It took two Cuban intelligence officers to carry art historian and activist Carolina Barrero, hands and feet in handcuffs, from the demonstration she was organizing this year in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana.
” Freedom ! cried the passers-by. “Freedom!”
Barrero, 35, said she was repeatedly threatened with deportation, imprisonment and torture because of her activism and participation in protests against the Cuban government. She spent six months last year under house arrest at her Old Havana residence, with police outside her front door 24 hours a day.
Cuban authorities tried to intimidate her associates and friends, she said. Believing that her fellow protesters, many of whom are mothers with children in prison, would be punished if she did not leave the country, Barrero abandoned her native Cuba in February and lives in Spain.
Cuba’s treatment of dissidents like Barrero is one of the reasons the country was not invited to the Summit of the Americas
taking place this week in Los Angeles. Nicaragua and Venezuela, which the Biden administration threw away
as undemocratic dictatorships, were also excluded from the event.
The countries’ leaders are not there, but their many vocal opponents are, including artists, journalists and activists. Their appearance in Los Angeles for the summit coincides with “a new spirit of solidarity” in Cuba, Barrero said, noting that regular protests in his home country have come to include not only elites or artists, but also ordinary people.
There was “a catalyst, an avalanche of protests,” she said. “What started as something about artistic freedom quickly turned into civil rights and inspired an anti-government movement.”
Barrero said the Cuban government, led for the first time in decades by someone not named Castro, had taken a dark turn, perhaps fearing a weakening of its ironclad power and control on the population.
As an art historian who curates exhibitions around the world, Barrero felt the pressure affecting her life and livelihood in early 2018, she said. In one of his first moves, the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, the hand-picked successor to former president Raúl Castro, instituted a law that critics say censored dissent and expression. artistic. Among other things, this would require artists to be licensed by the government.
Just last week, two artists, including a rapper who wrote a sardonic “anthem” for the protest movement that plays off old Cuban revolutionary slogans, were convicted of crimes of expression. They await judgment.
“The regime is trying to eradicate creativity itself,” Barrero said in Spanish.
Since then, say dissidents, Cubans protesting almost anything, from political repression to food shortages, risk arrest and long prison sentences. Some of Barrero’s colleagues, including people under the age of 21, were sentenced to terms of up to two decades without a fair trial or self-defense, she said.
The crescendo came on July 11, 2021, when thousands of Cubans took to the streets to demonstrate against political repression, hunger and the response to COVID-19. Havana alleged that destabilizing American forces were responsible for fomenting the unrest, which was an unprecedented display of public discontent. The authorities responded by arresting hundreds of people.
Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment, but said those arrested had disrupted public order.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla said the country’s exclusion from the Summit of the Americas revealed the event’s flaws. The summit is “a neoliberal failure” that “disconnects” the United States from Latin America, Rodríguez said on Twitter.
The closing of the door to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua sparked a boycott of the summit by other leaders, including Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who sent his foreign minister instead, undermining the overall substance of the event and further questioning American influence in the region.
Barrero said she disagreed with those who say it would have been better to invite shunned governments and use the forum to chastise them or demand reform, adding that “he is naive “to think that the power of persuasion will change Cuba’s actions. Moreover, she said, Havana’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should prevent her from joining a Western Hemisphere rally that supports democracy and national sovereignty.
“You can’t have a system of sanctions against Russia and then lend a hand to Russia’s wartime allies,” she said. “It does not mean anything.”
Nicaraguan dissidents are having a similar experience to their Cuban counterparts, perhaps made more difficult because the country went through a period of democracy after revolution, war and US-sponsored efforts to overthrow the government.
Daniel Ortega, one of the leaders of the movement to free Nicaragua from dictatorship in the 1970s, was elected president in 2007, and he proceeded to shift the levers of government to stay in power indefinitely. In recent years, he has imprisoned his political opponents, journalists and others who have dared to speak out.
“It’s not a dictatorship; it’s a mafia,” said Enrique Saenz, an economist and fierce critic of the Ortega government, echoing others who say the Nicaraguan president has abandoned ideology and is using his seat of power to enrich himself.
“We are fighting to restore democracy,” said Daisy George West, a member of the Miskito community of Nicaragua, a minority group that lives on the country’s east coast and has fought to preserve its culture and political freedom.
The Ortega government is “trying to destroy everything attached to our identity,” she added.
Venezuela is a special case because the United States has actively supported an alternative government, claiming that President Nicolás Maduro is not a legitimate leader. Instead, Washington recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s legitimate leader, but has decided not to invite him to the summit.
Defending State Department decisions on who to invite, spokesman Ned Price said organizers worked to include all voices.
“We will engage in direct dialogues with stakeholders on the margins of the summit, including with the citizens of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, as we work to achieve a more equitable, democratic and prosperous hemisphere,” said Price.
Barrero, who was overseeing an exhibition of artwork by Cuban and Venezuelan artists at a gallery in downtown Los Angeles, is using the summit to publicize his plight and that of his compatriots.
One of the strategies of authoritarians like Ortega and Díaz-Canel is to drive those with different and progressive views out of the country – which seems to be working. But Barrero remains optimistic.
“The only thing I know to be true in my life is that I will return to Cuba,” she said.