The ministerial slap, the secret negotiation, a violent birthday: All about Havana’s latest protest

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Photos: Nelson Álvarez Mairata

Cuban Minister of Culture Alpidio Alonso slapped away the cell phone of an independent journalist who was filming him. The act, which took place Wednesday morning outside the Ministry of Culture, set off further violence against a group of artists and activists engaged in a peaceful demonstration.

«Again they sabotage the dialogue. The Minister of Culture will not be pressured by mercenaries. We revolutionaries understand reason, not coercion. We will not allow them to tarnish the Cuban Nation’s homage to José Martí», wrote the minister in a tweet.

The 27th of January is the day before the birthday of José Martí, a liberal thinker who went down in history as the “apostle” of Cuban independence. The date also marks two months since the demonstration of November 27th, 2020, when a group of artists assembled before MinCult to demand that the authorities respect freedom of artistic creation; and ultimately, the freedom of expression of all citizens. (The group is now referred to as 27N, based on the date of the protest. MinCult is a common abbreviation for the Ministry of Culture.)

A press release from the Ministry of Culture offers the official version of last Wednesday’s violent incident. The institution declared that it has decided to meet with three representatives of the 27N group despite their «provocative attitude» and «relationship with media outlets paid by federal agencies of the United States».

The truth is that MinCult had cancelled a scheduled conversation with the 27N group in early December. «With mercenaries, we won’t understand each other», explained an official statement at the time.

Cuban authorities use the term «mercenaries» to suggest that political dissidents are in the pay of the United States or other foreign interests. Neither the ministry nor the official state media, which launched a campaign against independent artists, journalists, and activists, have ever proven this oft-repeated accusation.

Shortly after cancelling the dialogue negotiated by the demonstrators of 27N, the Deputy Minister of Culture Fernando Rojas made an unexpected move, contacting the curator Solveig Font confidentially «to explore the possibility of a meeting between the two» The group revealed the details of this secret negotiation in a timeline published yesterday.

Font spoke with Rojas on December 17th, and the members of the group decided not to make the discussions public at that time. The deputy minister asked Font if the group was still interested in dialogue.

On December 21st, the group responded in the affirmative and designated three representatives: Font herself, the artist Camila Lobón, and the playwright Yunior García Aguilera, to communicate directly with the ministry.

This position was formalized in a letter directed to Alonso and Rojas, which they also released to the public on December 27th. The group claimed to be willing to «continue advocating for a solution to the escalation of injustices, violence, and hate against those whose political thinking is different».

Rojas promised the meeting would happen before the end of 2020. In fact, on December 29th he met with the representatives and communicated that «the Ministry of Culture is willing to dialogue». The deputy minister’s only condition was that they not communicate with «correspondents of media outlets financed by the U.S. State Department».

Apart from that, Rojas proposed a discussion of Decree 349, the «independent spaces» demanded by independent artists, and censorship, a common practice of Cuban authorities since the beginning of the Revolution.

However, in early January, negotiations appeared to stall.

On January 12th, the group sent an email to the deputy minister with «a new proposal of 27N’s conditions». Four days later, without a response from Rojas, they sent another message.

Finally, on January 26th, Rojas asked Font to visit MinCult the next morning together with the other two representatives. From there, the crisis exploded.

Various members of 27N started that Wednesday under police surveillance. Some were detained. Solveig Font managed to arrive for the appointment, as did Camila Lobón after being briefly detained. Shortly thereafter, Yunior García announced that the police would not let him approach. The area had been closed to the public. A dozen people arrived at the ministry, including several independent journalists.

Tremenda Nota broadcast live an argument between the vice minister and the artists. Among those present at that moment were the rapper Maykel Osorbo, one of the hunger strikers of the San Isidro Movement, whom the government considers «mercenaries».

Shortly thereafter, the argument reached its conclusion. When the 27N group refused to leave, demanding the release of all those detained that morning, several officials crossed the street toward them with Minister Alpidio Alonso in the lead.

Mauricio Mendoza, a journalist with Diario de Cuba, held up his cell phone filming the minister’s advance. The minister hit at the phone, knocking it out of his hand.

This act of aggression, which set off further violence against the artists and activists, was transmitted live by various independent media outlets. A video shared on social media captured some of the dramatic details of their arrests.

About twenty people were detained, including those who were intercepted en route and those arrested at the ministry.

The minister’s actions sparked a campaign for his resignation on Facebook and Twitter, featuring hashtags such as #RenunciaAlpidio («ResignAlpidio») and #DimisiónYa («ResignationNow»).

What happened

What happened on January 27th wasn’t supposed to happen. It wasn’t part of anyone’s plan, at least as far as we know. But as always, we don’t know the entire story.

27N maintains that they did not want to demonstrate outside the Ministry of Culture. They’d planned to celebrate the birthday of José Martí in front of the equestrian statue originally designed by Anna Hyatt Huntington for New York City. A replica of the statue was later installed in Old Havana by City Historian Eusebio Leal.

A false Facebook profile operating under the name «Emilio Pagues» published details of this plan, compromising the security of the participants.

«For us to meet at the replica of the Martí statue from New York that we have in Havana, tomorrow morning, so that members of 27N can mess up something we’re achieving, something called areas of personal liberty, is crazy», posted Pagues, who says he is friendly with actors or is himself an actor. No one knows. He has not posted since. He has not left any leads.

Pagues mentioned the project of founding an Actors’ Association and compared «the success of the actors who promote dialogue» with «the culpability of some members of 27N, such as the MSI (San Isidro Movement)». He did not specify what they are culpable of.

«Let’s not meet at 11 AM, nor at any other time, we can find other actions», he concluded.

This Tuesday, as Pagues suggested, ten actors met for five hours with officials from Mincult to convince them to approve the new professional association. The participants have not yet made any public statements about the outcome of that meeting.

Emilio Pagues is a false profile with 226 friends. The post where he mentioned 27N has three likes. Nevertheless, Cuba’s State Security services called various members of the group, telling them that they’d learned of the group’s planned homage to Martí and would not permit it. The group decided to change the site of their event. They agreed on the Vedado neighborhood, the corner of 11th Avenue and 4th Street, near the Ministry of Culture.

The same day that Pagues and the State Security tried to frustrate the artists and activists’ plans, the deputy minister called Solveig Font to inform her he would expect the representatives at about the same time that 27N planned their homage to Martí.

All the pieces began to assemble in Vedado. The minister, Martí, the representatives. The detentions of Camila Lobón and Camila Acosta as they made their way to the statue of Martí, passing the ministry. Lobón was one of the representatives Rojas expected to arrive before noon.

«The members of 27N who managed to reach 11th and 4th went together to a bust of José Martí at the entrace of a building at 15th Avenue and 2nd St. There they conducted the activity they had originally planned for the 13 de Marzo park. Once the activity was finished, they received news of the detention of Camila Acosta and Tania Bruguera and decided to head to MinCult to demand their immediate release», explained the group in its version of what took place.

According to them, the agreement between Solveig, Yunior, Camila, and the deputy minister was never firm; it was nothing more than a pre-agreement and placed them under no obligation. They also say that the attempt to demonstrate was unplanned and that, if they started to gather outside MinCult, this was because there were detentions that morning.

«You cannot be here», Fernando Rojas told them on the sidewalk outside MinCult. The activists asked for guarantees of safety for their detained comrades and refused to enter the building as the deputy minister demanded.

The group of officials descended on them like a squadron.

Mauricio Mendoza is the name of the independent journalist who held up his cell phone before Minister Alpidio Alonso. There was a slap. Shortly after that, all the media cut off their broadcasts. A police operative had checkmated the artists. The few images that remain show how the artists were forced into a bus.

The Minister of Culture tweeted about the incident, referring to it as a «media show». «The workers of the institution confronted them and evicted them from the space», he admitted. No state media outlet has referred to the violent scene, except to justify the minister’s physical blow against a journalist.

That they refused Fernando Rojas’ invitation to enter the building is one of the authorities’ primary accusations against 27N. State media outlets have portrayed a hospitable Vice-Minister, welcoming them in, faced with the artists’ refusal.

«They invited us on the condition that we leave our phones outside, which are the only, literally the only weapon we have to protect ourselves», said the artist Julio Llópiz Casal via Facebook. He explained, «On top of that, we refused to enter until they released everyone who was detained for no reason».

Alfredo Martínez was injured (Photo: Facebook)

What will happen

Like most of those detained that day, Ulises Padrón Suárez, LGBTI+ activist and a collaborator for Tremenda Nota, arrived home with his cell phone reformatted. He took a while to communicate with his friends.

Alfredo Martínez Ramírez, Tremenda Nota’s community manager, arrived home with a broken finger. This Thursday, he go to the hospital for a cast. He’ll wear it for twenty-one days.

«I was broadcasting live when a police office put me in a hold and tried to take away my phone. He bent my finger back, hard, and that’s when it broke», he said.

Nelson Julio Álvarez Mairata, reporter for ADN Cuba and collaborator for Tremenda Nota, arrived home torn to shreds, his clothing ripped, his skin scratched.

«They dragged me even though I didn’t resist», he said. «When I saw how my t-shirt was ripped top to bottom, I felt more queer and I ‘modeled’ for the police».

Mairata is the only journalist in Cuba who identifies as non-binary. They do not have legal residency in Havana. During an interrogation on the street outside MinCult, a police officer ordered Mairata to return to their home province. They will disobey.

The feminist platform YoSíTeCreo en Cuba («IBelieveYou in Cuba», equivalent to MeToo), denounced the violence at MinCult against the women of 27N.

«We particularly regret the aggressions against women like Camila Lobón and Celia González, who were stripped and had their genitals searched, on the pretext of seeking recording devices, at the police station where they were taken», said the group in a statement.

In a post shared by the page of 27N on Facebook, Julio Llópiz Casal said: «I will always try dialogue because that’s what I know how to do and want to do».

Despite the minister’s «slap», the artist insisted that he will not respond with violence nor withdraw his willingness to debate. This appears to be the position of 27N, who will hold a press conference this Friday, January 29th to evaluate the incidents of the past week.

«I feel I’m trying to talk with an entity that’s throwing punches at me, placing traps in my path, and rarely speaking half a word with any transparency», wrote the artist. «I’ll dodge, I’ll protect myself as I can, and go on relying on my words».

Maykel González Vivero

Maykel González Vivero


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