By Julio Llopiz-Casal (El Estornudo)
HAVANA TIMES – Cuba’s courtrooms are sites for administering punishment. Justice is viewed as the guarantee of an order where questioning is penalized, one way or another, as a governing principle. The trial of artist-activist Luis Manuel Otero on May 30 – 31 seemed to me exactly that: the administration of a punitive packet aimed at depriving him of his individual liberty.
The legal proceedings have taken place amid a series of mistreatments and violations of rights. All along the way – including nearly a year of unjustified preventive detention – he’s been treated like a common delinquent, and not as the visual artist he is. The law in Cuba either accelerates or drags out the process of fabricating a “criminal”, according to specific reasons of convenience.
I wasn’t planning to be a defense witness in the trial against Luis Manuel Otero.
Yanelis Nuñez, curator, researcher, and member of the San Isidro Movement now living in Madrid, contacted me on May 19, and asked me to substitute for someone who was no longer able to testify due to their health. I accepted with pleasure. The other witness was to be visual artist Lazaro Saavedra.
Three days before the trial, we were called by the defense lawyer to attend a meeting in his office, located in the town of Arroyo Naranjo. Luis Manuel Otero’s sister and aunt also came. The attorney explained to us the technicalities and protocols of trials in Cuba, and also the specific reasons that each of us had been asked to be witnesses.
The lawyer said he planned to ask the sister and aunt about Luis Manuel’s relations with the members of his family, and how he behaved towards his neighbors and others in his immediate surroundings. In the case of myself and Lazaro Saavedra, it was a question of shedding light on the accused’s career as a visual artist. The case set out by the prosecution against Luis Manuel Otero didn’t recognize his condition as an artist and insisted on describing his life as “someone living beyond their economic possibilities”, without clarifying what said “possibilities” should be, nor according to what scale of values.
Saavedra, for his part, was an artist and a teacher with an outstanding record in the context of Cuban art. He was someone whose pedagogical efforts were both influential and beyond question.
In my case, I’m an artist of the same generation as Luis Manuel Otero. We’ve known each other for ten years, we’ve exhibited our work simultaneously, and during all that time, we’ve exchanged ideas about the process of creating art.
The defense attorney also said he’d ask us what a performance is from the viewpoint of the visual arts: starting from there, he’d broach the subject of the work of art in question – that is, the performance that supposedly justified the accusation of “insulting the patriotic symbols”. The matter began in 2019, when Luis Manuel Otero staged a performance piece as a symbolic protest following the approval of the Law of the National Symbols in Cuba. His performance art consisted in carrying the national flag with him everywhere he went for a certain period, using it as a kind of protective cape during different everyday activities. The piece was documented in a photo sequence posted on his Facebook page.
Finally, the lawyer was interested in having us explain what documents and credentials identify someone as an artist in the eyes of the Cuban state institutions.
Monday, May 30th: the day set for trial. Lazaro Saavedro and myself had agreed to go to the courthouse together, at the intersection of 100 and 33rd streets in Havana’s Marianao district. We left in the morning, accompanied by Lazaro’s wife.
A taxi dropped us off several blocks from the spot. We walked normally in the direction of the courthouse for a few minutes. However, about 600 yards from our destination, we reached the perimeter of action of a joint police operation involving both uniformed and plain-clothed State Security agents. At that point, the atmosphere became tense.
Saavedra was familiar with the neighborhood because he had lived there for part of his childhood. He led us down an alternative route through an alley. An unpaved shortcut, lined with improvised houses. I asked an older man if the path led to the courthouse. He said “yes” and warned us that there was a police patrol further along that would surely block our path. We continued on our way, trusting that our official orders to appear at the trial would keep us from having any problems. Two women, walking in the opposite direction remarked with apparent normalcy as they passed us by: “I hope they lock up all those people from the San Isidro movement…”
As could be expected, one of the police on patrol came rapidly up to us, asking where we were going. We showed him our court papers and told him we were witnesses in the trial taking place in the courtroom. He let us go by.
However, a few steps further along, a plain-clothed agent stopped us to ask the same thing. His manner was even less amiable than the cold and impersonal treatment of the previous agent. His cell phone rang twice, and he took the calls before eventually indicating that he wouldn’t allow us to continue along that street. We’d have to walk even further to get to where we were going.
During the rest of the walk, we passed at least five more police patrol vehicles, dozens of uniformed officers, and a number of plainclothes agents with their feigned natural poses and their intimidating stares. When we were less than 100 yards from the entrance, we were once more stopped by another plain-closed agent, accompanied by at least a dozen colleagues. He verified the appointment, checked our identity documents, and led us to the courtroom entrance. There were yet more police officials there and uniformed members of the Interior Ministry, plus more patrol cars, an ambulance and a bus.
As we entered, at least four other people once again asked us who were and what we were doing there. Along the corridors, the interior courtyard and the second floor of the building, there seemed to be twice as many State Security agents than there were outside. Men and women, both uniformed and not, gave us orientations that were more or less contradictory. Getting past all of them took some five minutes.
Finally, they took us to a room with wooden benches where Luis Manuel Otero’s aunt and sister were waiting for us, together with a neighbor of his who had also been called to testify for the defense.
We couldn’t leave until we finished testifying. A plain-clothed agent carefully monitored our conversation during the entire time.
We were there from noon until nearly five pm. We had to ask for authorization to use the bathroom, and then return immediately. It was the only exit allowed. We were given only water, which we also had to ask for. In contrast, we noted the offical’s movements and overheard their references to lunch. The wait between those four walls was uncomfortable, exhausting and numbing.
Finally, a State Security agent approached us and gave us the sequence for our statements. I was the first to be taken to declare. Only one witness entered at a time, and the next one would be called only when the person testifying before them had exited.
In the courtroom werej the judge, the prosecutor and the defense attorney. Together with them sat six people in togas, but none of them opened their mouths. The benches destined for the public were occupied by 30 or 40 uniformed Interior Ministry officials. There were three photographers documenting the process and a microphone to speak into. I assume that Luis Manuel Otero was there as well, but I couldn’t see him – maybe because I was so nervous.
As soon as I entered the room, they began to tell me what I was supposed to do. They explained to me what to do with my hands, and how to hold my sunglasses… how far down to lower my mask in order to talk. Later, the judge informed me of the protocols, and that failing to tell the truth constituted a crime. After that, the questions began.
The lawyer, in effect, asked me the questions we had prepared during our meeting.
After inquiring about my friendship with Luis Manuel Otero, and about performance art, he asked me a series of questions about the legal status that allowed him, like all artists in the country, to commercialize his work. The judge interrupted him and declared that these questions were outside the scope of the trial. However, the attorney then answered that it was a matter that did indeed need to be established precisely, according to his perspective. He noted that the prosecutor’s petition ignored the fact that the accused was an artist. Given that the penal official in charge of the case had previously declared: “He [Otero] says he’s an artist,” the lawyer asked permission to continue. The judge said: “You may go on.” The lawyer then continued his questions and I responded. Then he announced he had concluded.
The prosecutor’s questioning was brief. Maintaining an intimidating tone, he asked me only two questions. First – When was the last time that Luis Manuel Otero had held an exhibition? I answered that he had exhibited his work several months ago in Vienna. [We had both participated in that exhibition, together with some other Cuban colleagues.] The prosecutor then said he didn’t mean outside the country, but in Cuba. I responded that it had been several years now – I didn’t remember exactly – in the Wilfredo Lam Center for Contemporary Art. He then asked if I knew that the law in Cuba puts limits on freedom of expression. I responded that yes, I knew, but I considered that nothing could limit the freedom of artistic expression.
I couldn’t stop trembling while the prosecutor was interrogating me. I’d like to believe that they barely noticed my trembling, or not at all, but I don’t know. The energy in that place seemed focused on guilt. Not only for Luis Manuel Otero, but for everything that wasn’t in that room to play a role in favor of his punishment.
Following the prosecution’s interrogation, the defense attorney requested permission to ask me a few additional questions. Was I acquainted with the performance art of Cuban Manuel Mendive? I responded affirmatively. He then asked what it consisted of. I answered that Mendive was an artist who painted in his characteristic style the nude bodies of dancers, who later danced in the public roadways. He asked if something like that could be considered offensive to certain sensibilities. I answered yes, possibly, but that Mendive had never suffered legal consequences for that. The lawyer then concluded. There were no more questions. They gave me back my identity documents and told me I could go.
In my view, the trial had begun outside the courthouse, with the police operation. It’s a process that’s still continuing one way or another. It’s not only about Luis Manuel Otero or the rapper Maykel Osorbo Castillo, who was also tried in that same place. I believe they were passing judgement on an attitude that day. All those in Cuba who feel the need to be honest are potential criminals, and can potentially be put on trial by them, as long as political discrepancies are seen as something to persecute.
  Editor’s Note: Cuban artist and dissenter Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara has been accused of the alleged crimes of “attacking the system”, “contempt”, “public disorder”, and “inciting criminal behavior”. The prosecution has asked for a sentence of seven years in prison. Similar charges were used to request up to ten years in jail for rapper Maykel Castillo Perez. Both Otero and Castillo are members of the San Isidro Movement and both were tried at the same time. Both have been in preventive detention: Castillo since May 2021, and Otero since July 2021. The actual sentence has still not been read.