14ymedio, Yoani Sanchez, Havana, 15 March 2020 — An intense campaign on social networks together with international pressure and voices of support that arose from the official sector itself have achieved the unthinkable: the release of the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara. The photo of the activist, recently released from prison with his shaved head and surrounded by his young friends, is already a historical image.
The questions that this release opens are diverse. It is worth investigating the true intentions of officialdom when the artist was arrested on March 1. Were they planning at that time to sentence him and send him to prison for a long time or were they just planning to scare him? The answer to that question is known to only a few at the top echelons of Cuban power.
However, we see more certainties when we review the actions themselves. Unlike other repressive acts, the artist’s arrest was widely known minutes after it occurred. A live broadcast by curator Claudia Genlui alerted her Facebook contacts to what was happening that first Saturday in March when she was heading to a gay kiss-in to be held in front of the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television.
The news of the violent arrest spread quickly because, as of December 2018, citizens of this country have been able communicate on social networks through mobile phones. In a few hours the first wave of solidarity arrived, the banners, the posters, the hashtags, the direct requests posted on the official accounts for the artist’s release and a letter of complaint that managed to summon activists, journalists and intellectuals from various countries.
The cross-sectional nature of Otero Alcántara’s artivism led to a wide range of voices denouncing his arrest. The performances in which he addressed the LGBTI agenda, through the actions in which he showed the economic abysses that separate Cubans, and reaching his questioning of authoritarianism, have won him sympathy from many sectors.
However, it was his artistic appropriation of the Cuban flag that aroused the most appreciation, as he took hold of a symbol that in recent decades has been practically hijacked by the political discourse of a party and an ideology. Many Cubans felt that they were recovering the national emblem, which became theirs again, when they saw the artist walk with down the street with it on his shoulders, and sleep or go to the bathroom with its blue stripes and its white star on the red background.
However, among the elements that played an even more decisive role for the release of Otero Alcántara were the demands from voices very close to the ruling party, such as singer-songwriter Silvio Rodríguez and plastic artist Alexis Leyva, known as Kcho. If you read between the lines of the official information regarding the meeting this Wednesday between Miguel Díaz-Canel and the artists, you can detect the conscience of the mistake made but not confessed.
“In the first place, the Revolution had to be defended. Then, if a mistake had been made, analyze it, criticize it, rectify it,” former culture minister Abel Prieto published on the Twitter social network. Although he did not specify what those blunders had been, just three days after writing the message Otero Alcántara was released. This time they had failed to get the artists’ guild to fully support the arrest.
Only a few artists, with a track record that shows them to be officials more than creators, joined the statement that they preferred “a Cuba without Alcantara,” which had a short life on social networks. They are the big losers of the day, because they lent their names to an act of public deception from which the regime itself withdrew, leaving them with their names tarnished.
This fracture of the artistic sector differs from the climate of rejection that the ruling party managed to build around Danilo Maldonado, known as El Sexto, in 2014 when he was preparing as a piece of performance art to release, in a Havana plaza, two pigs with the names of Raúl and Fidel written on their. The international campaign for his release also involved numerous voices that achieved his liberation several months later, but within the Island most of the plastic artists remained silent or accused him.
This break in the repressive consensus has been vital in the case of Otero Alcántara. The artist himself recognized the uniqueness of what happened and as soon as he was released from prison some of his statements summarized it: “We are changing contemporary Cuba, we are working for a Cuban future and I am the proof.” State Security is “very afraid, very afraid of the things that were happening.” And so it is.
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