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Cuban dissident artist should be released from custody, human rights group says

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara was taken to a hospital by health officials over three weeks ago while he was on a hunger strike.
Image: Dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcantara speaks during an interview at the headquarters of San Isidro Movement in Havana, on April 6, 2021.
Dissident artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara at the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement in Havana on April 6.Alexandre Meneghini / Reuters file

One of Cuba’s bolder and most popular dissident artists has been in a hospital for over three weeks after he was taken there by health officials during the seventh day of his hunger and thirst strike.

The artist, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, 33, was named a "prisoner of conscience" by Amnesty International, which urged his release in a call that is being echoed on social media.

“Luis Manuel must not spend one more day under state custody. He has been detained solely because of his consciously held beliefs and must be released immediately and unconditionally,” Erika Guevara-Rosas, Americas director for Amnesty International, said in a statement Friday. “It is time for the Cuban authorities to recognize that they cannot silence all the independent voices in the country.”

Otero Alcántara, a performance artist, is the leader of the San Isidro Movement, a group of artists, writers and intellectuals who have campaigned for freedom of speech in the communist country. He was advocating for freedom of speech and protesting harassment by the state when health officials took him May 2. The government questioned the authenticity of the hunger strike and surrounded Otero Alcántara's home with police, cutting internet in the area, according to reports.

After he was taken to the hospital, health officials said that they had found no signs of malnutrition and that he was stable. Three weeks later, friends and supporters are questioning why he is still hospitalized without communication, spurring speculation about his condition on social media.

Before the hunger strike, Otero Alcántara was arrested and some of his art was destroyed and seized after he protested the Communist Party’s congress by sitting on a garrote. He began the hunger strike to demand the return of his artwork, compensation for the destroyed pieces, freedom of expression and an end to police harassment.

Two days before he was taken to the hospital, the chancellor of the Archdiocese of Havana visited Otero Alcántara and relayed that he had no intentions of backing down.

Cuban authorities say the U.S. government finances and directs Otero Alcántara and the San Isidro Movement to create subversion. The group has denied the claims and says its members are detained arbitrarily and often prevented from leaving their homes by state security.

The U.S. government has expressed concern over Otero Alcántara's well-being, urging in one tweet that he be treated with "dignity" and "respect." 

In an emailed statement on Tuesday, the U.S. State Department said it supports "human rights defenders, pro-democracy activists and independent civil society organizations around the world."

"As Secretary Blinken has said, we will continue to advocate for the human rights of the Cuban people, including the right to freedom of expression and assembly, and condemn the repression of human rights on the island," the statement read.

"Dozens of Cuban artists, journalists and activists have been arrested, are under surveillance, or were confined in their homes to silence their support for Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara," it also stated. "The United States stands with all who defend freedoms of expression and assembly in Cuba."

Cuban authorities say the U.S. government finances and directs Otero Alcántara and the San Isidro Movement to create subversion. The group has denied the claims and says its members are detained arbitrarily and often prevented from leaving their homes by state security.

In November, authorities broke up a hunger strike by members of the group, sparking a rare protest with hundreds of artists and activists in front of the Culture Ministry. Those who protested formed another group, called 27N.

The San Isidro Movement has connected with people in a way other movements have not at a time when the island is experiencing acute shortages in food and medicine.

Rappers from the group collaborated on a song called "Patria y Vida," or "Homeland and Life," with popular Cuban artists who live in the U.S. and Spain. The song, whose title is a spin on the government’s slogan “socialism or death,” touches on many topics, including the desire for change and greater freedom, widespread shortages and migration. The song has become popular with many Cubans on the island and in Miami, where it can be heard on radio.

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