HAVANA — It was a historic moment in Cuba after more than 200 young artists and activists protested outside the Ministry of Culture Friday demanding the release of a jailed rapper—as well as freedom of expression.
The demonstration and the meeting were rare events in the communist-run island where dissent is not tolerated. The crowd sang the national anthem and recited a poem in unison.
Thirty representatives from the crowd were allowed into the ministry Friday evening for a meeting that lasted hours. At the end officials agreed to review the case of the jailed rapper and to hold future talks over their complaints on freedom of expression.
During a virtual press conference Saturday, Michel Matos who was present in the negotiations called Friday’s events “tremendous.” He said the representatives “told the truth” and officials listened “with a lot of silence.”
Well-known figures including internationally-known artist Tania Bruguera and actor Jorge Perugurría, made an appearance at the protest and were among those who spoke with officials.
Some on social media called on more protests Saturday but there was no one outside the Ministry of Culture in the morning. There were three police vehicles standing by.
Calls to several of the 30 representatives Saturday went unanswered or had a busy signal.
The protest came after authorities broke up a group of 14 artists, academics, and independent journalists that were gathered for days, with six on a hunger strike, at the home of one of the artists in the historic center of Havana on Thursday night. The 14 activists are part of a larger group known as the San Isidro Movement.
Authorities said the expulsion was necessary because one of the 14 members had recently arrived from Mexico and had not quarantined appropriately.
The group was protesting the imprisonment of one of their members, rapper Denis Solis. He was arrested on Nov. 9 and sentenced to eight months in prison for contempt after insulting a police officer during a dispute.
The Cuban government calls members of the San Isidro Movement, as well as other dissident groups, terrorists with links to the United States.
Protests and a hunger strike
Two of them, plastic artist Luis Manuel Alcántara and rapper Maykel Castillo Pérez, continue on a hunger strike.
During the Saturday press conference, Matos said Alcántara is in stable condition at a hospital under medical and police observation. Castillo is at home in a “deteriorated state.” Matos said his life is at greater risk than Alcántara’s.
Only one of the 14 members of the original group was present at the protest Friday night. The other 13 reported state security outside their home impeded they leave, according to Iliana Hernández, one of the 14. Some of them, like Hernández, criticized on social media the deal between the protesters and government officials.
In an impassioned video, academic Omara Uquiola, called the Friday night protesters “disloyal” and “traitors.” She said “there cannot be a conversation or dialogue with any ministry” if members of the original 14 are not present.
Demonstrations in solidarity with the San Isidro Movement also sprung up Friday outside the Cuban consulate in Madrid and its embassy in Mexico City.
The governments of the United States, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, as well as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch voiced concerns over human rights in Cuba during the last two days.
Orlando Matos and Roberto Leon reported from Havana and Carmen Sesin reported from Miami.