French to English Translations

Arié Alimi: Jew, Frenchman, Leftist…in whatever order – French to English translation

Arié Alimi, vice president of France’s  League of Human Rights, is a lawyer and human-rights activist. He has represented victims of French police violence and authored a book on the subject. In his latest book (Editions La Découverte, 2024) – excerpt translated below he explores his identity as a French leftwing Jew born to parents from Algeria and Tunisia. Alimi now supports the New Popular Front, the leftwing coalition formed to prevent an extreme right-wing electoral takeover of France’s National Assembly


My first contacts with socialist politics and ideals came via Zionism. Jewish youth camps and movements were modeled on French parties’ local branches and on Israeli political parties, which themselves grew out of the numerous factions of the Zionist movement.

Betar, inspired by the Zionist ideology of Jabotinsky,[1] was close to the Israeli Likud, Habonim Dror to the Avodah labor party, Hashomer Hatzair, and other leftwing anti-clerical Zionist movements, was closer to a more radical socialism and affiliated with Israel’s Meretz party. The main goal of these movements was to recruit, train and guide towards the Aliyah, the “going up” to Israel. For a very long time, I, like many others, secretly hoped to go live in this country that I only knew through summertime stays.

This was the ideological framework within which I became a Zionist socialist Jew. I was inspired by the hope of peace between Israelis and Palestinians. In 1993, the Oslo accords, the handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, seemed to sketch out this possibility – the creation of a Palestinian state that would have allowed the two peoples to live side by side, to end the hatred, the occupation, war, and uncontrolled settlement. For me, it was a moment of endless hope. As a law student at the Université Paris-Panthéon-Assas, I joined the Jewish Student Union of France (UEJF). There, I satisfied my need for community on the smallest scale, along with the opportunity to buy  kosher sandwiches.

This is how my participation in civil society began – thanks to kosher sandwiches. The university was a different universe from the Sephardic Jewish community of [Paris suburb] Sarcelles.  Assas was also a hostile university, traditionally linked to the far right, where the GUD[2] , renamed many times after repeated bans, was in good standing with the school administration. Its members’ antisemitism was overt, notably expressed through a slogan tied to the Israeli occupation: “At Assas as in Gaza – Intifada.” The main job of the UEJF branch at Assas was to fight against the GUD and the far right. First, we learned how to run fast – very fast, and to hide out in the basement restrooms, covered in Celtic crosses, to avoid the many attacks by the thugs who today form part of the base of the National Rally[3]. In the eyes of far-right militants, since we were Jews we were Zionists. Ties to the PSA UNEF-ID[4], the only leftwing organization at Assas, grew naturally in a hostile environment.

In May, on the last day of my final exams, before the results were even in, I had already gotten my tickets to fly to Lod Airport, and from there to head for student housing at the Har Hatzofim University [Hebrew University in Jerusalem]. I spent four months there every year, taking summer courses and wandering the alleys of the Arab Shouk, where I played chess with Israeli Arabs while talking about the conditions under which they lived and the constant discrimination they faced. I remember Hadil, who had a shop just behind the ramparts of the Damascus Gate. We spent our Saturdays, the Sabbath for the Jewish city, playing chess and drinking coffee with cardamom under the vines and fig tree that shielded us from the burning sun. I listened to him speak passionately of his and his family’s lives, of his status as a resident, lacking citizenship, though his family had lived there for generations. He told me how he had to give up his trade as taxi driver because of the unequal treatment in Jerusalem of Palestinian taxis and Israeli taxis -their license plates had different colors.

Facing this Palestinian man as a French Jew dreaming of becoming Israeli – our different identities linked by our shared humanity – my fear dissolved, swept away by a sense of guilt.

It was probably there, in Jerusalem, at the heart of the spirit of Judaism, that the Zionism of my young adult years began to erode. I was Jewish. I loved this country, where I had spent my happiest years. I had cherished the burning desire to become an Israeli Jew and not just a diaspora Jew. And then I discovered, through an encounter with a Jerusalem Palestinian, the other side of Zionism. I discovered those whom Zionism had never taken into account, who lived like foreigners on their ancestral lands, who were monitored, discriminated against, transformed into enemies both foreign and domestic. A people without land for a land with people. That Zionist identity that had settled into me, almost melded into my Jewish identity – as a foreigner among foreigners – had made of this native an enemy in his own land.

The veil lifted. I became aware of Israeli reality, far from the beaches of my childhood. Deep inequality, the poverty of most of the residents of this country where everything could be bought on credit, à l’américaine. Even Israeli Nobless cigarettes, which cost a few shekels and irritated your throat after the first drag, but which one smoked anyway because these were the cigarettes of the IDF soldiers, whom we revered as heroes. I discovered the greatest poverty – extreme and terrible misery – of Israeli Arabs. Militarism, new Jewish neighborhoods that progressively nibbled away at the occupied territory, destruction of houses, checkpoints, permanent ID-checking, police violence, the wounded and dead of the Intifada, the shutdown of the old city when an Israeli bus blew up. Death everywhere – it filters into consciousness almost as quickly as fear, which makes you take a breath before boarding a bus, looking suspiciously at each new passenger.

At the Hebrew University library, I discovered the works by those  already being called the “new historians.” Zeev Sternhell[5] succeeded in marring my view of Zionism, which he unhesitatingly described as a “nationalist and socialist ideology.” As for [Yeshayahu] Leibowitz,[6] a religious Jew, he shattered my lawyer’s view of the concepts of the people and the nation that I had associated with Zionist and Israeli reality. Throughout my entire childhood, I had thought of myself as belonging to an oppressed people who had heroically reconquered their land, built a new Jew, a new people, a State that bravely faced the permanent war waged by the Arab countries, a State where Palestinians could live in peace. I toppled from a great height, weighed down by the beliefs that had once sustained me. I was still Jewish, more Jewish than ever, but less and less of a Zionist. And yet I still loved this country, now different in my eyes from the one I had adored.

These two identities that had been fused for so long were now barely able to coexist. My Jewish identity, distilled in the casks of universalism and equality (if only formal) of the French Republic, confronted a Zionist identity damaged by injustice against the Palestinians. A justice for an injustice – a liberated Jew but a Zionist occupier. This first awareness of the brutality of domination, of settlement, carried me daily ever further from the shores of Zionism and my promised land. The tension within me between Jew and Zionist began to feel like a death struggle. I had to choose or implode. I returned to Paris and decided to remain French,

On November 4, 1995, the day that Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated by rightwing extremist terrorist Yigal Amir, the hope of another Zionism grew even more distant. I understood that my life would from then on remain attached to France, where my identities could still coexist.


I find the slogan, “From the river to the sea,” which has become common among Israeli nationalists and some of the de-colonial left, intolerable. It is the outgrowth of an ideology in which I don’t recognize myself. If it were a matter of envisioning one State for two people, I could sign on – distant and improbable though this may seem. But that is not what I hear in this slogan. I hear violence, deportation, nationalism and the earmarks of totalitarianism. I hear above all that the end justifies the means, that the atrocities committed on October 7 are justified by a colonial-style domination that only armed struggle can defeat. I hear that the 78 percent of Israelis who were born in that land don’t matter.

The subtext is that no one is born innocent in that land, and that you are born carrying the burden of colonization. This reflects a racial and nationalist view that is strangely in tune with rhetoric claiming  that antisemitism and Islam are the same. Behind the slogan, “From the river to the sea” lies  a concept of armed struggle in which the targeting of civilians is okay, and seen as a lesser evil, given all the Palestinian victims. It also echoes the Israeli government position that justifies bombings in Gaza bhythe need to protect residents and free the hostages….

 To accept that blood is an inevitable part of liberation and self-determination is to justify violence and death as a means of de-colonization or self-determination. This distances me both from my political companions and my co-religionists. Doesn’t the killer dominate the targeted person when the trigger is pulled? Murderous violence reproduces relationships of domination, by inverting or shifting them. That is not liberation. To think that freedom can be won with ideologies of inequality, such as that of Hamas, is to accept that anew  time of oppression will follow “liberation.” My Jewish, humanist and universalist identity, and my de-colonial identity, based on self-determination, join and resound together to reject murderous violence. I am not a token Jew. Not a Zionist, nor anti-Zionist. A de-colonialist and universalist Jew.


[2] Groupe Union Défense – a small, violent, extreme-right outfit

[3] Rassemblement national in French, the major right-wing party, led by Marine Le Pen.

[4] Autonomous Socialist Party – National Union of French Students-Independent, Democratic



Spanish to English

Esteban Volkov Remembers


Esteban Volkov, Leon Trotsky’s grandson, died in Mexico City on June 16 at 97. He survived an armed attack on the Trotsky household in Coyoacán months before Trotsky was assassinated on Aug. 20, 1940. In the years that followed, he pursued a career in chemical engineering, and established the Museo Casa Leon Trotsky in Coyoacán. 

The text below is excerpted from a talk Volkov gave to the Autonomous University of Yucatán in Mérida in 2015, to mark the 75th anniversary of Trotsky’s assassination.

The Assassination of Leon Trotsky as I lived it: Memories of the Last Living Witness

Contrary to the image of arrogance and despotism that many like to attribute to him, Leon Trotsky was an affectionate person, of great ease in his dealings with people, with a jovial and optimistic personality. He never abandoned his great sense of humor. He was generous, always ready to share his scarce resources to support political activities or to help comrades in need.

He was dynamic and disciplined, with no tolerance for laziness, indolence, or disorder. “You could be the first victim of this unpardonable carelessness!” he told the young, recently arrived guard [Robert] Sheldon Harte, who, distracted, had left the door to the street open. (Harte opened the door for the May 24, 1940, attack, and was murdered days later in the “Desierto de los Leones” by a brother-in-law of David Siqueiros).*

Trotsky had an uncommonly lucid mind, and radiated certainty and absolute, immovable confidence in the coming of socialism and the future of humanity, a sentiment that he inspired in all those around him. He gained that confidence from his acts and from historical experience.

Stalin, commanding general of the Counterrevolution, was the opposite, never departing from his criminal and crude modus operandi of defaming and murdering revolutionaries. He maintained his illegitimate power through mass extermination, and a reign of falsehood, with its unlimited historical falsification, a falsification that is one of his worst crimes, given that it destroys humanity’s precious memory, and extinguishes the light that guides us to the future.

Seventy-five years have gone by, three quarters of a century, but images of great clarity remain unaltered in my mind. It still seems to have happened yesterday. I was 14 years old on a hot afternoon on August 20, 1940, when I arrived at the end of Calle Viena in Coyoacán, after my customary long walk home.

My peaceful state of mind was suddenly disturbed, replaced by anguish. Something strange was going on at another end of our house. The gate was wide open, several blue-uniformed police were out in front, and on the side a light-colored car was badly parked, an unusual situation for the normally calm afternoons at the house. At the garden entrance, the guard comrade, Harold Robins, was brandishing a Colt .38 in his right hand. “Jacson! Jacson!”* was all he said when I pressed him about what was going on.  A few steps ahead to the right, at a bend in the garden path, I saw a man with a bloody face in the custody of two policemen. He was screaming and howling like a caged rat. I didn’t recognize him right then, but later learned that he was the husband of comrade Sylvia Ageloff.

Upon entering the house library a few seconds later, looking through the partially opened door to the dining room, I immediately took in the magnitude of the tragedy. Grandfather was lying on the floor with his head all bloody. Natalia, with the help of several comrades, was putting ice on a bad wound to the head. “Keep the boy away! He must not see this!” he managed to say to the guard comrades around him. Before my arrival, he had also managed to say, “Don’t kill him, he should die in bed of old age!”

He fell on the battlefield of the socialist revolution. He departed from life with the serenity of having accomplished his duty, of having dedicated himself to the task of fulfilling – in his words: “humanity’s most precious desire” – the building of a better world, in which future generations would have abolished evil, oppression and violence, so that they would be able to enjoy life to its fullest. Leon Trotsky had an absolute, immovable faith in this achievement for a future human race.

March 20, 2015 Mérida, Yucatán, México

*David Siqueiros, an artist, Spanish Civil War veteran and devout Stalinist, led that attack on Trotsky’s house. Harte, a young Communist assigned to infiltrate Trotsky’s bodyguard staff, was killed to keep him from talking.

*”Jacson,” with that spelling, was a false name for Ramón Mercader, Trotsky’s assassin.

French to English

Leon Sedov: Trotsky’s Son, Stalin’s Victim by Pierre Broué – French to English Translation

Introduction by Peter Katel

Kremlin-ordered murders of dissidents abroad began nearly a century ago.

One telling episode took place in Paris one year before World War II. It deserves to be better known.

On Feb. 16, 1938, Leon Sedov, eldest son of Leon Trotsky and Natalia Sedova, died mysteriously in Paris after an appendicitis operation. He had been poisoned, though that did not become clear until decades later.

Alongside his father, Sedov fought Stalin’s transformation of the USSR and the global Communist movement into a totalitarian machine. Under constant surveillance by his key assistant, later revealed as a Soviet spy, Sedov was a key target of Stalin’s campaign to “liquidate” anti-Stalinists around the world, like their comrades in the USSR.

Two years before he was killed, Sedov had written the first detailed denunciation of the Moscow purge trials. These were a Kremlin spectacle designed around the lie that Trotsky and other veteran revolutionaries were terrorist allies of Hitler.

The late French historian Pierre Broué (1926-2005), Sedov’s only biographer, made the case for Sedov’s historical importance.

Spanish to English

des Informémonos Biography of Dora María Tellez | Spanish to English Translation


Dora María Tellez was one of the leading figures in Nicaragua’s Sandinista guerrilla army that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979. Today, after the  Ortega regime arrested her in July 2021  during a  crackdown on all opposition, she is imprisoned up in the notorious  El Chipote penitentiary. In February, 2022, she was sentenced to eight years  for “conspiracy to undermine national integrity.” The account below provides a view of a remarkable career.

Spanish to English

Colombia Elections 2022, A Political Review – (Spanish to English Translation)

Translation by Peter Katel from the original Spanish language article by Ibsen Martínez, which can be found online at –

Ibsen Martínez is a Venezuelan novelist, television screenplay writer, playwright and essayist. He lives in exile in Bogotá.

Where did Colombia’s center go?

The Colombian elections of last June 19 strengthened the extremes of the political spectrum. But the Colombian center, today temporarily scattered, can stand on its own and grow.

By Ibsen Martínez

An academic topic that entered journalism around the end of the last century held that one of Colombia’s singularities was a so-called “immunity to populism.”

The two-headed hegemony of liberals and conservatives lasted so long that it seemed enough to look at a list of presidents from, say, the mid-19th to the early 21st centuries to become convinced that the country was a rare species.

Spanish to English

The Cuban Protests Resonate In Venezuela – Spanish to English Translation

The Cuban protests resonate in Venezuela
By Ibsen Martínez

Ibsen Martínez is a Venezuelan novelist, television screenplay writer, playwright and essayist. He lives in exile in Bogotá. This piece originally appeared in the New York Times in Spanish with Spanish-English translation by Peter Katel.

Leading Venezuelan observers believe that the sudden and dramatic wave of protests that shook Cuba July 11 will hit the Nicolás Maduro regime in Venezuela, heralding imminent good news for my country. These observers see the Cuban regime as heading unstoppably toward collapse. The thinking goes that this will produce shock waves that shortly will make the return of Venezuelan democracy inevitable. Perhaps I am too gloomy, but I think that this assumes too much.

Can one expect the Cuban events to directly affect Venezuelan politics? And is there anything that the Venezuelan opposition can do to hasten the end of oppression of Venezuelans and Cubans by the  allied regimes of Caracas and Havana?

To answer these questions, we have to understand the nature and the scope of the ties that have moved both countries ever closer economically, politically and militarily over the past 20 years.

In 2012, the stellar year of the Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement that Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro, both now departed, signed in October, 2000, Venezuelan subsidies and direct investment in Cuba reached $16 billion, nearly 12 percent of the island’s GDP.

The sudden drop in crude oil prices in 2015, the corruption and ineptitude of the Maduro regime and the global ravages of the pandemic have cut these amounts almost in half.

The island’s economy has been hit hard by the Venezuelan crisis and by the pandemic’s negative effects on tourism. But although President Miguel Díaz-Canel’s planners are now looking to Russia and China, they still haven’t found a trade partner who compares with chavista-era Venezuela.

For Maduro, meanwhile, military cooperation agreements with Cuba have never been so important.

These agreements, signed in 2008, grant Cuba maximum political control of the Boliviarian Armed Forces. They focus on counterintelligence, on advising and training military personnel, on the presence of Cuban officers in Venezuelan barracks, and on intelligence agencies’ surveillance of Venezuelan military brass.

The Venezuelan dictator owes the unshakeable support of Venezuela’s military largely to Cuba. This is no small thing. Keep in mind that for nearly 20 years, and on more than one occasion, major opposition leaders have wagered unsuccessfully that mass citizen protest would lead to a military revolt.

All of the above explains that, despite the oil price crash and production drop, plus Venezuela’s deep economic crisis and humanitarian emergency, the flow of Venezuelan oil to Cuba has continued, even in defiance of U.S. sanctions in effect since 2019.

The Cuban political crisis hits Venezuela at a moment when it is torn apart by the gravest immigration crisis our continent has ever seen. At the same time, the country is reeling under the pandemic, and the negligence of a criminal regime. Poverty afflicts the country even as its people are terrorized by criminals and the police.

Added to these woes, most Venezuelans, ravaged by shortages and the pandemic, look upon politicians with indifference, if not loathing.

Most of the opposition leadership seems bewildered, captivated by the notion of regional elections. These have been called – without reasonable conditions for voting – by a regime that violates human and political rights. In addition, Venezuelan oppositionists have a tragic habit of  overrating international influence.

Looking at Cuba, the collapse of the Havana regime does not seem to lie in the immediate future, to be followed by the inevitable fall of Chavismo-Madurismo. More likely, repression and human rights violations in both countries will worsen – and even be coordinated binationally.

Even assuming that citizen protests lead in the coming months to political and economic changes in Cuba, much will depend on time and on the personal qualities of whoever takes the lead of the admirably courageous Cubans.

As Cuban historian Rafael Rojas has tweeted, the shape of future events also depends on the civic spirit of Cuban protesters, and on U.S. policy. The latter, fortunately, is taking the form of individual sanctions and on measures to facilitate internet access.

Sergio Ramírez noted recently, writing of his Nicaragua, that today’s opposing forces in our Americas are none other than dictatorship and democracy. Very tough times are coming our way. The Cuban, Venezuelan and Nicaraguan dictatorships are ready to go for broke.

Maduro and Díaz-Canel have a lot at stake. As allies in tyranny, they won’t hold back. The future consequences for our two nations – and not just in the short term – are not hard to imagine.

The Cuban moment demands that Venezuelan politicians assume an attitude of realistic seriousness, no longer simply condemning the regime’s henchmen and declaring solidarity with protesters. They must do everything within their power to lend a hand.

The interim government led by Juan Guaidó, which is recognized by dozens of nations, could make active diplomacy a bigger priority on its diplomatic agenda. This would take the form of high-level activism to support human and political rights on the island, thereby increasing world governments’ pressure on Havana.

We Venezuelans are anxiously watching the shift, unthinkable only weeks ago, that Cubans’ courage has forced on their tragic circumstances. This among people who, in the videos, look so much like ours.

Regaining transparent elections and full democracy in Venezuela will, in the long run, win them for Cuba.

Not the other way around.


Spanish to English

Nicaraguan Politics, an Abbreviated History

The Stench Of A Decayed Corpse

By Sergio Ramírez Mercado

[A writer and journalist, Ramírez was a prominent supporter of the Sandinista revolution; he served as vice president in the Sandinista government in 1985-1990, before breaking with the Sandinista Front in 1994].

Unauthorized Spanish to English translation by Peter Katel

In the history of Nicaragua, freely elected leaders are the exception, and caudillos who strive

for eternal power are the rule. The liberal revolution of Gen. José Santos Zelaya in 1893 gave rise to the most ambitious constitution that the country has ever seen, so much so that it was called “the freest.” But it was in effect for only one week. Zelaya ordered it suspended, because one of its clauses barred re-election. After 10 years in power, he was toppled in a revolt backed by the United States. President Porfirio Díaz [of Mexico] sent a naval corvette to take him safely to the port of Salina Cruz.

Anastasio Somoza, who granted himself the rank of general without having fought a single battle, led a coup d’état in 1936 against his own uncle, President Juan Bautista Sacasa, and fashioned his own constitution to permit him to stay in power for two decades. Then, in 1956, when he was celebrating the proclamation of his candidacy, ready for one more re-election, a poet named Rigoberto López Pérez shot him to death. Somoza’s two sons, Luis and Anastasio, succeeded him in office, but the latter was overthrown by the victorious revolution of 1979.

Like his father he was assassinated, in his case while exiled in Paraguay.

Paradoxically, the Sandinista Front, which won power won by force of arms, turned it over in 1990 to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, after she won a free election over then-president Daniel Ortega, who was running to succeed himself. But Ortega soon renounced the revolutionary leadership’s decision, which could have set country on a new course.

He went on to lose two more elections. But Ortega won once again in 2006, thanks to a pact with liberal caudillo Arnoldo Alemán, who was convicted for money laundering and corruption while in office. The pact had conveniently lowered the amount of votes needed for victory, allowing Ortega to win in the first round. And this time, he swore to not repeat the error of accepting another electoral defeat. And here we are.

I recount this history of caudillos willing to fight democracy to the death to help explain the wave of repression overtaking Nicaragua. Practically all possible candidates who might defeat Ortega, as well as prominent political leaders, journalists and businesspeople, are held in solitary confinement, and election rules are twisted into total worthlessness. Elections set for November will be nothing but a tragic farce. Any opposing candidacies will be fake, with what Nicaraguans call strawman candidates.

The dictatorial model comes out of a past which keeps repeating itself. Ortega is the caudillo who considers himself anointed, hence eternal. So he persecutes and jails opponents, even when they are his own former comrades in arms, such as Comandante Dora María Téllez, the heroine of the taking of the National Palace in 1978, and Comandante Hugo Torres, who freed Ortega from prison in a guerrilla action.

In 2018, the people – led by youth – rose up, unarmed, to demand an end to this tragic cycle.

Police loyal to Ortega, along with paramilitary forces, responded with a wave of killings. Today,
taking to the streets waving the Nicaraguan flag carries a prison sentence. During the election
campaign, people will once again march under their banners, as in any other part of the world.
A regime of terror, immobility and silence finds this intolerable.
In a normal election campaign, no news organization should be seized, or silenced, as is the
case in Nicaragua, where fifty percent of independent journalists have been forced into exile,
and others are imprisoned. The journalism carried out on social media is a journalism of the

Today, in Latin America and in Spain, a Left that went obsolete in the Cold War sees Ortega as
representing revolutionary values – those that in the past corresponded to ideals. There is no idealistic cause left in Nicaragua. Repressive laws that the State uses to persecute and imprison as traitors all opponents of Ortega’s re-election, could just as easily have been promulgated by [18th century Paraguayan dictator] Doctor Francia or by Generalissimo Franco. All that remains
of the revolution is the stench of a decayed corpse.

The choice in Nicaragua is not between left and right, but between dictatorship and democracy.
This is what the governments of the hemisphere have to understand. Democracy is not a matter of local color, but something that concerns us all.

Spanish to English

Línea De Fuego – Arturo Pérez-Reverte – Spanish to English Translation

[Línea De Fuego – roughly, “Front Line” – is set during the last major battle of the Spanish Civil War, told through characters from both sides. The battle, which lasted from July to November, 1938 along the Ebro River, was real. But the characters are invented, as is the precise site where they are fighting].

Unauthorized Translation by Peter Katel

Spanish to English

Como Polvo En El Viento – Leonardo Padura – Spanish to English Translation (unauthorized)

(“Like dust in the wind.” The title comes from the 1977 song by Kansas. One of Padura’s non-mystery novels, the novel tells the story of a group of friends, all educated professionals, who come of age in 1980s Cuba. Marcos is one of the group’s next generation).

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.