HAVANA — I have been on the news on Cuban television twice in my life. The first time, I was a happy 10-year-old boy, shaking hands with Fidel Castro. The second time was just a few days ago, when television reports described me as someone who is “openly hostile toward Cuba” — an enemy of my country.
It is likely that many of the people who once shook hands with Fidel Castro were later branded as “traitors,” deleted from photos and cut from film reels. In Cuba, dissent has long been a direct route to oblivion, to civil death.
I had recently flown to Cuba from New York to report on the San Isidro movement, made up of artists and activists pushing the government to expand political and artistic freedom and democracy. The group, which arose in 2018, has been a frequent target of repression.
Last month, Denis Solís, a rapper who is a member, was arrested and quickly sentenced to eight months in prison for “contempt.” In response, protesters gathered outside the movement’s headquarters in Havana and several of its members embarked on a hunger strike, alarming the authorities.
Police officers broke up the protest on Nov. 26, a day after the fourth anniversary of Castro’s death, as if to demonstrate that his legacy of repression lives on. Their pretext was preventing the spread of the coronavirus. (As in many other countries, the pandemic has become an excuse for increased surveillance and control of the population.) Those at the headquarters, including me, were detained and interrogated; when we were released, police officers were stationed in front of our homes.
The incident prompted my triumphant return to television. I watched, bewildered, as a cropped, edited image of me moved like a marionette through the propaganda tableau. There were parts of the video in which I was talking, but while those watching could see my lips move, they couldn’t hear the cadence of my speech, how I always struggle for a few seconds to articulate an idea — those little nuances that are unique to me were erased. I was simply a cartoon villain.
A college classmate of mine, Lázaro Manuel Alonso, was the host of one of the television programs on which the San Isidro movement and I were vilified. Mr. Alonso’s betrayal is characteristic of totalitarian cultures. The task of conscientiously lying is perhaps the most unpleasant role to play in Cuban ideological theater.
But to maintain Cubans’ silence at all costs is a luxury that a regime like ours can no longer afford during an economic crisis deepened by the pandemic. The few shops with stocked shelves are the new government-run dollar stores, and Cubans must pay in a currency that they can obtain only through remittances at a time when renewed United States sanctions are cutting off those remittances.
Watching myself be defamed on television made me think back to my childhood. Like all Cubans, I was once a “pioneer,” as patriotic children are called, and my neighbors looked upon me proudly because Castro had greeted me. Now the regime, acting as stage director, had assigned me the role of enemy of Cuba.
The next time I visit my hometown, Cárdenas, some people may look at me the way they would an outcast or criminal. Others may greet me halfheartedly — perhaps to convince themselves that they’re not afraid to do so.
In a way, what the government did on the newscast was a mere formality. It’s not personal, but a means to an end. Life in this country is like always having a pebble in your shoe, or as if you were wearing glasses that were the wrong prescription and smudged. At 30 years old, I am always annoyed.
Anger rather than fear is the widespread sentiment among Cubans — a constant, built-in discomfort. We’re fed up with blind, doctrinaire zeal. Navigating Communism is like trying to cross a cobblestone road in high heels, trying not to fall, feigning normalcy. Some of us end up twisting our ankles.
What the San Isidro movement epitomizes is the cry of a wounded country. The movement has become the most representative group of national civil society, bringing together Cubans of different social classes, races, ideological beliefs and generations, both from the exile community and on the island.
The group’s resistance has lasted for several years, and no one has been able to silence its members. Nor does it seem that the group endured this most recent repression in vain. The day after we were removed from the headquarters, hundreds of young people and artists gathered outside the Ministry of Culture to demand full recognition of independent cultural spaces and an end to ideological censorship in art.
After hours of waiting, 30 artists presented the demands of the protesters gathered there to officials. What happened next was predictable: Those in power refused to comply with the main points of the verbal agreement they had just reached.
Harassment has intensified, as has the continued discrediting of members of the movement in the press and the belligerent language of officials like Bruno Rodríguez, the foreign minister. Some prominent artists who were present at the meeting, like the performance and installation artist Tania Bruguera, have been detained.
Still, the Cuban regime no longer seems so impervious to criticism. Although we shouldn’t expect anything from the government in the short term — officials have refused to continue the dialogue — there are positive signs. Namely, some young people were treated as citizens for a few hours, and a ministry opened its doors to some of the same artists the government had defamed and persecuted for years.
These steps, albeit small, should lead to a national conversation, and not just with a supporting actor like a minister. We must demand a conversation directly with Cuba’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel.
My moment on national television will pass, but something must result from our struggle.
Carlos Manuel Álvarez is the author of “La Tribu,” a collection of chronicles on Cuba after Fidel Castro, and the novel “The Fallen.” This essay was translated by Erin Goodman from the Spanish.
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