Almost a year has passed since the streets of Cuba erupted in mass protests. On July 11, 2021, he sent a thrill to supporters of freedom around the world, and a terrifying chill down the spine of Cuba’s rulers. The dictatorship brutally repressed the uprising and has spent the months since systematically reinforcing its apparatus of political control. As part of that, the regime has been rounding up and punishing those who participated in the demonstrations and the dissident ferment that preceded them. Some 725 people are in detention, according to the US human rights group Cubalex. And on June 24, the regime imposed harsh prison sentences on two of the movement’s best-known leaders, Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara.
No doubt the Cuban regime has issued these punishments on the assumption that they will receive little notice, or condemnation from a US administration with communist brushstrokes. All the more reason to spend a few moments understanding the nature of these brave men’s protests and why the dictatorship finds them particularly threatening.
Like many of the most oppressed and alienated people in Cuba, both Castillo and Otero are black. Both come from humble economic circumstances. Both have made innovative careers in Cuban popular culture: the first is a rapper; the second, performance artist and sculptor. And both have defiantly expressed their resistance to the regime through art. Otero Alcántara is one of the founders of the San Isidro Movement, started in 2018 by journalists, academics, and artists to protest increased censorship. Along with black Cuban artists in exile, El Osorbo and Alcántara participated in a music video for the hip-hop anthem of freedom “Patria y Vida,” which went viral in February 2021, a catchy inversion of the regime’s catchphrase “Patria o Muerte” – the piece ultimately won song of the year at the Latin Grammys. On July 11, his words were on the lips of many who joined the protests.
The regime is now taking revenge for this devastating blow to its international image. Having been savagely beaten by state security agents two months after the video was released, Osorbo, 39, was arrested in May 2021 and has been in prison ever since. The nine-year sentence he just received was for shady crimes such as “disrespect” and “defamation of institutions and organizations, heroes and martyrs,” as well as “assault,” an apparent reference to his attempts to defend himself from the police. . (Three others were punished for helping el Osorbo resist arrest, including one man sentenced to five years.) of the Cuban flag in his performances.
This latest serious violation of human rights vindicates President Biden’s refusal to allow Cuba to attend the recent Summit of the Americas; it should shame the Latin American governments, led by Mexico, who protested that exclusion. Any regime that imprisons peaceful artists deserves all the denunciation the world can muster.