A Cuban dissident's hunger strike is drawing international attention as artists on the island continue to push for greater freedoms, putting the government on the defensive after activists said he was forcibly removed from his home and hospitalized but hasn't been seen or heard from since.
The United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States, among others, have expressed concern about Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara's health, much to the ire of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel.
"It is very shameful to see this concern in the officials of the most powerful nation in the world which viciously condemns more than 11 million Cuban men and women to hunger and scarcity," Diaz-Canel tweeted on Monday, responding to a statement from a high-ranking U.S. State Department official.
Cuban health authorities said Sunday on Twitter that the leader of the San Isidro Movement, a collective of artists protesting against political repression on the island, had been taken to a hospital in Havana due to "voluntary starvation," but that he didn't show any signs of malnutrition and was walking with no difficulty.
Activists questioned the official statement about his health and family members said they have been denied access to him. They demanded proof that he is alive amid concerns that the authoritarian regime might step up harassment of human-rights activists on the island.
"We demand proof of life!" the San Isidro Movement wrote on Twitter. "The Cuban government was capable of committing this flagrant violation of his human rights."
While other Cuban activists have gone on hunger strikes in the past year to protest the regime's increased monitoring and repression of dissidents, Otero Alcántara's case appears to have struck a nerve among officials in and outside Cuba. It comes as the island grapples with a severe economic crisis, mounting social tensions and a generational leadership transition following Raúl Castro's retirement in April.
Julie Chung, acting assistant secretary for the U.S. State Department's Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said on Saturday the U.S. is "extremely concerned about the welfare" of the activist, and urged the Cuban government "to take immediate steps to protect his life and health."
Otero Alcántara began his hunger strike on April 25 to protest a police raid in which his artwork was confiscated and some of it destroyed at his home in the San Isidro neighborhood, according to a video that he shared on social media. The artist wanted the return of his works or a compensation of $500,000 that would be used to repair homes in the community. He also demanded an apology from the authorities, the removal of a police fence around his house and the removal of a state surveillance camera facing his front door.
The strike also followed a raid in mid-April in which the artist was placed under house arrest and repeatedly detained while trying to leave his home, which was surrounded by police, according to the movement.