WorldArrest of artist Hamlet Lavastida increases repression of intellectuals in Cuba

Arrest of artist Hamlet Lavastida increases repression of intellectuals in Cuba

Cuban artist Hamlet Lavastida in an archival image.Peter Rosemann

On June 26, Hamlet Lavastida, a 38-year-old Cuban artist, completed the sixth day of mandatory quarantine at his home in Havana, after returning from a year of artistic residency in Berlin. But that morning he noticed something different through his window: a suspicious man heading toward his building. He imagined the worst, so he quickly called a friend, Katherine Bisquet, as she reported on Facebook. Were it not for those few seconds of conversation, perhaps his whereabouts would not have been known. Lavastida has been in the Villa Marista penitentiary for nearly two weeks, known for being a torture center. “They call the place the where everybody sings, because of an old Cuban television freshmen show”, comments the artist Marco A. Castillo, a former member of the Los Carpinteros collective and a friend of Lavastida, who was accused, without further details, of “inciting crime”.

The echo of this arrest reached the contemporary art fair Arco, in Madrid, which this Thursday hosts an act of denunciation for these facts. In addition, a collective of Cuban artists and intellectuals will print on five-euro bills the slogans of the movements opposing the Cuban regime and will release them on Arco as a collective performance, as Lavastida himself intended to do in Cuba. The public will be able to participate in the action by taking their ballots for the artists to make the interventions.

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The only evidence against Lavastida is a message in a private chat in which the artist suggested to acquaintances to mark Cuban peso notes with symbols that alluded to new movements in opposition to the Castro regime, now led by President Miguel Díaz-Canel. “We are outraged by this violation of citizens’ privacy,” reads a protest letter signed by 140 Cuban intellectuals demanding his release. “For the unjust accusations against our colleague and, fundamentally, for the fact that the Cuban Government is typifying the exchange of ideas and the exercise of imagination as crimes.”

Lavastida is a dissident artist who, like many rappers and painters on the island, has challenged the regime’s propaganda. His work, in the form of posters, urban murals, collages and videos, addresses the archives that build the “totalitarian identity of the Cuban revolutionary process”. “It is necessary to get closer to the complexity of Cuba beyond the typical tobacco and coffee scenes”, he said in an interview, four years ago, about his work called prophylactic life.

His arrest is the most recent and most visible of a dozen arrests the Cuban government has carried out over the past two months, sharply increasing the crackdown on musicians, painters, journalists and other dissident citizens. As with other inmates, such as artist Luis Manuel Otero (free, but under constant surveillance) and rap singer Maykel Osorbo, detained and accused of “disrespect”, “resistance and “attack” (he is known for being part of the group who recently made the famous song that angered the Government: homeland and life, an opposing version of the motto homeland or death). Critics and protests left the island and found a sounding board in other countries, such as Spain. This Thursday, Castillo, art critic Gerardo Mosquera and Mexican curator Cuauhtémoc Medina organized a meeting at the Arco fair to denounce the situation of their colleague and that of others such as journalist Esteban Rodríguez, artist Tania Bruguera and her friend to who Lavastida called, the poet Katherine Bisquet, as denounced by José Miguel Vivanco, director of the NGO Human Rights Watch for the Americas.

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), poses in April, minutes before he was arrested at his home in Havana (Cuba).
Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, leader of the San Isidro Movement (MSI), poses in April, minutes before he was arrested at his home in Havana (Cuba). Yander Zamora / (EPA) EFE

In Berlin, Lavastida received a one-year grant from the Bethanien art gallery’s international program, funded by the Foundation of KfW, the German development bank. In April, he opened a solo exhibition, prophylactic culture, in a room at the Bethanien Art Center. “He is a brave artist”, who “with his works makes use of his right to freedom of expression”, says the gallery, which will return to exhibit the artist’s work this Friday to demand his release. The German government is mediating with the Cuban authorities in favor of Lavastida, informed sources in the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both the embassy and the EU delegation in Havana protested the artist’s detention and called for his immediate release, he says. Elena Sevillano, from Berlin.

Coco Fusco is a Cuban artist and teacher in New York who kept in touch with her persecuted peers. He considers that part of the repression is due to the fact that the artists, thanks to their creativity, but also to access to technology, have managed to break the images of Cuban propaganda and become spokespersons for what happens on the island. “They represent a sector that is very aware of technology, many have traveled, have contacts abroad, know how to articulate their claims and grievances in a sophisticated way, and understand how to deal with the image, which is the only thing that Cuba has produced: the dream of the revolution transformed into a consumer and image product”, says Fusco.

For this same reason, the Cuban government is trying to limit artists’ access to social media through the monopoly exercised by the island’s state-owned communications company, Etecsa. EL PAÍS tried to contact one of the artists who were temporarily detained by the police, Tania Bruguera, but a relative of hers reported that her landline phone was tapped by state security and that her internet access had been cut off.

“State security has decided to declare war on all who complain, because they know the country is at a politically vulnerable time,” adds Fusco. The country is going through an acute economic crisis due to the pandemic and the fall in tourism, which translates into a lack of food and medicine. Not only artists protest against this situation — the arbitrary detention of those who denounce the crisis has become a constant. “In Cuba, they can take your cell phone if you record a scene that portrays what is happening”, exemplifies Castillo.

Artist Luis Manuel Otero is among the intellectuals who have been arrested dozens of times, the last one in April. “I have surveillance in my house 24 hours a day,” he says, from Havana. He says that this last arrest took place just before the inauguration of the eighth congress of the Communist Party of Cuba, when he held a protest performance in his house against the government’s repression. He was temporarily detained, and some of his works were seized. After unsuccessfully asking for his return, he began a hunger strike. Several of those detained and watched were at a demonstration on April 30 in support of Otero, such as journalist Esteban Rodríguez and activist Mary Karla Ares (who reported the violence against this protest on the network), among others. Lavastida participated in protests on social media for the release of his colleagues Otero and Osorbo.

For some members of the San Isidro opposition art movement, whose headquarters is Otero’s house, this increase in repression also reflects the political situation after the congress of the only existing party in the country. They already talk about “Black Spring”, according to a document from this collective. Otero goes back a little further: to 2018, the year in which some artists organized the Bienal 00, and the Government, in response, signed Decree 349, which regulates (and censors) the artistic sector. “That connected a large group, we are already a large intellectual mass of artists”, says Otero. They even lost their fear of taking a stand in front of the Minister of Culture, which, as Castillo recalls, after several meetings, the communication ended. “There is a new process that is a generation’s commitment to change, and that goes beyond fear. We are hyperconnected, and prepared to give our lives, if necessary, for this story,” says Otero.

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