.
The government accuses Otero and colleagues of receiving US funding to undermine the Revolution and destabilize the country. As evidence, the state media exhibits a video with Luis Miguel effusively greeting Mara Tekach, former Head of US Diplomatic Mission, on a Havana street.
Interview with Luis Manuel Otero
EFE: They say you work for the US.
Luis Manuel Otero: It is the enemy syndrome. What they label you with when you question the regime. I don’t work for the US. I’m an independent artist, I live from my art. Since you are a child you hear them accusing people, “you are a mercenary, you work for the CIA”. And you ask yourself, aren’t there mere mortals doing things out of conviction? [For example today] because they get tired of the MLC shops (in dollars) and the aberrations of all the regimes of the world?
Have you ever received money from the US?
LMO: Not so far. Although I would be willing if a scholarship or foundation wanted to finance me.
The government shows a video of a meeting on the street between you and former Chargée d’affairs, Mara Tekach. What was that?
LMO: She is a Diplomat. I can meet with Mara Tekach or the French ambassador, my friend the ambassador from the Netherlands, or the one from the EU. Even with the Cuban President, Miguel Diaz-Canel, if one day he would like to talk to me.
Luis Manuel the artist
Everyone knows the opposition activist Luis Manuel. Who is Luis Manuel the artist?
LMO: I am an artist trying to influence the Cuban reality. Luckily it is working. My social art questions the reality I live in, and the regime persecuting, arresting and imprisoning me for that. My confrontation is to be able to do my work. I have exhibited in the best Cuban galleries, and internationally at the Pompidou and the Contemporary Art museums in France.
How is the San Isidro Movement financed?
LMO: Each one of us has our own projects and way of surviving in our Cuban daily life. I sell my art and finance another project. Amaury (Pacheco) edits his videos. Michel (Matos) writes for the media… Everyone has their own work and we manage to make a kind of group and help each other.
Do you or San Isidro Movement (MSI) have a specific political position?
LMO: The MSI is “multi-dimensional”. There may be someone who loves (US President Donald) Trump. I don’t love Trump. There are members from the LGTBI community, blacks, whites… Me, on my part, I’m a humanist. In Cuba, people don’t talk about leftists or rightists. People talk about bread, chicken, dollar shops, surviving with a bit of mincemeat, finding shoes for your children. After meeting those needs in a free Cuba, I’ll see if I have the energy to go left, right or center.
The macho State
Do you think the State perceives you as a threat?
LMO: Sure, they show it every day. The State is like that alpha male who’d rather die of cancer than have a prostate test. It is so macho it won’t allow its anus be touched. It is so rigid that a drawing of a child on a wall is seen as a threat. The reason being it is not the drawing they want to see. Moreover, other children may want to make their own drawing.
What do you want to change in Cuba?
LMO: I want to change a dictatorship to a democratic and free system. I want freedom of expression, to be able to move through the streets. In Cuba there is no freedom.
How did you like last Friday’s protest?
LMO: I was happy, grateful. Our expectations were met. All the work done in three or four years is having a response among the youth and the cultural world. So, I am very happy, it means Cuban civil society is waking up and articulating. I believe Cubans are tired of the regime’s boot on their heads. They open dollar shops without counting on the people. Tomorrow they will raise food prices. The day after they send your mother on a medical mission supposedly for the good of humanity. They don’t say it is really to take 80% of her salary.
The scope of the awakening
Is the youth really “waking up” or just a group of the artistic and intellectual elite?
LMO: They are people who know how to work with the media, social networks and image. It is being achieved from the intelligentsia to be more visible. But once or twice a month there is a protest because there is no chicken, no water… I think all of Cuba is waking up.
How did you experience the hunger strike?
LMO: The seventh day arrived when I’d managed to sleep after several days tossing and turning, because your metabolism fails. And then I saw friends on social media. I saw an unknown guy holding a “Luisma Vive” sign in Central Park ready to be beaten. All that made me wake up from the hunger strike.
Was it worthwhile?
LMO: Yes. It made me understand the love and concern of others for you. And made many people wake up.
In and out of jail
How many times have you been arrested and then released?
LMO: Like 40 or 50 times. Everything has happened. Once I left a party to urinate by a garbage tank and they abducted me. They arrest me in the middle of the street… I have been imprisoned at 9 AM and been told that at 10:00 I broke a law on the street. I have been beaten, violated and threatened, but here I am.
What happens during arrests?
LMO: In the dungeon you can find different prisoners’ life experiences. You can be in a car for 10 hours without talking to anyone. An Intelligence official, playing good policeman, may try to convince you to stop your art, to stop seeing a friend or emigrate. Everything has happened from breaking friendships to death or prison threats, like this last time.
Have other colleagues also suffered these “express arrests”. What intention do you think they are pursuing?
LMO: In Cuba there is violence in silence. When comparing this express detention with the deaths in Colombia or kidnappings in Mexico, you say “nothing happens in Cuba.” But I have been more than 40 times in a dungeon in 2 years. Dungeons of the Cuban State. We are traumatized and that is why people have to emigrate. December 10th is my son’s birthday and I won’t be able to go see him. It’s [International] Human Rights Day and they won’t let me go out.
You say you will no longer go on hunger strikes. What are your plans?
LMO: In the last three years we have learned to articulate ourselves. In the coming days we will continue fighting for Denis’s freedom and building a free Cuba. That’s my number one priority.
Do you see hope in a dialogue with the Ministry of Culture?
LMO: Hope is not based on a dialogue with the Ministry of Culture. It is on the hundreds of young people who were outside the Ministry. That the regime had to talk about dialogue and expose itself to national and international opinion. If in the end there is no dialogue, they will give a bad image to all those people. It will further exacerbate the annoyance, the lack of faith people have in them.
Will you participate in the dialogue if it continues?
LMO: In Cuba, everyone must speak.
[Editor’s note: The day following this interview the Ministry of Culture announced it was reneging on its promise to dialogue with the artists made in the heat the night on November 27th.]