One of Cuba’s most outspoken dissidents has been held in a closely guarded hospital in Havana for more than ten days, but it is unclear what, if anything, he is being treated for.
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, an artist and activist, was on day eight of a hunger strike protesting what he called a campaign of harassment by the Cuban government against him when he was taken to a government hospital before dawn.
His fellow dissidents claim that Otero Alcántara was taken for treatment against his will and that he has not been heard since, except through videos released by Cuba’s state-run media.
Otero Alcántara did not appear to be deprived of food or water when he was admitted, according to Cuban health officials, and he was eating and drinking on Tuesday, raising the question of why he remains hospitalized and incommunicado.
In one of the videos, Otero Alcántara appears to be in good health, joking with a hospital administrator and declaring, “I will continue to demand my rights as an artist.”
According to Cuban health officials, Otero Alcántara is still being tested and is being treated voluntarily.
While the Cuban government deals with the economic consequences of the coronavirus and tougher US sanctions, Otero Alcántara and his small group of tech-savvy “artivists” are increasingly causing officials on the communist-run island to be frustrated.
Otero Alcántara and other members of his San Isidro Movement have documented their real-time campaign against official censorship and the Cuban police and security officials who frequently follow their every move in tweets and videos posted to social media.
“We are connected,” is a frequent refrain and hashtag in his messages, a reference to the country’s recent introduction of mobile internet, which has enabled many Cubans to bypass state-run media and communicate directly with the rest of the world and their fellow Cubans.
Some Cuban officials argue that self-taught Otero Alcántara isn’t an artist, which contradicts his claim that government bureaucrats shouldn’t decide what counts as art on the island.
At times, Otero Alcántara has threatened to sever ties between the government and Cuban artists, who have enjoyed a special status in recent years that has allowed them to criticize the government, albeit indirectly, while also earning hard currency by selling their work to tourists and consumers abroad.
During a hunger strike in November, police arrested Otero Alcántara and his supporters, alleging they had violated health restrictions imposed to halt the spread of the pandemic.
Within hours, hundreds of Cuban artists and students staged a rare sit-in protest outside the Cuban Ministry of Culture, and some of the island’s most prominent cultural figures expressed support for Otero Alcántara and greater freedom of expression.
Otero Alcántara was quickly released by Cuban authorities, who claimed he was part of a US “soft coup” against the island.
“The show is very similar to those staged on other occasions by other mercenary groups and puppets in the service of the U.S. government,” an article stated in the Cuban communist party newspaper Granma about Otero Alcántara days after the protest. “The new show, orchestrated from Washington and Miami, is part of plans for subversion against Cuba.”
However, Otero Alcántara, an Afro-Cuban millennial who lives in a slum area of Old Havana that few tourists visit, does not fit the stereotype of anti-Castro militants fighting to restore the island to pre-revolutionary days. And he is particularly skilled at using the obstacles thrown at him by Cuban officials as a form of performance art that garners more attention for his movement.
While his activism does not appear to pose an existential threat to the Cuban government so far, it has alarmed officials.
Otero Alcántara appeared in a music video for the song “Patria y Vida,” or “Fatherland and Life,” a play on Fidel Castro’s revolutionary slogan “Fatherland or Death.” The song’s video, which has become an anti-government anthem, has received five million views on YouTube.
When police surrounded his home in April, he put on an exhibition in which he sat restrained with a garotte around his neck.
After accusing State Security agents of stealing his artwork, Otero Alcántara demanded $500,000 in restitution and announced a new hunger strike.
“I will fight to the last breath for my artistic freedom,” he wrote in a widely seen message. “If my body dies, I hope it will be a spark for the freedom of Cuba.”
When Otero Alcántara was taken to the hospital in May, doctors issued a statement saying he “showed no signs of malnutrition,” casting doubt on his hunger strike, but he would remain “under observation.”
Regular updates on Otero Alcántara have been published by Cuban state-run media, a rare acknowledgement of anti-government dissent. However, with the exception of one video in which he briefly speaks, he has not been heard from, and his supporters claim that police have barred them from seeing him in person.
As Cuban officials try to adjust to Otero Alcántara’s new brand of activism, the government risks jeopardizing potentially improved relations with the Biden administration, which has been slow to engage with the island thus far.
“Like all Cubans, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” the US Embassy in Havana posted on Twitter. “We have seen reports that he is in hospital and that his state is stable. We urge the authorities to protect his well-being in this difficult moment.”
Some Cuban artists argue that greater freedom of expression would reduce tensions between the state and artists.
“These little scandals will end the day they legalize protests,” famed singer Silvio Rodriguez, a long-time supporter of the Cuban revolution, wrote on his blog. “Authorized protests. Democratic socialism. And the police protecting those who exercise their rights,” he continued.
Top Cuban officials, however, warn that a harsher crackdown may be on the way.
“To the mercenary lumpen who make money off of everyone’s destiny, to those who ask for an invasion, to those who continuously offend with words and deeds,” Cuban President Miguel Diaz-Canel said in a televised speech in April while accepting the powerful post of head of the Cuban communist party, “know that the patience of the people has limits.”