Cuban artists say authorities agree to talks after rare protests

Protesters met with Cuban deputy minister Saturday after large public protests decrying curbs to civil liberties.

Young artists protest in front of the doors of the Ministry of Culture, in Havana, Cuba on Friday [Ismael Francisco/AP]

Over two dozen Cuban protesters have met Deputy Minister Fernando Rojas, after hundreds of people demonstrated in Havana this week in a rare showing of public dissent against curbs to freedom of expression and the detention of artists and activists.

Artistic freedom and human rights groups had raised concerns about curbs to civil liberties in Cuba and the detention of Cuban rapper Denis Solis Gonzalez, which led to a rally outside the country’s culture ministry.

The protesters said on Saturday that the government agreed to a series of meetings and to review Gonzalez’s case.

“It’s a special flame that ignited here today,” activist and music promoter Michel Matos, who took part in the meeting with Rojas, told Reuters News Agency.

“We talked about freedom of expression, freedom of association, censorship and physical repression,” Matos said. “I don’t think there has been a dialogue like this in a ministerial space in 60 years.”

Gonzalez was arrested on November 9 and sentenced to eight months in prison for “contempt” after insulting a police officer, a charge that Amnesty International says is “inconsistent with international human rights standards”.

Freemuse, a non-governmental organisation that advocates for artistic expression around the world, said in a statement that the rapper, who remains in jail, was unable to contact his family before November 18.

The group also condemned the arrest of Didier Almagro, a musician sentenced to three years in prison on November 13 on charges of contempt of court and public disorder for allegedly participating in a demonstration against power cuts on August 4.

Sverre Pedersen, Freemuse campaigns and advocacy manager, said the arrests and sentences violate the artists’ “basic human right to freedom of expression” and breach the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cuba is a signatory.

“We demand that the Cuban authorities release these artists from prison and drop all charges brought against them,” Pedersen added.

Eviction of protesters

Saturday morning’s meeting between protesters and the government capped days of unrest.

For 10 days, Members of the San Isidro Movement, a collective that campaigns for artistic freedom in Cuba to which Gonzalez belonged, protested, with some going on hunger strike, from a house in Old Havana.

But on Thursday, police evicted 14 members of of the group from the house, citing coronavirus restrictions. They said one member of the group had returned from Mexico via the United States and had not properly quarantined.

“They entered by force, breaking the door,” independent journalist Iliana Hernandez recounted of the eviction in a video livestreamed on Facebook, according to Reuters.

“Many military people dressed as if they were doctors, wearing gowns.”

After the raid, the 14 members of the group were given COVID-19 tests and returned to their homes, with the collective’s headquarters closed by the authorities, activists said on social media.

However, two activists refused to go home and were arrested again: Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, 32, and Anamely Ramos, 35. Amnesty International has since called for their release, saying they were “prisoners of conscience, imprisoned solely because of their consciously held beliefs”.

While opposition groups in Cuba have struggled to gain traction due to the government’s monopoly on mass media and its harsh crackdown on public shows of dissent, growing access to the internet has enabled groups like the San Isidro Movement to reach a wider audience.

The movement, founded in 2018, often spreads its message through irreverent artistic performances and has had numerous run-ins with authorities.

Rare public display of dissent

On Friday night, about 300 people, including prominent members of the country’s film industry, had gathered outside of Cuba’s culture ministry demanding “dialogue” with the government.

The protesters’ list of demands included information on the whereabouts of Otero and Ramos, the release of Gonzalez and an end to the “harassment” of artists.

“It is time for dialogue and I believe that you young people must be listened to,” well-known actor and director Jorge Perugorria, 55, told the protesters, as reported by the AFP news agency, shortly before they were granted audience with government.

Meanwhile, US Department of State official Michael Kozak had said on Twitter that “the international community is demanding the regime respect Cuban human rights”.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies