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After historic meeting, Cuba slams protesters, dashes hopes for dialogue

After the vice minister of culture met with activists in a groundbreaking meeting, Cuba's president called their protests "an imperial reality show."
Activists gather in front of the culture ministry to show solidarity with dissident artists in Havana on Nov. 27, 2020.
Activists gather in front of the Culture Ministry to show solidarity with dissident artists in Havana on Friday.Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters

After a groundbreaking protest and a rare meeting over the weekend between artists and a vice minister, Cuba's government has dashed the hopes of activists who had been promised a dialogue over freedom of expression and an urgent review of a jailed rapper's case.

The communist-run government brought on a barrage of attacks Sunday on state-run television, digital sites and social media. President Miguel Díaz-Canel called the protests a "farce" and an "imperialist reality show" and accused the United States of being behind the movement.

At a large pro-government rally Sunday, Díaz-Canel said there was a "strategic, nonconventional war to destroy the revolution."

Hundreds of artists and activists had protested outside the Ministry of Culture on Friday, a rare show of dissent in Cuba. Fernando Rojas, the vice minister of culture, met with 30 of the protesters Friday night for over four hours and agreed to future talks, among other promises.

Citing a Covid-19 violation, authorities broke up a group of 14 artists, academics and independent journalists that had gathered for days; six of them had been on a hunger strike. They are part of a larger group known as the San Isidro Movement, founded in 2018 to protest curbs on freedom of expression.

The group was protesting the imprisonment of one of its members, the rapper Denis Solís, who was arrested Nov. 9 and sentenced to eight months in prison for contempt after he insulted a police officer during a dispute.

A meeting is still scheduled for Thursday between the culture minister and the artists.

Tania Bruguera, an internationally known artist who was at the meeting Friday night with Rojas, said Monday that the culture minister is no longer an appropriate interlocutor because "he has violated agreements agreed at the meeting."

She called on Díaz-Canel to lead the talks.

"At this point of crisis, an interlocutor with real decision-making power is needed," she said.

Yunior García, a playwright who was among the 30 who met with Rojas the night of the demonstration, is still hopeful that talks are possible.

"Dialogue is what's most sensible to avoid something worse happening," he said, adding that he doesn't want to see violence.

Cuba is going through dire shortages in food and basic goods amid the coronavirus pandemic, which has practically halted tourism to the island, on top of the Trump administration's harsh sanctions.

Against that backdrop, García said, "I think the government should think about these things and view dialogue as a valid option to avoid a major disaster."

Yet on Saturday night, a program on state-run television called the San Isidro Movement a group of "mercenaries" that was receiving help from the U.S. government. Officials at the Foreign Ministry summoned the top U.S. diplomat in Cuba, Chargé d'Affaires Timothy Zuñiga-Brown, and complained about U.S. "intervention."

At Sunday's rally, Díaz Canel said that "Trumpistas" (referring to the Trump administration) and the "anti-Cuban mafia that are now 'Trumpistas'" (referring to Cuban American Trump supporters in Miami) "had on their agenda that before the year ends, the revolutions of Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have to fall."

Later in the evening, at a large pro-government rally, Díaz Canel said, "There is a space for dialogue, for everything that is for socialism, and for the revolution."

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Díaz-Canel ended by chanting with the crowd a revolutionary slogan popularized in the 1960s to denounce the U.S. that had lost traction in recent years: "Cuba si, Yanquis no," or "Cuba yes, Yankees no."

In a tweet, acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Michael Kozak wrote Monday: "Legitimate gov'ts do not fear dialogue w/ their own people. The Cuban regime fears fulfilling agreements it made last week w/ Cuban artists & cultural figures as that would acknowledge their right to express themselves."

Jake Sullivan, Joe Biden's national security adviser, tweeted Sunday: "We support the Cuban people in their struggle for liberty and echo calls for the Cuban government to release peaceful protestors. The Cuban people must be allowed to exercise the universal right to freedom of expression."

Orlando Matos reported from Havana. Carmen Sesin reported from Miami.

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