Not Even Prison Can Silence Cuba’s Artists

Freedom House spoke with human rights defender Anamely Ramos González about Cuba’s San Isidro Movement—an art collective that continues to defend Cubans’ right to free expression even after key members were imprisoned.

Cuba artists protest, anniversary of J11, large cuban flag

Illustration: Andrea Pino-Silva/Freedom House

In 2018, alongside their fellow artists and intellectuals, Maykel Castillo Pérez (known as Maykel Osorbo) and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara cofounded Cuba’s San Isidro Movement (MSI), which began organizing artistic protests against decrees intended to limit free expression in Cuba. The subsequent crackdown was unrelenting. The government launched home raids and arbitrary detentions, and arrested MSI members. Between 2018 and 2021, Otero Alcántara and Osorbo were detained and released dozens of times between them. The jail stints did nothing to stop MSI’s work to defend human rights.

Authorities again arrested Otero Alcántara and Osorbo in 2021, but this time they didn’t release them. They were held in maximum-security prisons on fabricated charges before their trials opened. When proceedings finally took place, neither the international press, nor the independent Cuban press, nor the diplomats from various embassies, nor activists and Cuban citizens were allowed to enter. Everything was done behind closed doors. Otero Alcántara was sentenced to five years in prison; Osorbo got nine.

This week, Anamely Ramos González—a curator and academic who has worked alongside Otero Alcántara and Osorbo—participated in an interview with Freedom House about the persecution of artists by the Cuban government, and how artists are defending human rights and fighting for the release of political prisoners.

What can you tell us about how Maykel and Luis are faring since they were unjustly imprisoned two years ago?

The imprisonment and sentencing process has been very hard—not only because it has been unjust and lengthy, but also because a political prisoner in Cuba is always in danger. The Cuban State does not recognize the political nature of these convictions and continues to construct common criminal cases to prosecute them and keep them imprisoned. They are at the mercy of the police and prison guards, and also in danger from fellow prisoners who can be manipulated by those in power to threaten political prisoners. This is not hypothetical; it has happened with Luis and Maykel and it continues to happen.

Luis and Maykel have been in and out of solitary confinement, and they have both been denied medical assistance for serious conditions: in Maykel’s case, a failure in the lymphatic system that causes swollen glands, joint pain, and fever. Luis Manuel is experiencing temporary facial paralysis from one of the various hunger and thirst strikes he carried out in prison, and has been fainting recently from some unknown cause. Moreover, they continue to endure a psychological and emotional toll, knowing they are innocent but unable to fight for their rights.

As an art scholar and an activist, how have you used your skills to advocate for the release of Maykel, Luis, and the scores of other political prisoners unjustly detained in Cuba?

We have not stopped denouncing the Cuban state’s disrespect for freedom of expression and other rights of Cubans, as well as the constant and increasing repression of Cuban citizens. We have been present at international forums on human rights and have continued to meet with key members of the international community, human rights organizations, and partner activist collectives.

We have also amplified the artistic voices of Maykel and Luis. Since they were in prison, neither of them has stopped creating, and even from prison they continue to receive awards as artists. Maykel has two Latin Grammys as coauthor of “Patria y Vida” [“Homeland and Life, which became a protest anthem among youth in Cuba], and Luis has received, among other prizes, the biannual Prince Claus Foundation award for art and culture. Both have also received awards related to their work as human rights defenders, such as the Freedom Award granted by Freedom House. Award recognition is extremely important because it combats the Cuban authorities’ narrative denying that Luis and Maykel are artists. Recognition also helps guarantee their safety.

Luis and Maykel’s cases have been presented to the United Nations, with our help, and in both instances the United Nations has ruled that they should be released immediately. But the Cuban state does not respond to calls for attention, neither national nor international, related to human rights. It systematically violates human rights before everyone’s eyes.

What is it about artistic expression that so threatens the Cuban government?

Artistic expression demonstrates power, first individual and then collective. Art has the power to mobilize people to demand a more humane and equitable society. Art and culture are among the most transformative forces in communities and can regenerate the social fabric that authoritarianism tatters.

Art is a powerful weapon of denunciation, a way to express a state of injustice so that others may understand, and alliances may form. This terrifies totalitarian regimes like Cuba’s, that people could discover that they can express themselves and that their voice counts.

Click here to learn more about Maykel Castillo Pérez and Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara—and other individuals who have been detained for championing human rights.

Note: Views expressed by our partners may not reflect Freedom House’s official positions.