In July 2018, the locals and foreign tourists who habitually mill around the picturesque Habana Vieja quarter of Cuba’s capital were treated to a startling sight. Walking up the stairs of El Capitolio — the grandiose historical seat of Cuba’s congress completed in 1929 and shuttered after Fidel Castro seized power in 1959 — a striking woman appeared covered in excrement and railing against the dictatorship that has ruled the island for six decades.
“It was an act of fury, a gesture of helplessness, of exhaustion,” says Yanelys Núñez Leyva, the 31-year-old art historian and gallerist who made the protest. “The message was that they weren’t going to be able to beat us, that we were ready for anything, that the Cuban art world followed the tradition of resistance that preceded it.”
In 2016, Núñez Leyva and performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara created the Museo de la Disidencia en Cuba, an online platform to highlight acts of dissent — especially in the artistic realm — from Cuba’s colonial era until today. Two years later, Núñez Leyva and Otero Alcántara were among the founding members of the Movimiento San Isidro collective, named after a poor and historically marginalized Havana neighborhood, encompassing a wide range of artists, writers, and musicians.
“We observed the fear that people felt when hearing the word dissident,” says Núñez Leyva, “It was not only the exclusion of the government, but also the exclusion of neighbors, friends, and society in general. If you became a dissident for the state, then you became a social plague. Faced with this context, we created the museum as a way to legitimize being a dissident and give it value.”
Núñez Leyva and Otero Alcántara are among the vanguard of young activists and artists in Cuba today facing down an ossifying machinery of repression that, though the world has changed to the point of being unrecognizable since 1959, often seems to have changed very little at all. Just before Núñez Leyva’s 2018 protest, state security had bundled Otero Alcántara and the poet Amaury Pacheco off to detention (they would be released a short time later) following the group’s attempt to push back against a new government law, Decree 349.
The new law – a draconian edict that prohibits musicians, artists, writers, and other performers from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by Cuba’s Ministry of Culture – poured cold water on those who had hoped that the piecemeal liberalization of some aspects of Cuban life that began when Raúl Castro took over as de facto leader of the country from his brother Fidel in July 2006 might continue.
To understand the space in which Cuba’s cultural activists operate, it is essential to process Cuba’s history and, especially, its relationship with the United States.
After invading Cuba in 1898 during the Spanish-American War, the United States would continue to occupy it with a military government until May 1902. The Platt Amendment of 1901 dictated that the United States could intervene in Cuba militarily at any time, even as Cuba ceded the Isla de Pinos and was obligated to “sell or lease to the United States lands necessary for coaling or naval stations.” The 1903 Cuban-American Treaty of Relations would enshrine these conditions into law.
For decades after the invasion, the United States would exercise outsize influence on Cuba’s turbulent politics, one of its lowest ebbs being the 1925 to 1933 dictatorship of Gerardo Machado. With Machado’s regime in collapse, in September 1933 a sergeant born poor in the province of Holguín, whose alleged mixed-race heritage led to him being referred to as el mulato lindo (“the pretty mulatto”), led a revolt to finish it off. His name was Fulgencio Batista.
Through puppet presidents and directly as president himself, Batista ruled the island until 1944, when his chosen successor for president was defeated and constitutional order returned, however uneasily, to Cuba. The last time Cubans would be able to vote for the government that ruled them was July 1948, when they elected a senate, house of representatives and the dapper, urbane Carlos Prío Socarrás as president. In March 1952, on the cusp of new elections, Batista, again facing certain defeat, connived with the army and seized power in a coup d’état.
For the next seven years Cuba, and Havana in particular, became a debauched playground for vacationing Americans, featuring plentiful brothels and a strong presence of U.S. organized crime. U.S. financial interests exercised an enormous influence over Cuba’s economy and politics, uttering nary a word of condemnation as the reliably anti-communist Batista turned a country with a vibrant if imperfect democracy into a thuggish police state. Discontent grew. In July 1953, Batista put down an armed attack on the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba, in the country’s east, led by a young lawyer named Fidel Castro.
Nevertheless, the Cuba of the 1950s was not, as some would like to portray it, a place of utter squalor. There were great inequalities between town and country and between the races (Batista himself was famously refused admittance to one exclusive Havana club on this basis). But as the PBS documentary Fidel Castro (2005) notes, Cuba ranked fifth in the hemisphere in per capita income, third in life expectancy, and second in per capita ownership of automobiles, and its literacy rate was 76 percent – the fourth highest in Latin America. It ranked 11th in the world in the number of doctors per capita, its income distribution compared favorably with that of other Latin American societies (and certainly in the Caribbean itself), and there was a vibrant, engaged middle class. Music, especially, thrived.
The illegitimate son of a well-off landowner, Fidel Castro — jailed and subsequently released into exile in Mexico — would sail back to Cuba clandestinely in December 1956 with a small band of revolutionaries that included his brother Raúl and the Argentine revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. When the revolutionaries finally succeeded in ousting Batista on New Year’s 1959, revolutionary euphoria soon turned to bloodletting. In January 1959, outside of Santiago de Cuba, forces under the command of Raúl Castro conducted a mass killing in what became known as the Massacre of the 71. In the months immediately after the revolution, hundreds of people were killed after the most cursory of trials, many of them at the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, which guards Havana’s harbor and which was under Guevara’s command.
This did not escape the view of Cuban intellectuals of the time. In his novel En mi jardín pastan los héroes — a shattering portrait of the moment when the great hope of the Cuban revolution disintegrated into tyranny — the author Heberto Padilla wrote that “a revolution is not simply the excited rush of plans, dreams, old longings for redemption and social justice that want to see the light of day which the revolution gushes at its beginning. It has its dark side, too, difficult, dirty almost — repression, overzealous police vigilance, suspicion, summary verdicts, firing squads.”
Initially a supporter of the revolution, Padilla would eventually be imprisoned and then flee into exile.
The political compass of the island swung wildly after the revolution. After the Cuban state nationalized U.S. property, U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower severed relations in January 1961 (by the end of the year, Fidel Castro would openly declare himself a communist). When Eisenhower was succeeded as president by John F. Kennedy, relations between the United States and Cuba grew even more fraught. An attempted invasion by exiles in April 1961 — the Bay of Pigs — ended in blood-soaked failure, and in October 1962, the Cuban Missile Crisis took the world to the brink of nuclear war.
Beginning in the early 1960s, the United States enacted a series of punishing economic measures against Cuba’s new regime, which barred not only U.S. businesses, but businesses that do business in the United States from interacting with the communist state. Largely sealed off from the giant to the north, the Cuban state developed into a reactionary military dictatorship centered around the Castro family. A network of neighborhood spies and enforcers, the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, or CDRs) were set up and, as former allies like Carlos Franqui would later attest, what was acceptable in the island’s cultural life became inextricably linked to what its dictator deemed appropriate.
Describing this system of government repression in his 1998 novel Trilogía sucia de La Habana, Pedro Juan Gutiérrez wrote that “it’s the only way to turn people into mercenaries: by convincing them they’re part of the power structure. When the truth is they’re not even allowed to approach the throne …. They’ve enjoyed the power of weapons, the stick in hand, of lording it over their fellow citizens and humiliating them and beating them and shoving them into cells. Finally, some of them understand, with their livers shot, that they’re miserable beasts, club in hand. But by then they’re so scared, they can’t let go.”
Heberto Padilla was far from the only writer that suffered terribly after the revolution, though he only faced rage because of his ideological deviation. Other writers, such as Reinaldo Arenas, José Lezama Lima and Virgilio Piñera, were subject to wrath not only because of their ideas but also because of their sexual orientation. Actual or suspected LGBTQ people were imprisoned and tortured while government critics found themselves without work, as the government was the only legal employer. Millions of Cubans fled abroad, especially to Florida, where the Cuban-American population is estimated at more than 1.5 million and plays a pivotal role in U.S. politics.
Somehow, through it all, Cuba’s dictatorship retained an allure for many on the global left. Perhaps the most infamous example of this was the Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez, who not only failed to denounce the dictatorship’s human rights abuses but, as former dissident and later U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights Armando Valladares alleged, collaborated with Cuba’s security forces to entrap academic and pro-democracy activist Ricardo Bofill. As a result, Bofill spent years in prison.
Many on the left were quick to point out Fidel Castro’s support for different global insurgencies and roundabout role in helping to end apartheid in South Africa via his military intervention in Angola. What remained unspoken was the irony that the right to vote is something denied to all Cubans – Black or not – every bit as much as it was under the apartheid regime.
In 2013, when the journalist Yoani Sánchez conducted a speaking tour of several countries, defenders of Cuba’s dictatorship harassed her as she arrived at the airport in Recife and interrupted a film screening she attended. When she visited Brazil’s congress, left-wing politicians berated and insulted her in a manner reminiscent of the behavior of the CDRs. Two days after the 2016 death of Fidel Castro, the official Black Lives Matter account tweeted, “Although no leader is free from shortcomings, we must respond to right-wing rhetoric and defend El Comandante. Fidel vive!” During his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president earlier this year, Bernie Sanders praised Castro’s 1961 literacy campaign, only to be rebuked by those who actually experienced what it was — political indoctrination as much as education — and who pointed out that many countries supplied decent school and decent health care without the boot of dictatorship on the necks of the citizenry. Earlier this year, on the 53rd anniversary of Che Guevara’s death while leading a quixotic and unasked-for insurgency in Bolivia, Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the left-wing Podemos party Pablo Iglesias called Guevara an “example for history of the liberation of peoples and social justice.”
All of this adulation of a totalitarian system is, as one can imagine, somewhat hard to swallow for those facing down Cuba’s dictatorship on a daily basis.
“When it comes to Cuba, every human being on this planet, mainly people on the left — and I consider myself to be on the left — has something positive to say about how people live in Cuba,” says Núñez Leyva. “They always have a point of comparison; they always have a justification for cleaning up the government’s image. That, to me, is ignorance, arrogance, and neocolonialism.”
For the young activists in the county, the idea that Cuba’s government is a champion of racial equality is laughable.
“The Cuban regime is weighted on the basis of white men — macho, patriarchal, white men — with white women and wives as well,” says Otero Alcantara. He grew up in Cerro, one of Havana’s poorest neighborhoods, and one that has one of the richest traditions of Afro-Cuban culture. Since 2017, he has been detained by state security 30 times.
“Cuban television and all the Cuban cultural apparatus still operate on a racist basis,” Otero Alcantara says. “One of the great themes in Cuba is that when Castro comes to power, he erases racism with the stroke of a pen, and now there is no more racism and you can’t talk about it and everyone who talks about it is counter-revolutionary. Therefore racism remains intrinsic within society. Racism does not evolve backwards, it is not capable of dying, because it is entrenched within the nation.”
When it comes to art forms that explicitly address race, the Cuban government even tries to control the output and content of the inherently rebellious hip-hop genre through two government-funded groups, the Asociación Hermanos Saiz and Agencia Cubana de Rap. Many of its purveyors on the island, however, aren’t receptive to this.
“Hip hop is a philosophy of life, a social therapy and a kind of liberation for me,” says Soandry del Río, a 42-year-old rapper who helped found the Movimiento San Isidro, though now he identifies as an independent activist. “But we have a government that wants to control all areas of society and that includes the cultural space.”
Which is not to say that, particularly since Fidel Castro stepped down from day-to-day ruling of the island in 2006, there have not been changes in Cuba.
Raúl Castro, who had a more uncompromising reputation than his brother, became acting ruler of Cuba in July 2006 and then head of Comité Central del Partido Comunista de Cuba, the most powerful post in the country, in April 2011. While maintaining an unyielding monopoly on political power, he ushered in changes that were unimaginable 20 years ago, largely ending restrictions on the ability of Cubans to travel abroad (though dissidents are still frequently stopped at airports), allowing private use of cell phones, allowing citizens to connect — for a price — to the internet, and relaxing restrictions on private businesses, which in the last decade has led to a thriving market for services like Airbnb.
In December 2014, Raúl Castro and then-U.S. President Barack Obama announced that long-standing travel and commercial restrictions the United States had placed on Cuba would be relaxed and full diplomatic relations would be restored. In August 2015, after 34 years, the United States reopened its embassy in Cuba. In March 2016, Obama landed in Havana, becoming the first U.S. president to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge in 1928. The image of the young, vital leader of the United States strolling the streets of Habana Vieja, cheered by Cuban citizens, was a striking one when compared with the aging Raul Castro who, at their dual press conference, was peppered with questions about human rights and political prisoners he wasn’t used to answering.
I visited Cuba frequently during this period, and the sense of hope and expectation among ordinary people was palpable. American tourists and businesspeople — and their ideas and their money — flooded onto the island. One night, I sat on the roof of a restaurant in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood with two friends of mine, a gay couple. One of them sighed and said, “I’m just hoping things change. I’m pushing 50 and I’ve waited so long, and I don’t feel like I have much time left.”
When Donald Trump took office in January 2017, of a piece with his seeming obsession to undo most of his predecessor’s accomplishments, he returned to the Cold War policy that had been so ineffective for decades: restricting U.S. residents’ ability to travel to and do business in Cuba and increasing financial, banking, and shipping restrictions to the country. Many observers feel this was a mistake.
“Part of the logic of Obama’s policy was taking the United States out of the middle of Cubans’ battles with themselves, and that was always a long-term bet,” says Michael J. Bustamante, an Assistant Professor of Latin American History specializing in modern Cuba at Florida International University in Miami. “The objective of that policy was not regime change.”
“By and large, that long-term bet made sense and still makes sense,” says Bustamante. “The amount of good that it did in terms of improving people’s lives, opening up space for internal debate in Cuban society, and unleashing civil society was kind of unprecedented.”
The activists in Cuba itself can often seem to be inhabiting a kind of twilight world, denounced as public enemies by the Cuban government and yet not entirely accepted by the Cuban exile community, either. They operate on a shoestring budget, unlike the well-heeled lobbyists and political operators in Washington, D.C., politically connected and advocating for the hardest line possible against Cuba. This past June, at the urging of just this sector, the United States blacklisted Fincimex, the Cuban military-controlled entity that processes remittances for Western Union — a key source of hard currency for Cubans — which has led to the closure of more than 400 Western Union offices on the island.
Nor would the Cuban activists fit in well with many of the younger arrivals in the United States, some of whom have allied themselves closely with the racist, xenophobic policies of the outgoing Trump administration. These are perhaps personified by no one better than YouTube personality Alexander Otaola, who frequently mocks Black Lives Matter protesters as “criminals” who “use someone’s death to destabilize a government” and claiming there is “no difference between these communists and Hezbollah.”
When Trump made a campaign stop in Miami in October, Otaola approached the president to give him a “list” of Cubans with U.S. visas whom Otaola charged were too cozy with the Castro regime. Among those, somewhat absurdly, was Antonio Rodiles, an opposition activist who has been repeatedly detained by Cuba’s state security services. Otaola did not, however, present Trump with a list of the many Cubans languishing in immigration detention, some of whom say they were violently coerced to sign forms claiming they wanted to return to Cuba.
By contrast, after the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May, the actress Iris Ruiz, one of the founding members of the Movimiento San Isidro, wrote of how “intersectionality” was key to any civic struggle and that “our societies are structurally and culturally racist and oppressive.”
Some Cuban-Americans in Miami are not above engaging in historical revisionism when it comes to characterizing their relationships with the civil society in Cuba itself, either. When democracy activist Oswaldo Payá showed up in Miami in 2003 to seek support for his Proyecto Varela, an initiative that proposed a variety of measures to increase democratic representation and freedom of expression in Cuba, many exiles mocked him as a “bringer of false hope.” Since Payá died in a mysterious auto accident in Cuba in 2012, however, he has become revered by many among the exiled right-wing, apparently forgetting their previous suspicion of him.
In Cuba itself, meanwhile, despite 60-year-old Miguel Díaz-Canel having become president in October 2019, Raúl Castro remains head of the Communist Party and is widely believed to have remained the ultimate power behind the scenes.
Those connected to the Movimiento San Isidro continue to be targets of not only official police harassment but also of the so-called “acts of repudiation,” ostensibly spontaneous (though always carefully choreographed by the government), such as happened in Havana last month. On Oct. 7, Otero Alcántara and a number of other members of the collective, including rapper Maykel Osorbo, were in a building in Habana Vieja creating posters as part of their initiative dubbed #MiCartelParaElCambioEnCuba (“My Poster For Change In Cuba”) when Cuban police sealed off the street, ordered curious residents back into their home as people in civilian clothes arrived brandishing pictures of Fidel Castro and trying to destroy the posters. During the conflagration, Otero Alcántara was beaten and fined by police.
The artists vow, however, not to back down and to keep Cuban culture vibrant and alive.
“The Cuban government has a lot of hostility to popular culture because they know popular culture is the most uncontrollable kind of culture in the world,” says Otero Alcántara. “You can control your intellectuals through cultural structures. You can control the thinking of a group of artists. But popular culture is born from the spontaneity of need, of misery, of experiences that no government, no regime in the world has the power to control.”