A Havana court announced today, June 24, that Cuban artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara will serve five years in prison for “contempt, defamation, and public disorder,” charges human rights organizations have condemned as trumped-up and arbitrary.
Otero Alcántara, founder of the dissident San Isidro Movement (SIM), has been held in the Guanajay maximum-security prison since last summer, when the largest anti-government protests in decades broke out across the island. Rapper Maykel “Osorbo” Pérez, another SIM member whose song “Patria y Vida” became a rallying cry for Cuban liberation during the demonstrations, was sentenced today to nine years in prison. They are among nearly 500 people sentenced this week for their participation in last year’s demonstration, dubbed 11J, some for up to 30 years, according to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
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Curator Claudia Genlui, Otero Alcántara’s partner, called the sentences “a great disrespect and an injustice.”
“They are condemning them for making art,” she told Hyperallergic.
Otero Alcántara and Pérez are part of a group of vocal advocates for creative freedom on the island who have faced relentless persecution, harassment, and incarceration for their peaceful expressions of dissent. Last May, Cuban officials entered Otero Alcántara’s house and studio and seized several artworks including “Garrote Vil,” a sculpture evoking a strangulation device that he used in performances. The raid prompted the artist to begin a hunger and thirst strike, one of many he has undertaken, each more debilitating than the last. He was then forcibly hospitalized by state security agents in what SIM member Camila Remón described as “a kidnapping,” with dozens of artists including Dawoud Bey, Julie Mehretu, and Carrie Mae Weems calling for his release.
Otero Alcántara was briefly released only to be arrested weeks later at the outset of protests in Havana, along with hundreds of anti-government demonstrators. The artist, who has survived two hunger strikes while in jail, was asked to leave the country permanently in exchange for his release, a strategy commonly employed by the Cuban government to expel critical voices. Last October, artist Tania Bruguera agreed to leave the island in exchange for the release of 25 prisoners, including Hamlet Lavastida, who was forced into exile.
In a letter written from prison ahead of his trial, published by Hyperallergic last month, Otero Alcántara explained his decision to remain in Cuba.
“So many people I love now live in exile, without the possibility of returning because a dictatorship prevents them from doing so,” Otero Alcántara wrote. “The regime has destroyed my artwork and violated my rights and the rights of my friends in so many other ways.”
“In spite of everything, in spite of the pressure, in spite of the fact that right now there are a lot of people in jail, it was my turn to be here and from here I will continue to move forward,” the letter concludes.