The peaceful protest last month by hundreds of Cuban artists and intellectuals against government censorship was one of the biggest demonstrations on the island since the 1959 revolution. It should be getting much greater support from President-elect Biden, President Trump, and other world leaders.
The Nov. 27 protest by the so-called San Isidro artists’ movement in front of the palace of the Ministry of Culture in Havana was unusual in that it drew about 300 musicians, actors, writers and independent journalists. In a dictatorship that has not allowed non-government protests in six decades, it was an amazingly huge crowd.
What’s more, it was supported by some of Cuba’s best-known artists. Performance artist Tania Bruguera, movie star Jorge Perugorria and filmmaker Fernando Perez participated in the protest. Other well known artists, including singer Carlos Varela, supported it in their social media.
“We’ve never seen such a big street protest in Cuba,” Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas department of the Human Rights Watch advocacy group, told me. “There have been many isolated protests against human-rights abuses since 1959, but not one like this one focusing on freedom of expression.”
According to a Nov. 30 Wall Street Journal report by Jose de Cordoba, “the protest was possibly the largest peaceful demonstration since Fidel Castro took power in 1959.” Unlike the 1994 “Maleconazo” riots against blackouts and food shortages in Havana, which also drew hundreds of protesters, this one was a peaceful protest demanding freedom of expression.
According to witnesses’ reports, the protesters outside the Ministry of Culture read poems, and sang songs of love and peace. In a rare move, the Cuban Culture Ministry allowed a few dozen of the protesters to enter the building for a dialogue, and the two sides agreed to continue their conversations.
But since then, the regime’s media, which are the only ones permitted on the island, accused the protesters of being “U.S. mercenaries” and “CIA stooges.” It’s the same laughable excuse the Cuban dictatorship has been using for decades to quash any sign of free speech.
Many of the San Isidro movement’s artists have been arrested for brief periods in recent days and warned not to gather again.
According to a Human Rights Watch report to be released on Dec. 7, the Cuban regime is increasingly using state regulations designed to prevent the spread of COVID-19 to harass members of the San Isidro movement and other dissidents.
The Nov. 27 protest started after security forces detained 14 members of the movement at their meeting place in Havana, alleging that one of them had violated COVID-19 rules by failing to re-take a coronavirus test. Cuba’s regime is using the pandemic as an excuse to arrest many dissidents for allegedly “spreading an epidemic,” HRW says.
Asked why Cuban artists are suddenly staging a massive protest, after so many decades of censorship, Cuba watchers say it’s because of several decrees issued by President Miguel Diaz-Canel in 2018.
One of them, Decree 349, formalizes state controls over the arts, following a proliferation of private art galleries and music and poetry salons in recent years. The decree states that government inspectors will decide who qualifies as an artist and who doesn’t. Those who don’t get the official seal of approval can’t exhibit their works or perform in public.
“What’s interesting is that these artists are pressing their demands peacefully, arguing that the Diaz-Canel decrees violate Cuba’s constitution,” says Cuban historian Rafael Rojas, who teaches in Mexico. “That’s all very new.”
Fortunately, President-elect Biden’s transition team has reacted quickly in support of the Cuban artists. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s nominee for national security adviser, tweeted on Nov. 29 that, “We support the Cuban people in their struggle for liberty and echo calls for the Cuban government to release peaceful protesters” of the San Isidro movement.
But it’s time for Biden himself, President Trump and other world leaders to personally support Cuba’s artists and intellectuals. Nobody can be indifferent to their demands. It’s a perfect opportunity for Biden to put in practice his campaign promise to re-build America’s international alliances to fight for basic freedoms anywhere in the world.
It’s an opportunity Biden can’t afford to miss.
Don’t miss the “Oppenheimer Presenta” TV show at 8 p.m. E.T. Sunday on CNN en Español. Twitter: @oppenheimera