EFE (via 14ymedio), Juan Palop, Havana, July 24, 2023 — They talk about the exhaustion, the psychological damage, the pain of their exile, but also the need to remain strong for Cuban artists and activists Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara and Maykel Castillo Osorbo, both in prison in Cuba.
In an interview with EFE, Cuban human rights defenders and art curators Anamely Ramos and Claudia Genlui explain the ups and downs of their situation – between frustration, uncertainty and hope – forced to live outside the island during the imprisonment of two close friends, colleagues in the dissident San Isidro Movement, who are considered “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International.
“We survive one day at a time, one week at a time, and one call at a time. And more than anything, try to stay strong, because something is clear: they see us as support and the least I feel that I can do is be strong for when he calls or for when he falls, to be there,” confesses Genlui.
This Cuban, who left her country almost two years ago, speaks twice a week with Otero Alcántara. The artist was sentenced to five years in prison in 2022, for insulting the symbols of the homeland, contempt and public disorder, although he was taken to prison when he tried to join the antigovernment protests of 11 July 2021 (11J).
Osorbo, who had been arrested two months earlier, was sentenced to nine years in prison for contempt, assault, public disorder and defamation of institutions and organizations, and heroes and martyrs, in a process questioned by human rights NGOs.
He is one of the authors of Patria y vida [Homeland and Life], the song critical of the Cuban system that paraphrases Fidel Castro’s slogan “Patria o muerte” [Homeland or Death]. Patria y vida became the slogan of the opposition and the 11J protests.
Juan Pappier, acting deputy director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch (HRW), applauds that Ramos and Genlui have “bravely raised their voices” for their colleagues. “If it weren’t for them, we would know much less about the humiliation to which these political prisoners have been subjected,” he adds.
Otero Alcántara and Osorbo, he continues, played a “leading” and “crucial” role in the protests in favor of democracy. “The regime has them imprisoned because it fears that with their art and music they can mobilize more Cubans to demand freedom,” he points out.
Ramos left for Mexico to study for a master’s degree after 11J and, when she tried to return to the island, she was denied entry without explanation, despite being within her rights as a Cuban citizen. She has been stranded in the United States ever since.
“I am still trying to adapt to being here. It has been a very hard process for me, because it was a forced exile, practically a banishment. Cuba is not giving in, it simply wants us out, as far as possible from the space of action and internal influence,” she says.
Ramos and Genlui agree when recounting the mood swings of Otero Alcántara and Osorbo in prison and how they influence them.
“There are days when he is in a better mood and there are days when it is difficult to take on this whole situation, especially when it is known that he is innocent,” says Genlui speaking of Otero Alcántara, and she denounces the “constant psychological pressure” from Security of the State and “health problems” due to prison conditions.
“Luis is a very strong person. He has incredible resistance and that keeps him afloat. He clings to art a lot, he is always creating,” she says.
Ramos, in a similar way, sees how the spirits of Osorbo –who a few days ago sewed his mouth shut in protest against ill-treatment in prison — “are changing all the time,” weighed down at times by illnesses, the “violence” in prison and “state security visits to humiliate him.”
Sometimes impotence appears. “When Maykel calls one day and tells you: ’Record this audio for me and keep it in case something happens’. ’But hey, what can happen?’ ’No, no: now I can’t explain it to you. Keep it there in case something happens ’ And when you hear him recording it, it’s a terrible scenario and you can’t do anything,” explains Ramos.
Going forward, everything is uncertainty. According to Ramos, there is the possibility that they will be released on the condition that they leave the country. Or that they remain in prison indefinitely, even beyond their sentences.
Genlui stresses that accepting freedom with exile, with the “psychological damage” it entails, “has been very difficult” for Otero Alcántara: “It is something that he still finds difficult to assimilate, beyond the fact that he sees it as the only alternative.”
“I really don’t know how Maykel is going to survive exile. It is to take the person completely out of the only comfort zone they have managed to have, from the affections they want to maintain and where they want to live. And take them out of the destiny that has been built. It is removing the person from the meaning of life that he has managed to find,” explains Ramos.
From abroad, both continue to disseminate the work of Otero Alcántara and Osorbo, and engage in activism in online networks so that the situation of the prisoners does not fall into oblivion, although they are aware of the difficulties of keeping their condemnation alive.
They consider that Cuba is “a factory for political prisoners” and fears that these prisoners could end up being used as a bargaining chip in some kind of international agreement. “The repression has not stopped,” they warn: “11J is not over. 11J is not history. 11J is happening. And if there is a protest again, the violence could be much greater.”
Ramos also refers to the problems to connect, from abroad, “with those who are inside” in Cuba and warns of the risk of exile “idealizing, even the evil.”
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