The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion With the world distracted, Cuba cracks down on dissident artists

Relatives of Cuban dissident artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel "Osorbo" Castillo wait outside the Marianao Municipal Court (background) in Havana on May 30, 2022, where the trials against them are being held. (Yamil Lage/AFP/Getty Images)

It has been nearly a year since Cuba’s streets erupted in mass protests. July 11, 2021, sent a thrill through supporters of freedom around the world — and a fearful chill down the spines of Cuba’s rulers. The dictatorship brutally suppressed the revolt and has spent the months since systematically bolstering its apparatus of political control. As part of that, the regime has been rounding up and punishing those who took part in the demonstrations, and in the dissident ferment that preceded them. Some 725 people are in detention, according to the U.S.-based human rights group Cubalex. And on June 24, the regime delivered stiff prison sentences to two of the movement’s best-known leaders, Maykel “Osorbo” Castillo and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara.

No doubt the Cuban regime has issued these punishments on the assumption that they will receive little notice, or condemnation, from a world distracted by war in Ukraine, inflation and other serious problems. All the more reason to spend a few moments understanding the nature of these brave men’s protests — and why the dictatorship finds them particularly threatening.

Like many of the most oppressed and alienated people in Cuba, both Mr. Castillo and Mr. Otero are Black. Both come from humble economic circumstances. Both have made innovative careers in Cuban popular culture: The former is a rapper; the latter, a performance artist and sculptor. And both have defiantly expressed resistance to the regime through art. Mr. Otero is one of the founders of the San Isidro Movement, begun in 2018 by journalists, academics and artists to protest heightened censorship. In tandem with Black Cuban artists in exile, Mr. Castillo and Mr. Otero took part in a music video for the hip-hop freedom anthem “Patria y Vida” — “Fatherland and Life” — which went viral in February 2021. A clever, catchy reversal of the regime’s slogan “Patria o Muerte” — “Fatherland or Death” — the piece eventually won song of the year at the Latin Grammys. On July 11, its words were on the lips of many who joined the protests.

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The regime is now getting payback for this devastating blow to its international image. Having been savagely beaten by state security agents two months after the video’s release, Mr. Castillo, 39, was arrested in May 2021 and has been in prison ever since. The nine-year sentence he just received was for murky offenses such as “contempt” and “defamation of institutions and organizations, heroes and martyrs,” as well as “assault,” an apparent reference to his attempts to fend off the police. (Three others were penalized for helping Mr. Castillo resist arrest, including one man sentenced to five years.) Mr. Otero got five years for similar trumped-up offenses, as well as “insulting national symbols,” an apparent reference to his use of the Cuban flag in his performances.

This latest gross human rights violation vindicates President Biden’s refusal to permit Cuba’s attendance at the recent Summit of the Americas; it should embarrass Latin American governments, led by Mexico, that protested that exclusion. Any regime that jails peaceful artists deserves all the denunciation the world can muster.

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