Otero was released, but his house remained surrounded by police. That didn’t stop him: he started to demand his art pieces back. He did this for almost a week; every time he set foot outside his house, he was jailed for hours. The last time he was imprisoned, two alleged criminals threatened him in their cell. That’s when he decided to begin a strict hunger strike to demand a return of his artwork, reimbursement for the damages against his house and an end to the round-the-clock police surveillance. On the seventh day of his strike, he said: “If my body dies, I hope it adds to the spark of freedom in Cuba.”
But even if Otero wanted to become a martyr for the cause of overthrowing the Cuban dictatorship, even if he wanted to die for his art and his freedom of expression — he is still a prisoner. The Cuban regime has not only curtailed his art and activism, it now gets to decide what happens to his life.
Otero is the biggest rock inside the regime’s boot. He has now also become a liability. If he dies while demanding basic rights, the United States will impose tougher sanctions. His activism also gives Cuba cover during possible negotiations — they can say to the European Union or Washington that Cuba allows citizens to express themselves freely. They can say there is an active opposition, even if they demonize and persecute them.
The truth is that the regime could not afford to face the consequences of Otero’s death; it will do whatever it can to prevent it. Cuba is going through a deep economic crisis and the only way out might be a better relationship with the Biden administration, in the hope of recreating the calmer times seen during the Barack Obama administration.
That’s why, on May 2, on the eighth day of the hunger strike, the regime broke into Otero’s house again, this time to rush him to a hospital. He was safe but still their prisoner. It wasn’t until the State Department issued a statement that the regime released some information about his condition. Now, the government has silenced Otero, while also claiming to be taking care of him.
Ultimately, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara embodies everything the regime claims to promote and defend, but in reality doesn’t: He is a poor Black artist who wants to express himself freely and have a dignified life. This is what the dictatorship hates the most: his dignity in struggle.
The regime will have to keep dealing with Otero’s art and his protests. All Cubans see and understand his cause. There will be no “better Cuba,” as Díaz-Canel keeps repeating, if the state has to force people to starve themselves in order to enjoy basic rights.