Jailed Cuban Artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara Pens Op-Ed From Prison

Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a Cuban artist and leader of the activist San Isidro Movement (MSI), is currently serving a five-year prison sentence for using “insulting symbols of the homeland” in his work.  The artist has written an opinion piece in the Miami Herald, urging countries around the world to aid Cuban dissidents in their battle against the country’s Communist government.

“On behalf of the young Cubans locked up in the island’s horrible prisons, I appeal to people of conscience around the world to support our struggle to liberate ourselves and our country,” Otero Alcántara wrote. “All we did was demand the right to choose our political future and to speak our minds.”

The artist was apprehended by authorities on July 11, 2021, while on his way to one of the historic demonstrations that roiled Havana that summer as food and power shortages gripped the nation. He was subsequently transported to Guanajay, a maximum-security prison roughly 35 miles southwest of Havana, where he was held for nearly a year without receiving a hearing, despite Cuba’s law banning the detention of a person for more than six months without awarding them a trial. In June 2022, following a series of closed-door trials in Havana, he was found guilty of contempt, public disorder, and “insulting” Cuba, presumably by incorporating its flag into his performances, and sentenced to five years in prison.

Named one of Time’s Most Influential People of 2021 the same month he was arrested, Otero Alcántara had already been forcibly hospitalized in Havana in May 2021, more than a week after launching a hunger strike to protest the government’s seizure or destruction of several of his artworks that spring. His July 2021 arrest, which drew global condemnation, was the latest in a series of illegal detentions he endured in the wake of Cuban president Miguel Díaz-Canel’s rise to power in 2018. Under Díaz-Canel’s regime, artists and others protesting government censorship have been constantly persecuted by the state.

“They have been harassing me for years, arresting me 50 times between 2017 and 2021 and also through defamation, violation of privacy, threats, and police beatings,” Otero Alcántara wrote. “But it wasn’t until the historic protest of 2021 that the regime decided to lock me up for a longer period of time so I could no longer communicate with my people.” 

Citing the “more than 1,800 Cubans, mostly young and Black” who were arrested during the protests, the artist noted, “Of these, 897 have been tried, and 777 remain in prison. Many are minors. Some have been sentenced to up to 30 years for sedition.” Otero Alcántara, who is thirty-four, wrote, “I speak as a young man in today’s Cuba. We are full of energy and confidence, determined to lend our talents to the quest for a truly democratic and free Cuba. The regime that has survived for 64 years on the Caribbean’s largest island is once again trying to crush a generation, just as it crushed and erased those who preceded us.

“Today every young Cuban is a political prisoner,” he continued. “A censored artist. An exile inside and outside Cuba. Even if you’re an accomplice of the system, you will inevitably be crushed like the others, because to be young is to be daring and reckless, eager to bring change to the world. It means fighting for love, dreams and utopia. But these qualities are considered crimes in Cuba, and that condemns us all to martyrdom.”