Otero, 33, was on his way to a LGBTQ+ event in front of the Cuban Institute of Radio and TV, after an official censored a kiss between two men in the movie “Love, Simon.” Now Otero is in jail, his head shaven, wearing a prison uniform.
The artist recently wore a hard hat around Havana to protest the collapse of a building balcony that killed three girls. He has also used the Cuban flag and images of national heroes in his protests; he was one of the leaders that demonstrated against Decree 349, which updated censorship laws, the state’s main cultural policy.
The Cuban regime wants to sink Otero: it says he’s not an artist and that he’s not allowed to do what he does. The problem has been Otero’s dedication — no mechanism of repression has been able to silence him or tear him completely from the two elements where authoritarianism thrives: the body and the streets. On one the regime exerts fear, on the other control.
Because Otero has been able to escape that vise, he has become a criminal; his performances — during which he dares to use his body freely on the streets — put on display a concrete and undeniable freedom. This last point is what’s most dangerous about him to the Cuban government.
What makes Otero’s work beautiful and complex — and makes the regime present it as scandalous — is that he is engaging primarily with himself. He is freeing and educating himself, erasing false limits between art and politics, constantly reinventing and challenging the old ideological precepts that have sought to flatten him as an individual.
The regime punishes Otero because he performs where everyone can see him. He is a limb that needs to be amputated before the disease spreads. Since the regime can’t put us all in jail, Otero is the scapegoat. By taking in the repression and the censorship, he protects other members of Cuba’s besieged civil society. Otero is in jail to pay for our freedom.
His body and the streets have been fundamental to his work because he is black and poor and self-taught — he has never been part of the establishment, the academy. His case also reveals a palpable bourgeoisie bias in Cuba against what art can do and how it should be consumed. During Otero’s trial, his witnesses will have to demonstrate why what he does is art and not desecration or public disturbance. Ironically, by trying to find some sort of aesthetic crime, the regime is already highlighting the power of the accused’s work.
Otero’s performances also reveal the operational tactics of Cuba’s powerful state. The fact that it has resorted to fabricating charges is what confirms that he is a true artist. The goal of the trial is to give him another identity, turn him into someone else, chip away like a perverse critic at his sense of mission.
But Otero has now been accepted into a vigorous tradition. Suffocating power causes a kind of social death and in the face of it, art, as Gilles Deleuze once said, is nothing but resisting.