On May 26, The New York Review of Books published an open letter signed by a group of successful artists and writers — including Junot Díaz and Edwidge Danticat — stating that Cuban artist Luís Manuel Otero Alcántara is “detained…solely for expressing his ideas through his art.” We the undersigned challenge the aforementioned signatories to reconsider their letter, which fails to mention Otero Alcántara’s alleged connections to the U.S. government and ignores crucial context, namely the ongoing war waged by the U.S. against Cuba.
On May 2, Otero Alcántara was taken to Havana’s Calixto García Hospital several days into a hunger strike he claimed to have been staging. The Health Ministry issued a statement that he had “no signs of undernutrition” but would remain “under observation.” On May 31, Otero Alcántara was released from the hospital. In an interview distributed on YouTube shortly after his release by CubaNet, a Florida-based media organization that has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in U.S. government funding in recent years, a healthy-looking Otero Alcántara said he was physically “relatively well.” He said he consumed liquids for a week after arriving at the hospital, went without food and water for an additional week, and then “was eating well and drinking water” for the final two weeks before his release.
Otero Alcántara rose to prominence last November after leading another hunger strike to demand the release of his fellow San Isidro member Denis Solís, a Trump supporter and proponent of Cuba’s annexation by the United States, who had been sentenced to eight months in prison after he shouted homophobic slurs at a police officer. Recently, Cuban state media presented a document purportedly showing Otero Alcántara receives monthly payments of $1,000 from the U.S. government and evidence has emerged that two other San Isidro activists may have links to U.S. government funding. San Isidro members have publicly expressed support for Trump, endorsed the devastating sanctions he imposed on Cuba and met with and received support from the Trump-appointed U.S. chargé d’affaires.
We do not believe humans should incarcerate other humans nor do we justify repression by any government. But we question championing the cause of a supposedly “nonviolent defender of human rights” who openly advocates for the overthrow of the only government in the Caribbean that boldly defies U.S. hegemony. We also reject shining a light on one individual’s dubious crusade while leaving all political and historical context in darkness.
Since the 1960s, the U.S. has been waging war against Cuba – financing and arming paramilitaries who invaded the island, carrying out assassination attempts, reportedly introducing African swine fever virus and providing safe harbor to terrorists who bombed hotels and a civilian airliner, killing all 73 people onboard. In recent years, the U.S. has secretly funneled millions of dollars to Cuban artists, journalists and activists to carry out anti-government activities aimed at “regime change.” All along, the U.S. has waged extra-territorial economic warfare, strangling Cuba’s economy by blocking trade not only with the U.S. but also with the rest of the world.
Even as Cuba suffers a devastating economic crisis brought on by U.S. sanctions, the Cuban government has sent thousands of doctors and nurses to more than 20 countries throughout Latin America and Africa in response to the global pandemic. And Cuba is on track to become the first country to fully vaccinate its entire population using its own vaccine, which it also plans on distributing to other countries in the Global South.
We hope the signatories of the letter will revisit why they found themselves prioritizing this issue above others (such as the impact of the U.S. blockade on the Cuban people, including Black Cubans). Doing so drives a wedge between people of color in the U.S. and Cubans while fueling a Miami-driven campaign to pressure the Biden administration into maintaining an unjust and inhumane policy of aggression towards Cuba. There are cases around the world of courageous and principled activists who have paid the price for defending the most marginalized from the most powerful. This is not one of them.