Cuban Dissident Artists Sentenced to Prison, Drawing International Condemnation

Artists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo Pérez received sentences of five and nine years in prison, respectively, following trials in Cuba. Their imprisonment has drawn condemnation from international human rights groups, who accused the Cuban government of retaliating against the artists’ involvement in protests over the falling standard of life on the island.

In a statement, Erika Guevara-Rosas, the Americas director at Amnesty International, said both Otero Alcántara and Castillo Pérez “are artists who have used art as a means of expressing their views on the social, political and economic conditions in Cuba.”

“They are two emblematic examples of how Miguel Díaz-Canel’s government uses the judicial system to criminalize critical voices, including through charges of alleged crimes that are incompatible with international law,” she added, calling for their immediate release.

Castillo Pérez is the author of “Motherland and Life,” a song which became the anthem for mass demonstrations in Cuba in 2021 against food and medicine scarcity, the crackdown on creative expression, and the government’s inadequate response to the pandemic. He was detained by state security officials in May of that year. Otero Alcántara, a leader of the artist-led San Isidro protest movement, was arrested traveling to a protest in Havana that July.

Otero Alcántara was transferred without a court hearing to a maximum-security prison in Guanajay, and was detained for seven months without a trial, despite a Cuban law requiring prisoners be released after six months of detainment.

According to the Human Rights Watch, the artists were arraigned on a range of charges including public disorder, contempt, and in Otero Alcántara’s case, “insulting national symbols” for his use of the Cuban flag in the performance piece Drapeau, in which he wore or carried the flag uninterrupted for a month.

Earlier this year, Otero Alcántara began a hunger strike to protest his conditions, spurring concern from the international art community over the state of his health. Few updates were offered by the prison.

In February, artist Coco Fusco, working with activists Yaxys Cires Dib, Eloy Viera, and Armando Chaguaceda, released an open letter urging foreign governments, especially those in Latin America and Europe, to intervene in his case. The letter was later turned into a a petition on Change.org that concluded with the statement: “​​Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara has dedicated his life and his art to the Cuban people. He should not have to sacrifice his life. The Cuban government cannot be allowed to rob him of his life.”

Hundreds of protesters and bystanders were arrested during the largely peaceful protests throughout Cuba. Some of the people who were detained are still in judicial proceedings, according to the Human Rights Watch.

In February, 20 protestors, including several under the age of 18, were convicted on charges of sedition; many were sentenced to up to 20 years in prison. Meanwhile, dozens of Cuban artists, activists, and journalists have reportedly been jailed, prosecuted, or forced into exile by the Cuban government.

Castillo Pérez and Otero Alcántara were among the artists who who were offered their freedom in exchange for their exile from Cuba, a “historic practice by the Cuban government that has been applied to other critics in recent months, in violation of the right to enter one’s own country,” said Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International in a joint statement.

Otero Alcántara rejected the offer in a public statement.

“For my part, as long as music gives me strength, even if they stick me in the most hidden dungeon of Guantánamo or under a stone, I will look for a way for my art to reach you and continue staking my bet on freedom,” he wrote.

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