CUBA’S POLICE broke down the door of an artists’ collective in Old Havana on Thursday night and detained about 14 people, several of whom were on a hunger strike. Most were later released, but the raid showed just how uneasy the Cuban government is with even a hint of protest or whisper of dissent. Art must run free, but in Cuba it must obey.
The raid was directed at the San Isidro Movement, a loose collection of creative types made up of “ghetto rappers, design professors, dissident poets, art specialists, scientists and regular citizens,” as writer Carlos Manuel Álvarez, a contributor to The Post, described it. The members started a hunger strike to protest the arrest of one of their own, Denis Solís, an activist and rebellious rapper who had an argument this month with a police officer who broke into his home without a court order. Mr. Solís called the officer a “chicken in uniform” and circulated a video of the confrontation on social media. Just days after his arrest on Nov. 9, he was sentenced to eight months in prison for “contempt” of authority.
The San Isidro Movement was galvanized to protest: first a poetry reading, then a sit-in and then a hunger strike this month. Word of the protest was spreading rapidly online. The pretext for the raid was a flimsy excuse about testing for the coronavirus. But it spoke volumes about Cuba’s rulers. Freethinking artists with connections to social media make them really nervous. The government blocked access to Facebook and Instagram on the island during the raid, a clue that it wasn’t about the pandemic at all.
The members of the San Isidro Movement have been active in protesting new restrictions on Cuba’s creative and vibrant artists and musicians. On Dec. 7, 2018, the government imposed Decree 349, which required anyone engaged in artistic activity to be evaluated and registered by state institutions. This would essentially make it illegal for artists to work without being registered and give the dictatorship a new and stronger method to control artistic expression and repress dissent.
This is not a new battle. One of Fidel Castro’s most famous dictums came in June 1961 in response to Lunes, a culture supplement to Revolución, the newspaper mouthpiece of the revolution. The supplement was filled with freethinking writers, leading to the charge that it was undermining the revolution. Mr. Castro declared that, when it came to artistic expression, “Inside the revolution, everything. Outside the revolution, nothing.” Lunes ceased publication within months.
Dictatorships have an uneasy relationship with artists, writers, performers and all creative people. Tyrants know well the power of culture to move people. Writers, as Joseph Stalin put it, are “engineers of the human soul.” But the dictators delude themselves into thinking they can control these souls. What’s happening in Cuba is another example of the power of art and free expression to defy those who would destroy it.