14ymedio, Havana, April 29, 2021 — Workers at state-owned restaurants and bars in Old Havana, most of whom are at home due to the pandemic and the drop-off in tourism, were summoned to join surveillance and “confrontation with the counterrevolution” operations in the San Isidro neighborhood. There, at 955 Damas Street on Thursday, the artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is marking his fifth day of a hunger strike in protest of repression by State Security.
“I haven’t worked for months because the bar is closed,” says one employee of an establishment that sells drinks a few yards from the entrance to Havana Bay, “so when they called me to come to a meeting, I was surprised because there aren’t any tourists around and, since normally all we sell are drinks, we can’t offer food for takeout.”
When he got there, the worker — a member of the Old Havana Municipal Retail and Food Services Company — was surprised by the reason for the meeting. “It didn’t have anything to do with work. It was to ask each one of us if we were going to participate in police operations in San Isidro, especially around the house of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara,” he explained.
“They told us we could just dress in civilian clothes and help the police but that we might also have to take part in a ’repudiation’ demonstration.” he added. “Some people got up and left before the meeting was over because they were irritated, thinking they had been called for something else.”
A maintenance worker at one of the many hotels closed for lack of tourists gave a similar account. Located in the historic city center, the hotel has not had any guests for almost two years, which has allowed the management to make repairs and layoff some of staff.
“They called me on Monday and told me I had to be at the hotel early on Tuesday. From there I would go to Damas Street to help keep an eye out for anyone trying to enter the house of that dissident who is on a hunger strike,” he said. “I didn’t go and now I’m afraid I’ll lose my job but at this point I can’t get involved in stuff like this. No job is worth the hassle.”
It is not the first time something like this has happened. Last year 14ymedio reported that on October 10 employees and partners of the Old Havana Municipal Administration participated in an “act of repudiation” in response to “some counterrevolutionaries who were badmouthing Cuba on social media.” According to several sources who spoke to 14ymedio, the event had been billed as a day of “cultural enrichment.”
Nevertheless, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara remains committed to his hunger strike. He is demanding and end to the round-the-clock police cordon, compensation for artwork stolen and destroyed by State Security and a public apology from the authorities.
The 33-year-old artist told 14ymedio on Wednesday that he has not eaten or drunk anything since Sunday, which has left him with stomach pains.
In a live broadcast on Thursday, made possible by help from friends and neighbors who provided him with internet equipment — his cell phone’s mobile data had been cut — he asked all Cubans to stick together: “I’m fine, I’m going to hold out until the last minute, thanks for all the support, we have to be united.”
At the same time, he reiterated that he will continue in his endeavor, since he prefers to die rather than continue to live without rights. “I don’t want to be afraid,” he said. “This decision is about life, not death. It is a decision about homeland and life, but a dignified life.”
He added, “If I cannot fight for my rights, then I cannot fight for anyone else’s rights.”
Artists and activists who have expressed support for Otero Alcántara are being harassed by the security forces. On Thursday, Tania Bruguera, Iris Ruiz and Amaury Pacheco were arrested upon leaving Bruguera’s house in El Vedado. “Tomorrow at 10 a.m. we all leave our houses,” she wrote a few hours earlier on her social media page.
The same thing happened to musician David D. Omni, who tried to cross the police cordon surrounding Otero Alcántara’s house.
Art historian Carolina Barrero, rapper Maykel Osorbo, activists María Matienzo and Kirenia Yalit Núñez, 14ymedio reporter Luz Escobar and CiberCuba contributor Iliana Hernández all woke up to find themselves under surveillance, which in Barrero’s case has been lasted for a full month.
On Thursday evening the 27N movement issued a public a call for help, hoping to bring international public opinion to bear on Otero Alcántara’s situation.
“Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara is dying and with him the freedom that he symbolizes is dying too. We want him to stay alive. We need him and his light to help us build the Cuba that awaits us,” the statement reads.
“We urgently need support from news outlets, non-governmental organizations and any person or institution inside Cuba or anywhere in the world which can help us find a peaceful solution to this conflict,” it notes.
From Miami, several human rights organizations — Archivo Cuba, Cuba Decides, the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba and the Foundation for Pan-American Democracy — asked the European Union on Thursday to suspend the Agreement on Political Dialogue and Cooperation with Cuba until the island’s government “takes irreversible steps towards the recognition of human rights and democratic transition, and the European Union can evaluate such progress.”
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