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Cuban activist's hunger strike hits a nerve in and outside island as social tensions mount

Adriana Brasileiro, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

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.

Cuban television tried to discredit the strike by broadcasting alleged results of Otero Alcántara's medical exams and blood work that showed normal parameters. Memes on Twitter made fun of the artist's hemoglobin count of 16.8 grams per deciliter of blood, considered normal for an adult male.

 

The U.S. Embassy in Cuba pleaded for respect in a post on Twitter: "Like all Cubans, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara must be treated with dignity and respect. We have seen reports that he is in hospital and that his state is stable. We urge the authorities to protect his well being in this difficult moment."

The European Union delegation to Cuba also voiced concern: "We have shared this concern with our Cuban friends and now we hope that he will soon recover his health and can enjoy his rights as a citizen and as an artist."

By late Monday, there was no update on his state.

Otero Alcántara's dramatic protest comes less than six months after another hunger strike by activists and academics led to a rare protest in Havana in which hundreds gathered outside the Ministry of Culture.

The island is struggling as authorities push through painful economic reforms that have sent inflation soaring. Long lines for food and basic necessities have become part of the routine for most Cubans. Trump-era sanctions have reduced access to vital economic lifelines like remittances. Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which seemed to be under control during much of 2020, appears to be a growing threat as case and death numbers continue to rise.

It's no surprise that Cuba's nascent but increasingly vocal social movement is channeling mounting frustration through social media, but it's not clear yet whether Otero Alcántara's hunger strike will ignite the momentum needed for a real transformation, said Ric Herrero, executive director of the Cuba Study Group.

"There are a lot of Cubans protesting, but it's mostly a disjointed movement. There is no leadership, no common vision. There is a lot of energy but it's not being directed to one single objective," he said.

Moreover, the Biden administration has said that Cuba is not a priority for U.S. foreign policy now, he noted. And in Cuba, leadership is more concerned with asserting its power amid the leadership change, with the newly-appointed Díaz-Canel at the helm of the Communist Party.

"We're probably just going to see a continuing downward spiral into chaos and repression," Herrero said.

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