Updated: Jul 20
The issue of Cuba’s repression of artists, intellectuals and journalists is yet again in sharp focus, this time because of the arrest of the Cuban visual artist and activist Hamlet Lavastida. His detention marks the latest in a long series of harassment and intimidation tactics adopted by the Cuban government to repress artistic freedom on the island. Lavastida, who returned to Havana after his residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanienin Berlin, Germany, was arrested while completing a mandatory quarantine imposed on travellers coming from abroad. He is currently being held at Villa Marista in Havana, a maximum-security prison that holds political prisoners. Lavastida now faces provisional arrest and is being investigated for “instigation to commit a crime.”
Lavastida is a member of 27N, a coalition of artists, journalists and activists that advocates for greater political and artistic freedom in Cuba, and has been very vocal against the actions of the Cuban regime. His arrest came at the heels of the publication of the contents of a private Telegram chat, where he commented on an unrealized artistic project that would involve marking Cuban currency with the symbols of 27N, and the related Movimiento San Isidro [“MSI”], or the San Isidro Movement, a group against state censorship of artistic works.
The Long History of Repression of Artistic Freedom In Cuba
For more than fifty years, Cuba’s one party-party Communist regime kept a tight control over dissenting views by targeting critics, which included artists. In recent times, even as citizens experienced increased economic freedoms and greater access to the internet, Wi-Fi and cell phones, the Cuban government continued to control the arts sector by tightening its grip on artistic expression. In 2018, in an expected continuation of its stance on artistic expression, the government sought to enforce Decree 349, a law that would have required artistic activity to be authorized in advance by the Ministry of Culture. Amnesty International cautioned that the law would have a “chilling effect” on artistic expression.
In response, artists, activists and journalists gathered to protest in a Black-majority locality of Havana called San Isidro, which is a poor yet very culturally active ward of the city – and is also a part of Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This was the birth of the eponymous MSI.
Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel was not impressed, calling the MSI an “imperialist reality show” that was designed to subjugate and destroy the identity of Cubans. However, despite stringent governmental control over communications, the MSI was able to effectively connect and put its message across through the internet thanks to the landmark deal between the United States of America and Cuba in 2015, which stipulated greater internet freedom for the people of Cuba in exchange for opening bilateral relations. The MSI gained steam. The group protested in front of the Ministry of Culture against the censorship, and the government, which usually responds with brutal repression, was forced to suspend the Decree’s enforcement.
Governmental Crackdown on Artists
The issue regained the spotlight when a member of the MSI, Afro-Cuban rapper Denis Solís, was arrested for “contempt” (a crime inconsistent with international human rights law) on 9 November last year after insulting a police officer.. This led to an outcry by the MSI – it organized several protests, sit-ins, poetry readings and peaceful demonstrations for him. Solis’ arrest also received international attention, with condemnation from human rights bodies including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House and PEN America. Cuban officials responded by blocking access to the internet and using violence and racially charged comments directed at protesters.
Members of the MSI went on a hunger and thirst strike, locking themselves in the home of the MSI leader Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, which doubled as the MSI headquarters. The strike continued until 26 November. On 27 November, the government raided the house and arrested all the members inside. Over 300 artists, not restricted to members of the MSI, took to the streets after the raid, protesting in front of the Ministry of Culture. In an unprecedented move, Cuba’s Vice-Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas met 30 protestors who were members of 27N, but nothing came of the dialogue. The raid, the failed dialogue as well as President Díaz-Canel’s comments on the protests led to an increase in the number of demonstrations by the MSI.
Hamlet Lavastida is only the latest in a long line of political targets. Artists and journalists, especially those who had a role in the meeting with the Vice-Minister, have continued to be at the receiving end of the State’s atrocities. Otero Alcántara was detained (and later released) for a hunger strike against the confiscation of his artwork, has been heralded as a “prisoner of conscience” by Amnesty International. Otero Alcántara also featured in the music video “Patria y Vida”, which called for a change in government, along with rapper and activist Maykel Castillo Pérez. Pérez was arrested in May this year and has since disappeared. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres has condemned Castillo Pérez’s disappearance, asking Cuba’s government to make his whereabouts known immediately.
Cuban artist Tania Bruguera has been detained and threatened multiple times for her role in the meeting with the Vice-Minister as well as her activism for the freedom of free speech, and so has journalist Carlos Manuel Alvarez, who was covering the hunger strike that preceded the meeting. In June, Bruguera spoke at the Geneva Summit on Human Rights and Democracy, demanding the release of political prisoners such as herself in Cuba, as well as the growing movement against the State’s repressive policies.