Jailed Cuban artist Otero Alcántara is on hunger strike
Jailed Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, whose performances and hunger strikes have inspired a movement of pro-democracy artists on the island, again refuses to eat to draw attention to the incarceration of hundreds Cubans who demonstrated against the government on July 11.
Otero Alcántara, who is currently in a high security prison in Guanajay, west of Havana, was arrested that day as he tried to join the protests. He faces charges of assault, contempt of authority and resistance to police. Her partner, art curator Claudia Genlui, posted her decision to go on hunger strike on Facebook last week. But family and friends have remained in the dark about her condition, she told the Herald.
“We don’t know anything,” Genluis said in an interview from Havana. “I went to the prison system office responsible for citizen inquiries to get an update on his condition, and got no response.”
According to his calculations, Otero Alcántara began the hunger strike a week ago, on September 27. She said they last spoke on September 21, and he warned her that if she didn’t hear from him by the 27th, it would be because he had started the protest. Another Guanajay inmate confirmed the information, Genlui said.
“Luis Manuel told me he was doing it for his freedom and that of the other jailed protesters,” she said.
Otero Alcántara has become a prominent figure in the artistic and political landscape of Cuba as an outspoken critic of the Cuban government and leader of the artistic collective Movimiento San Isidro, even earning a place among Time magazine’s most influential people in 2020. The violence of the Cuban government response to a hunger strike led by him and other members of the San Isidro movement, demanding the release of rapper Denis Solis, sparked a rare public demonstration by a few hundred young artists and activists in November of the year last. They then organized themselves into the so-called 27N movement, which also campaigns for freedom of expression on the island.
Otero Alcántara went on a hunger strike again in April this year to protest the confiscation of his works of art by Cuban authorities.
After Genlui announced he was on a hunger strike, two other activists began a voluntary fast. Art historian Carolina Barrero, an active member of the 27N movement that state security agents have confined to her home for nearly six months, said she began a voluntary fast last Saturday “in protest for the hundreds of people the regime keeps in prison for exercising their rights to freedom of thought and freedom to demonstrate, ”she said on a Facebook post.
“The Cuban government continues to play chess with the lives of young people, banishes them, imprisons them, breaks them physically and emotionally. Let’s see how many lives they’re willing to take on their own, ”said poet and activist Afrika Reina, who also began a voluntary fast on Thursday.
Cuban activists led by Cubalex, an organization that provides legal advice to Cuban dissidents, verified at least 1,096 arrests in connection with protests across the island in July; 549 people are still detained.
Many risk spending many years in prison, like Roberto Pérez Fonseca. He was tried last week and prosecutors asked for a 12-year sentence for being part of a group that destroyed what appeared in the videos as an image of Fidel Castro. Yoan de la Cruz, who first broadcast the initial protest live in the city of San Antonio de Los Baños, faces up to eight years in prison, family members told independent media 14ymedio.
Félix Navarro, 68, a former political prisoner arrested on July 11 while trying to obtain information on other dissidents arrested in the province of Matanzas went on a hunger strike for several days but ceased on September 21 , Cubadecide announced on Twitter.
Like many other protesters, including Navarro, Otero Alcántara put COVID-19 in jail. “He was just coming off the last time we spoke,” said Genlui. The pandemic is also affecting inmates and their families in other ways. “Due to COVID, it is very difficult to go to Guanajay prison because you need government permission to move from Havana to another province,” she added.
Despite the hunger strikes and international condemnation, the Cuban government appears determined to prosecute the protesters. The crackdown on protesters became another point of contention with the Biden administration, which was conducting a review of US foreign policy toward Cuba when the events of July 11 prompted the administration to suspend any measure that can be seen as helping the communist regime. Instead, the administration sanctioned several government agencies and officials involved in suppressing the protests.
“It is a pity that President Biden was unable to implement his own policy towards Cuba; it’s a terrible mistake, ”Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez said in a recent interview with MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell, referring to the Trump administration’s policies towards Cuba. He insisted that the mostly peaceful protests on July 11 were violent but did not deny that hundreds of people had been arrested.
“Cuba is a rule of law and we must respect our laws,” he said.
On Tuesday, the US Embassy in Havana tweeted in Spanish: “The Cuban regime must release @LMOAlcantara, who is ill and being punished by his jailers for his current hunger strike. Unfairly detained along with hundreds of peaceful protesters on July 11, we call for their immediate release and call for #JailedForWhat. “
Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres