It took two Cuban intelligence officers to carry art historian and activist Carolina Barrero, hand and foot, from the protest she staged this year outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana.
“Liberty City!” shouted bystanders. “Freedom!”
Barrero, 35, said she has been repeatedly threatened with deportation, imprisonment and torture for her activism and involvement in demonstrations against the Cuban government. Last year, she was under house arrest for six months in her Old Havana home, with police at her front door around the clock.
Cuban authorities have tried to intimidate her associates and friends, she said. Believing that her fellow protesters, including many mothers with children in prison, would be punished if she did not leave the country, Barrero left her home country of Cuba in February and has now moved to Spain.
Cuba’s treatment of dissidents like Barrero is one of the reasons why the country was not invited to the Summit of the Americas
takes place this week in Los Angeles. Nicaragua and Venezuela, which the Biden administration issued
as undemocratic dictatorships, have also been left out of the event.
The leaders of the countries are not there, but their many vocal opponents are – including artists, journalists and activists. Their performance in Los Angeles for the summit coincides with “a new spirit of solidarity” in Cuba, Barrero said, noting that not only elites or artists, but also ordinary people participate in regular demonstrations in her home country.
There has been “a catalyst, an avalanche of protest,” she said. “What started out as something about artistic freedom soon grew into civil rights and inspired an anti-government movement.”
Barrero said the Cuban government, led for the first time in decades by someone not called Castro, has taken a dark turn, possibly fearing a weakening of its ironclad power and control over the population.
An art historian curating exhibitions around the world, Barrero felt the pressures affecting her life and livelihood in early 2018, she said. In one of his first actions, the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, the hand-picked successor to former President Raúl Castro, introduced a law that critics say would censored dissent and artistic expression. Among other things, it would require artists to have a license from the government.
In just the past week, two artists, including a rapper who wrote a sardonic “hymn” for the protest movement that plays on old Cuban revolutionary slogans, were convicted of speech crimes. They are waiting for a conviction.
“The regime is trying to eradicate creativity itself,” Barrero said in Spanish.
Since then, dissidents say, Cubans who protest almost anything, whether it be political repression or food shortages, risk arrest and long prison terms. Some of Barrero’s colleagues, including those under 21, have received sentences of up to 20 years, without a fair trial or legitimate defense, she said.
The crescendo came on July 11, 2021, as thousands of Cubans took to the streets to demonstrate against political repression, hunger and the COVID-19 response. Havana claimed US destabilizing forces were responsible for fueling the unrest, demonstrating unprecedented public discontent. The authorities responded by arresting hundreds of people.
Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment, but said those arrested were disturbing public order.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla said the country’s exclusion from the Summit of the Americas exposed the event’s flaws. The summit is “a neoliberal failure” that “decouples” the US from Latin America, Rodríguez said on Twitter.
Closing the door to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua prompted a boycott of the summit by other leaders, most notably Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who sent his foreign minister instead, reducing the overall content of the event. was undermined and American influence in the region.
Barrero said she disagrees with those who say it would have been better to invite the shunned governments and use the forum to punish them or demand reform, adding that “it is naive” to think that the power of persuasion will change Cuba’s actions. In addition, she said, Havana’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should disqualify the country from participating in a Western Hemisphere rally that supports democracy and national sovereignty.
“You cannot have a system of sanctions against Russia and then lend the Russian war allies a hand,” she said. “It does not make any sense.”
Nicaragua’s dissidents are living a similar experience to their Cuban counterparts, perhaps made more difficult because the country went through a period of democracy after revolution, war and US-backed attempts to overthrow the government.
Daniel Ortega, one of the leaders of the movement to liberate Nicaragua from dictatorship in the 1970s, was elected president in 2007 and he set the levers of the government in motion to keep himself in power indefinitely. In recent years, he has jailed his political opponents, journalists and others who dared to speak out.
“It is not a dictatorship; it’s a mafia,” said Enrique Saenz, an economist and fierce critic of the Ortega administration, echoing others who say the Nicaraguan president has abandoned ideology and is using his seat of power for self-enrichment.
“We are struggling to restore democracy,” said Daisy George West, a member of Nicaragua’s Miskito community, a minority group that lives on the country’s east coast and has fought to preserve its culture and political freedom.
Ortega’s government is “trying to destroy everything tied to our identity,” she added.
Venezuela is a special case because the United States has actively supported an alternative government, saying that President Nicolás Maduro is not a legitimate leader. Instead, Washington recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful ruler, but decided not to invite him to the summit.
Spokesperson Ned Price defended the State Department’s decisions about who to invite.
“We will engage directly with stakeholders on the fringes of the summit, including with citizens from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, as we work towards a more just, democratic and prosperous hemisphere,” Price said.
Barrero, who oversaw an exhibition of artwork by Cuban and Venezuelan artists at a downtown Los Angeles gallery, uses the summit to spread her plight and that of her compatriots.
A strategy of authoritarians like Ortega and Díaz-Canel is to drive people with different, progressive views out of the country – which seems to be working. But Barrero remains optimistic.
“All I know in my life to be true is that I will return to Cuba,” she said.