The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion A group of Cuban artists is daring to live in democracy. Their protest could end in tragedy.

The arrest of the Cuban rapper Denis Solís in Havana triggered a wave of protest actions from artists and activists. (Denis Solís)
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Carlos Manuel Álvarez is a Cuban author and journalist.

On Nov. 6, Denis Solís, a young and rebellious Cuban rapper, dared to call a police officer who broke into his house to harass him a “chicken in uniform.” He filmed the episode with his cellphone and posted the video on social media. Soon after, during a summary trial without a defense lawyer, Solís was sentenced to eight months of imprisonment for “contempt.”

In Cuba, these frequent outrages used to happen without too much of a scandal; the repressive machinery of the state was capable of disguising its constant episodes of injustice quite effectively. But that cloak, after years of resistance from various political opposition groups, seems to have been finally torn off, never to be mended again. Solís is part of the San Isidro Movement (SIM), and its members launched an impressive campaign of solidarity for his release, which they have already reinvented several times in little more than a week.

The SIM is an organization based in Old Havana, coordinated by the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara — who has also been detained and harassed by the authorities over his performances and protests — and whose ecumenical vocation and amphibious character make the group difficult to classify. It brings together ghetto rappers, design professors, dissident poets, art specialists, scientists and regular citizens. The Cuban forces of law and order are at a particular disadvantage to understand what the group is about — and that is why they act more and more unhinged, visibly exhausted.

After the arrest of Solís, whose whereabouts were unknown, members of the SIM gathered in front of the police station and demanded answers. That day, the police locked them all up, put them in different cells around the city and, close to midnight, released them. This happened a couple of times more, but each time more members were willing to join in. Because there was no response from the police beyond the routine arrests, Otero slept on a bench outside the station and said he would not leave until he heard from Solís. Other colleagues, like Anamely Ramos, did the same.

Now the SIM has become a red-hot spot on the anemic map of Cuban civic temperature. Many curious people in the neighborhood, as if they were stunned by the spectacle of a crackling fire, look at them from afar, because they could get burned, but they cannot stop looking.

Both the danger that the members represent and the seduction they inspire can be explained by the fact that they are perhaps the only Cubans on the island today who are living in a democracy, exotic animals that no one has seen alive in the country in 60 years. SIM’s dizzying strategies make it an almost untraceable collective even for the media that pretends to cover the group’s actions in detail. One has the feeling that the media always arrives a bit late to the events that are brewing there, as if, instead of facts, we were talking about flashes, the wake of things that have already happened. In less than a blink, the movement is elsewhere.

But what does it mean to live in a democracy? Probably to live as a shut-in, because the street in Cuba is a prison. On Nov. 16, on the 501st anniversary of Havana, the poet Katherine Bisquet helped the SIM organize an event called “Poetic Whisper,” a sort of collective peaceful pilgrimage that would stop to read poetry at different strategic points such as Solís’s house, the corner where he was arrested and heritage sites such as the Alameda de Paula or the Convent of Santa Clara, a place that embodies the tradition of Cuban civic protest.

It was a way to trace the real circuits of the city, the free reconfiguration of the political territories. By rewriting the route of repression with its poetry reading, the SIM did not seek to erase or forget some arbitrary demarcations, but rather to accentuate through a peaceful gesture the weight of that culture of abuse in the national memory. Resistance graffiti doesn’t paint anything that is not already there; it only makes visible the ghostly aura of totalitarianism.

Just when the “Poetic Whisper” was about to take place, the Popular Provincial Court of Havana denied Otero’s request for habeas corpus on behalf of Solís and acknowledged that the inmate was in the Valle Grande prison.

In response, the group’s poetic action became a sit-in at the SIM headquarters, until a neighbor to whom the group had given money to buy food was intercepted by State Security, which surrounded the house and confiscated her goods. That brought about a major escalation of resistance, whose end is impossible to know, but whose horrific limit, if there were no dialogue, seems to be none other than the immolation pit. Now seven members of the group are staging a hunger strike.

Their demands are no longer limited to the release of Solís, but go directly against the widespread state of poverty and sustained lack of civil liberties in the island. The San Isidro protesters seem ready to found their own country, seemingly inspired by the lines of the Sui Generis song, also written against another military regime: Si ellos son la patria / yo soy extranjero. (If they are the fatherland / I am a foreigner.)

Read in English:

Carlos Manuel Álvarez: Cuba arrested a performance artist because he’s everything the regime can’t control

The Post’s View: Cuba’s communists should realize by now they can’t jail free speech

The Post’s View: Cubans are losing their patience — and their fear

Leer más en español:

En Cuba el arte resiste pese a ser encarcelado

El gobierno cubano pasó de negarle internet a sus ciudadanos a enriquecerse con él

Cuba inmoviliza a los opositores al régimen