Spanish to English

Cuban Repression Heating Up – Spanish to English Translation of Rafael Rojas

Cuban Repression Heating Up

Rafael Rojas

[Cuban historian and literary critic living in Mexico]

Unauthorized translation –


The major achievement of the long day of Nov. 27 was not the promise to stop cracking down on dissent – something that a government like Cuba’s will never keep – but to have forced the authorities to negotiate. That is something you can’t take away from the San Isidro strikers. 

Repression temperature rises like a fever in a pandemic. It is a repression at once systematic, intellectually dishonest,  and cellular – the first thing that the political police do upon arresting an artist is to seize and ruin his mobile phone. The repression tries to become routine and normal, but cannot achieve this. A growing number of events such as the arrests of artist Tania Bruguera, and the harassment of the Hannah Arendt Institute of Artivism (INSTAR in Spanish), as well as the recent jailing of artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, after a flawed trial, are shaking things up.

The San Isidro Movement is a collective of young visual artists, poets, musicians and intellectuals, with headquarters in one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods. In early November, the police burst into the home of one of its members, rapper Denis Solís. After an exchange of insults, the young man was arrested, given a summary trial and sentenced to eight months in prison for contempt of authority. Members of the collective mobilized, went to police stations, and, instead of answers, got arbitrary arrests. They held vigils in the city’s parks that were broken up by force.

With alternatives unavailable, they decided to rally at the movement’s headquarters on Damas street, and to peacefully demand, via social media, the freeing of their fellow activist. State Security and the island’s political and cultural bureaucracy saw this as subversive. They tried in several ways to make the movement’s members leave their headquarters. They broke down the door on several occasions, launched physical and verbal attacks, and contaminated the water tank. At that point, the activists declared themselves on hunger strike, refusing to drink as well. Some members stayed with them to help out.

When news of the strike reached social media and a handful of independent and international media, the power elite began responding. As always, they resorted to personally discrediting their targets. Mariela Castro, Raúl’s daughter and director of the National Center for Sex Education, tweeted that the San Isidro young people were “vulgar, tasteless and awful.” Abel Prieto, ex-minister of culture, ex-presidential advisor and now president of Casa de las Américas, said they were “marginal” and “criminals.” In any Latin American country, these adjectives, aimed at young black, mestizo and poor people, like the San Isidro activists, would reflect governmental class bias and racism.

The major official media – Granma, Cubadebate and the social media accounts of government propagandists – added to this discrediting the well-worn plotline of “agents of imperialism.” According to the familiar script, the young people – who according to official rhetoric were “poor” and “marginal” – had received major financial contributions from the U.S. government, had ties to “terrorists” in Miami and the CIA; they backed the re-election of Donald Trump. Although one or another might have shown sympathy for Trump, that was not the identity of this heterogeneous group.

Another element of the official campaign against San Isidro was insistence that the hunger strike was fake. Images showing strikers, such as Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Osorbo, weakening, were convincing. But official media insinuated that strikers were eating and drinking. In a regime like Cuba’s, which exists on the symbolic legitimacy of an epically heroic revolution, opposition or dissidence cannot be epic or heroic. The insistence of official media that the strike is phony clashes with the police drive to clear the San Isidro headquarters.

Authorities’ aim has always been to break up and silence the public voice of this independent collective. When police blocked off the street, prohibiting access to family and friends, the justification was that these were public health measures to prevent the spread of Covid-19. The arrival at Damas 955 of writer and journalist Carlos Álvarez, editor of El Estornudo, one of the few publications, along with Rialta, El Toque, Cibercuba and others, to provide precise and accurate coverage of the conflict from its start, served as a poorly disguised pretext to take the headquarters as a public health measure.

Álvarez, author of two books that are essential to understanding today’s Cuba – La tribu (2017) and Los caídos (2019), both published by Sexto Piso – arrived from New York, and took a coronavirus test at the Havana airport. Shortly before the raid on Damas 955, three police officers came to him to tell him that the test came out “doubtful” or “altered” and that he would have to take a new one. When the writer told them that the test could be administered at the San Isidro headquarters, they told him that, no, it would have to be administered at a clinic.

After the strikers were evicted and arrested, most were taken to their homes. However, Otero Alcántara is still detained, and art curator Anamely Ramos, a student at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico, was arrested the next day. The San Isidro Movement headquarters was shut down and the government issued in definitive form its public health justification: the violent intervention occurred because Álvarez’ arrival violated health protocols and risked spreading of the virus.

This episode of repression in Cuba could be added to a list of authoritarian uses of the coronavirus in Latin America and the Caribbean. The aim is to restrict civil and political rights. But it is is important not to get analytically caught up in matters of the moment. Cellular and physical repression, especially against the new generation of independent Cuban artists, filmmakers, writers, journalists and intellectuals does not respond, strictly speaking, to the pandemic, to the change of administration in the United States or to the uses to which it might be put by American political figures like Mike Pompeo or [Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs] Michael Kozak.

As could be seen for hours and hours last Friday, November 27, outside the Ministry of Culture, these young people who showed so much civic spirit, are not easily manipulated by the figures who have exerted hegemonic control of the Cuban conflict for decades. They weren’t marionettes, as the official press and its most extremist rivals obsessively insisted. Nor are they unaware that a list of concrete demands does not eliminate the possibility of greater change in the future.

Over the past few days in Cuba we have seen the systematic repression by a State that aspires to complete control of a generation – one that has expressed in various ways its rejection of laws that limit freedom of expression and association. That is, nothing more and nothing less than a widespread rejection of Decrees 349, which defines who is and who isn’t an artist; and 373, which regulates independent filmmaking. These rejections basically imply deep disagreement with obstruction of human rights on the island by the new Constitution and Criminal Code.

The same media that spent weeks justifying the repression of the San Isidro Movement was silent on the protest of more than 12 hours in front of the Ministry of Culture. The major achievement of that long Friday was not the promise to end repression – a promise that a State like Cuba’s will never keep – but to have forced authorities to negotiate. Whatever bureaucrats and propagandists may say, no one can take that away from the San Isidro strikers.