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Artists and activists stage rare rights protest in Cuba

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Cuban artists and activists staged a rare public protest in front of the culture ministry in Havana, demanding the release of a dissident rapper and an end to censorship and political repression in the country.

The 200-strong demonstration started on Friday and continued into the night after police broke up an opposition hunger strike. It drew support from well-known cultural figures, including singer Carlos Varela, who called on the authorities for dialogue, while film-maker Fernando Perez quipped “it is time for a new language” before entering the ministry.

The protest begged the question of whether Cuban cultural policy, based on Fidel Castro’s famous words to artists, writers and intellectuals in 1961 — “Within the revolution, everything; against the revolution, nothing” — can survive the internet age.

Most of those gathered in Havana shared a history of social media activism and have expressed frustration for years over what they say is the one-party political system’s stifling control of the arts.

“I applaud the peaceful mobilisation of Cuban artists and intellectuals demanding respect for public freedoms and human rights from the oldest military dictatorship in Latin America,” tweeted José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director for Human Rights Watch. “This is historic and must be supported.”

The protesters’ demands included a review of the rapper’s case and dialogue with the government. It also called for “respect for those taking up independent positions from those of the state”.

Cuba’s latest episode of dissent began three weeks ago when rapper Denis Solís live streamed a confrontation with a policeman who had entered his yard. In it, he hurled angry insults at the officer, cursed Communist party leader Raúl Castro and proclaimed support for US president Donald Trump. 

Mr Solís was arrested a few days later, charged and tried for the offence of “contempt” in less than a week and sentenced to eight months behind bars.

Last Tuesday, US secretary of state Mike Pompeo strongly condemned “the Cuban regime’s harassment of activists peacefully protesting the imprisonment of human rights defender Denis Solís González” and urged Havana to release Mr Solís without conditions.

Mr Solís is a member of a small collective of performance artists and activists called the San Isidro Movement, which regularly stages dramatic activities to promote freedom of expression that often run foul of the authorities.

Cuba’s authorities view the group as part of a US-financed effort to bring down the government, which Havana says also includes independent internet news outlets in Cuba and at least five platforms beaming into the country from abroad.

Around a dozen fellow movement members and supporters gathered in the San Isidro group’s headquarters after Mr Solís’s imprisonment, and six announced they had gone on a hunger strike.

The tech-savvy collective got its message out for a week, highlighting Mr Solís’s fate. The protest gained support from Washington, Cuban exiles in Miami, several other governments and organizations such as Amnesty International before authorities broke down the door and forced them to abandon their headquarters, ostensibly for breaking Covid-19 regulations.

Cuba’s state-run media called it a “US-backed counterrevolutionary show”, but protesters on Friday said it was “a farcical excuse for the same old, same old censorship and repression”, while also demanding a meeting with the culture ministry.

That meeting took place through Friday night with 30 representatives of the crowd outside.

By the time the protest ended at 2am on Saturday, the protesters had secured an urgent review of the Solís case and that of another movement member, an agreement for talks over their complaints about policy in various sectors of the arts and a guarantee that independent artists would not be harassed by the police.

Amnesty International called for the release of Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and academic Anamely Ramos González, San Isidro members which it described as prisoners of conscience. It said they had been imprisoned after the police raid solely because of their beliefs.