Dissident Cuban artists hope for dialog with government after protest

By Yeny García

Havana, Nov 29 (efe-epa).- Cuban artists and intellectuals hope for talks with the government on ending censorship and repression after an unprecedented 12-hour peaceful protest in front of the ministry of culture in Havana.

The protest, historic in a country that has a de-facto ban on unofficial demonstrations, began with around 20 people on Friday around noon and by the early hours of Saturday had swelled to hundreds of people, who celebrated after the government agreed to talk.

The mask-wearing demonstrators chanted and periodically broke into applause while standing firm in their demand to meet ministry representatives.

The protest remained peaceful, despite an incident in which the police tear-gassed some young people trying to reach the protest site, although nobody was hurt.

Late on Friday night, a delegation of around 30 artists, including famous names such as actor Jorge Perugorria, film director Fernando Perez and visual artist Tania Bruguera, met the Vice Minister for Culture Fernando Rojas and other officials for over four hours.

In the meeting, the authorities promised talks, starting with an audience with the culture minister next week.

They also guaranteed that they would take no retaliatory measures against the protesters.

The officials also promised to “urgently address” the matters of amateur rapper Denis Soles – sentenced to eight months in prison on contempt charges – and Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara, one of the leaders of the San Isidro Movement.

Otero Alcantara had been on a hunger strike over the past week and has moved to an undisclosed location since the authorities raided his house and dispersed the Movement on Thursday night.

“Despite it being a critical meeting, where they said things that we didn’t like, I believe we achieved a constructive environment (…) and came out with an interest and desire to continue dialog,” Rojas said in an official televised statement on Saturday evening, around 14 hours after the encounter.

Over a dozen dissident activists last week began a sit-in at Otero Alcantara’s house in the iconic San Isidro district – with five of them going on a hunger strike.

They demanded Solis’s release and raised other issues before being forcibly removed by the police on Thursday night.

Sources close to Otero Alcantara said he was at a hospital, although the state of his health is unknown, while the rest of the protesters have returned to their homes.

The Thursday night police raid was accompanied by a mysterious temporary blackout of Facebook, Instagram, and Youtube on Cuban mobile networks, resulting in a wave of criticism against the government, which justified the crackdown by citing violation of Covid protocols.

After the culture ministry protest, reactions were mixed among the dissidents, with a minority – including some members of the San Isidro Movement – arguing that agreeing to sit with the government for talks was a “betrayal” of the cause and not a victory as claimed by the delegation at the ministry.

Meanwhile, various dissidents also complained on Saturday morning that they continued to be harassed by state security officers posted outside their residents.

However, the majority of the Cuban art community seemed to agree that it was imperative to “set a precedent” showing that it was possible to catch the authorities’ attention and make them acknowledge that hundreds of people were out demanding the freedom of expression and thought.

“It will be difficult for things to change fast, but it is important in itself that such a large number of people gathered and held this kind of a protest, something unimaginable in this country. They managed to hold a dialog, an important precedent was set, (now) what is needed is that it shouldn’t end here,” Jose Raul, one of the protesters, told EFE.

However, despite the vice minister of culture adopting a conciliatory note, President Miguel Diaz Canal termed the San Isidro Movement media circus and alleged interference from the United States.

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