Updated: Jul 20, 2021


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.

A Human Rights Perspective: Cuba’s International Obligations

Various human rights bodies have criticized the crackdown by the government on artists and journalists. PEN America spoke of the repressive techniques employed by the Cuban government to silence dissident artists demanding that Pérez be immediately set free. It also reiterated its call to stop the atrocities. Amnesty International condemned the arrests of Solis and Otero Alcántara while highlighting the “dystopian” nature of the actions of the government. It went on to point out that the harassment of the members of the MSI exemplified the assault on the freedom of speech. Human Rights Watch’s report describes in detail the egregious tactics the government has adopted to silence critics – from surveillance to arbitrary detentions to restrictions on cellular data. The European Parliament, too, has denounced the deteriorating human rights situation in Cuba, making a mention of Otero Alcántara.

The situation brings to the forefront the internationally recognized human rights principle of freedom of speech and expression. In Cuba, this right has been limited in defiance of the country’s obligations under international human rights law. Amnesty International’s report titled “Restrictions on Freedom of Expression in Cuba” noted that the right to free speech in Cuba was curtailed by three measures – the state monopoly on media, the requirement that journalists compulsorily join the national Cuban Journalists’ Association (controlled by the Communist Party) in order to practice journalism, and the numerous vague provisions in the Constitution and Penal Code that are abused to silence critics.

According to Reporters Without Borders [“RSF”], Cuba is the worst-performing in Latin America with regard to the freedom of speech. It was placed 171st out of 180 countries in the 2021 Press Freedom Index created by RSF, which is an annual ranking of countries based upon the organisation's assessment of the countries' press freedom records in the previous year.

These deplorable statistics are antithetical to Cuba’s international obligations. These obligations have arisen on account of Cuba being either a member or a signatory of human rights bodies and treaties.

Firstly, Cuba’s actions go against Article 19 of the UDHR, which gives everyone the right to freedom of speech and expression, including the right to hold opinions. Cuba's international obligation to respect the UDHR arises from the fact that it is incorporated into the United Nations Charter, rendering all member states of the United Nations, including Cuba, subject to its provisions.. Cuba’s track record showsutter disregard to the provisions of the UDHR.

Secondly, the crackdown is against the spirit of Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights [“ICCPR”] and Article 15 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights [“ICESCR”]. Article 19 of the ICCPR enforces the freedom of speech and expression, and Article 15 of the ICESCR talks of the right to take part in cultural life. As a signatory to both these treaties, Cuba must “refrain from acts which would defeat the object and purpose” of these treaties. Cuba’s actions go against both these provisions.

Thirdly, Cuba’s membership of United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization [“UNESCO”] brings with it the obligation to uphold UNESCO’s Recommendation Concerning the Status of the Artist, which declares that freedom of expression must be guaranteed to artists via international and national legislation regarding human rights. This third obligation too is clearly being violated by Cuba’s blatant persecution of artists.

Conclusion And Way Forward

From the discussion above, it is clear that any comments that paint life in Cuba in a negative light are considered dissent and bring with it devastating consequences, including surveillance, arbitrary detentions and disappearances. These “consequences” constitute consistent repression of dissenting voices from the artistic community, amounting to violations of Cuba’s international law obligations. Indeed, the ongoing protests demand nothing extraordinary, but rather basic international human rights law considerations. Cuba’s persecution of artists has been internationally recognized, and it is time that the government paid heed to the demands of the protestors and strove to fulfil its international law obligations. This can be achieved by freeing its political prisoners, by engaging in dialogue with stakeholders and through appropriate amendments in the Constitution and penal laws that place human rights at a position subservient to the concerns of the Party. The international community, too, must play its part – continuing to support free speech and denounce violations by the government – in making Cuba safer for artists.

Title image: Artnet

This article has been written by Revati Sohoni. Revati is a second year law student at NLUJ, Jodhpur.

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