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Who is artist Luis Manuel Otero, symbol of the resistance and thorn in the side of the Cuban regime?

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara going to the hospital on May 2, 2021. Screenshot of a Canal Caribe news video on Youtube.

This article was written anonymously by an author in Cuba, using the fake name “Luis Rodriguez” 

While the Congress of the Communist Party of Cuba was held between April 16 and 18, where the continuation of Castroism was confirmed, social media rained down criticism against the besiegement of activists in their homes by the Cuban state. Among them was the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who is now forced to stay in a hospital in Havana after having started a hunger strike against the censorship of freedom of expression. Today, he is considered the face and leader of the opposition on the island.

The events surrounding the life of Luis Manuel Otero have unleashed an unprecedented international media campaign in his support that is even influencing the course of relations between the U.S. and Cuba. The United States government expressed its concern about the young artist's health. Otero Alcátara has also received the support of institutions like Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Cuban Observatory for Human Rights.

During the Congress, Otero Alcántara, the primary leader of the group of dissident artists in Cuba called the San Isidro Movement (MSI), developed the performance “Garrote vil,” which refers to a weapon dating back to at least the 17th century used to strangle a person as a torture device. The performance was a metaphor about repression against freedom of expression. He remained seated for hours with his hands tied by a garrote while sitting in his house.

The performances carried out by Otero Alcántara have always provoked hostile reactions from the Cuban regime, for the symbolic charge that underlies his work and transmits a message to thousands of Cubans on the island thanks to the liberating power of social media. Since he emerged in the public eye as a leader of MSI, Otero Alcántara has been arrested at least 21 times by Cuban police officers.

Since November 2020, groups of artists, intellectuals, and activists have raised their voices in favor of a more democratic Cuba only to be met with government repression. The extent of social repression increased following the tense events in the San Isidro neighborhood on April 4, when officials tried and failed to arrest another member of MSI, Maikel Osorbo.

Just as the Congress of the Communist Party concluded on April 18, the State Security stormed the headquarters of MSI to confiscate the artwork of Otero Alcántara, including the garrote used for his last performance. In response to the confiscation of his work, Otera Alcántara started a hunger strike on April 25 demanding an end to repression and the political siege of his house. He also called for the return of his work or a sum of $500,000 to restore the houses in a deplorable condition in his neighborhood. The hunger strike unleashed huge media attention both within and outside of Cuba. It is his second hunger strike in five months.

The volume of information on the internet around the controversial life of the young artist stigmatized by official media is overwhelming. However, details of his origins as an artist, his childhood, and his life before emerging in the public sphere are scarce.

Otero Alcántara was born in the neighborhood of San Isidro, where he discovered his passion and sensibility for art. Otero Alcántara's physical appearance represents the most genuine expression of Cubans’ combination of African, European, and Indigenous roots and of those most marginalized in Cuban society, in contrast to the rhetoric of the official Cuban discourse that has always proclaimed racial and economic equality. His goal is to liberate Cuba and his marginalized and predominantly Black neighborhood.

In an interview in January with the Cuban comedian exiled in Miami, Alexis Valdés, Otero Alcántara explained that his family did not have access to the arts, although since he was a boy he made sculptures. He lived with more than a dozen people growing up and inherited his spirit of rebellion and fight against injustice from his mother, who recently passed away. Before venturing into art, he had been an athlete.

He learned resilience when he ran marathons. “When you have a kilometer more to run, the only thing that makes you run to the end is yourself. It's not your Mom and your Dad, the only one there is you,” he said to Valdés.

He explained that “art is an exercise in courage,” which comes from his love of art, the love of freedom, and the love of one another. “What my art does it reflect the misery of the Cuban reality, but unlike in other societies where you can create an NGO and express doubts in the president, in Cuba you don't have this option.” He wants “the people to experience this type of freedom that only art can offer. I really believe in freedom and politics is an exercise in non-freedom.”

In the interview, he also discusses his spirituality, his idea of sexuality, how to construct democracy, anti-Black racism in all parts of the world, and his sense of humor.

Some activists and the Catholic Church advised him to abandon the strike out of concern for his health. The hunger strike has unleashed a ferocious media campaign from the official state media to discredit him, especially through the division run by the Cuban state television journalist Humberto López, who depicts the strike as”destabilization” promoted by the United States.

The events led up to April 30 when a peaceful protest was held in support of Otero Alcántara in the street where he lives in Havana, where dozens of activists were arrested. Members of the Catholic Church in Cuba were also present at the demonstration and demanded the freedom of those detained. A week after the strike, on May 2, Otero Alcántara declared: “If my body dies, I hope it may continue to be the spark for the liberation of Cuba.” In years past, Cuban political prisoners have died from hunger strikes.

Otero Alcántara's house, which is also the headquarters for MSI, remained under siege and the internet blocked until the Cuban government forcibly took Otero Alcántara to the Calixto García hospital to prevent him from continuing the strike and to provide medical attention, under international pressure. This act was criticized as a kidnapping since Otero Alcántara is being kept involuntarily at the hospital under high surveillance. “The Cuban regime has kidnapped him to such a point as to not only prevent his artistic creation, but also the right to make decisions about his life,” wrote the columnist Abraham Jiménez Enoa in The Washington Post.

After days of uncertainty about his state of health, a video was released showing the artist in the hospital, where he thanks medical personnel. Yet, many doubts remain about his physical and mental state, and MSI condemns that the hospital remains militarized and they have not been able to see him. On May 4, Cubans exiles in Miami begged for his life and an end to repression in Cuba. For the moment, the Cuban government has not given any sign of responding to the demands of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara.

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