San Isidro and Cuba’s Culture Ministry

By Ronal Quiñones

On the night of November 26 Cuban State Security agents assaulted the headquaters of the San Isidro Movement artists group in Old Havana. Photo: facebook / 14ymedio

HAVANA TIMES – Recent days have been quite tense in Cuba. Even when the majority of people are carrying on with their lives as normal, including in Havana, events in the San Isidro neighborhood and Ministry of Culture have been felt.

In a house in Old Havana, people raised their voices, first to defend a rapper, and then going further. I don’t think that the trigger for this soul-purging cry will result in anything more than what has already happened, because pictures posted by the protagonist himself incriminate him of insulting a public authority.

There’s no room for discussion, no citizen, not even the most brilliant artist, is above the law. Not appealing the charge was also kind of a way of surrendering without wasting the last bullet, even if it wouldn’t have hit the target anyway.

However, this was just the tip of the iceberg because those protesting in San Isidro raised the bar, by placing other demands to stop the hunger strike they had started. These included shutting down government stores selling only in US dollars.

The appearance of these stores was like twisting a knife in the heart of Cubans who live off of an honest wage. And I don’t think this measure will be reversed because the country really does lack foreign currency and the Government doesn’t really have other options. Even if this means making most of the population’s lives a lot harder.

Nevertheless, there is a lot of merit in the fact that activists and artists are raising their voices to protest things a little earthlier, in a country that is controlled by the State.

I watched the government’s special program broadcast on Cuban TV on Saturday night, like others Cuban I imagine. However, I don’t know whether the show really served its purpose. First, many Cubans still don’t know what lies behind the events in San Isidro today. The show was a front to showcase what is happening from the government’s perspective.

Secondly, it intended to portray a festive atmosphere at the San Isidro headquarters, because people involved were posting photos of them dancing. I really don’t believe that this would have surprised any Cuban. Even though the circumstances were very serious, you have to spend a sit-in as best you can. This doesn’t mean that you are going back on your demands in the slightest.

Nevertheless, as part of a counter-information strategy that is already being practiced to death, several messages were dropped to manipulate viewers into rejecting those involved in the protests.

The most important message was that the hunger strike allegedly didn’t exist. At no point in the show was it made clear that there were people in the house who weren’t holding a hunger strike. Likewise, there were others who had started and then stopped after a short while. Therefore, it was perfectly normal for food to be coming into the building. By not clearly explaining this extremely important fact, many viewers called the protesters “immoral” (and I saw this firsthand among the people around me).

The assault on the house was the other point that I don’t believe the protestors came off all too well in. However, I do condemn the excessive use of force that was used. As we say here in Cuba, they served the authorities what they wanted on a golden platter when the journalist arrived.

Amid a pandemic, and with strict safety protocols explained to death, visiting the San Isidro house when you’ve just come from abroad was an extremely naive thing to do.

I suspect that the alleged “alteration” of PCR test results isn’t real, but nobody can prove this. They really did undo all of the hard work they’d managed to do in previous days with this almost rash behavior.

Without a physical space to protest freely anymore, separated like they are for a good while, their message will inevitably lose strength. We have seen this happen all too many times before.

Let’s look at something else that happened, which is perhaps more important because of what it means and how many people are involved. This, without detracting at all from what the people in San Isidro are doing.

The sit-in at the Ministry of Culture began in late morning and grew quickly. This picture was taken around noon on Friday November 27th. By dark there were more than double the amount of artists and supporters present. Photo: Camila Acosta / BBC.com

I can’t remember a protest in revolutionary Cuba that has ended with protesters speaking directly to those who placed a target on them. The minister of Culture hasn’t dared to enter a dialogue (according to a statement because he wasn’t at the Ministry, but there was plenty of time for him to get there since the first artists arrived). Instead, a vice-minister had to make a late-night appearance. By the way, it was a vice-minister who is just as unknown for his work as the rapper they wanted to defame for this very reason.

Even though the cultural sector had certain privileges when it came to kicking up a fuss, it has always been done behind closed doors. However, everything seems to indicate that this space, which is also controlled, won’t be enough in the future. The demands of this other group, some coinciding and being pushed for by members of the San Isidro movement, also need more direct access to decision-making.

Similar measures couldn’t be taken against the sit-in involving many more people. The Police surrounding the area did keep even more from arriving. The electricity suspiciously went out, and others were even attacked with tear gas, according to witness accounts. In the end the Ministry of Culture finally had to open its doors to sit down and initiate a dialogue.

Renowned artists were involved from the different spheres of Cuban culture. Exemplary people such as filmmaker Fernando Perez and actor Jorge Perugorria acted as “intermediaries” to find common ground.

Their prestige will be on the line with this task they accepted. That’s because the meeting didn’t resolve the issues involved but has to inevitably end in concrete actions. Unfulfilled promises of the past could fill a book. Now it is essential to keep the flame burning so that it doesn’t fall into apathy and oblivion again.

I don’t want to be overly optimistic, but this is how change begins through peaceful means. By bravely sticking to your demands and getting more and more people to join in. This is the key for success of what we’ve been watching from afar, in recent hours. San Isidro has just been the starting point, hopefully it isn’t the finishing line.

Read more from Ronal Quiñones here.


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