Cuban dissidents gather at Summit of the Americas in L.A.
It took two Cuban intelligence officers to carry art historian and activist Carolina Barrero, her hands and feet cuffed, from the protest she was staging this year outside the Culture Ministry in Havana.
“Libertad!” bystanders shouted. “Freedom!”
Barrero, 35, said she has been repeatedly threatened with expulsion, imprisonment and torture due to her activism and involvement in demonstrations against the Cuban government. She spent six months last year under house arrest in her Old Havana residence, with police outside her front door around the clock.
Cuban authorities have tried to intimidate her associates and friends, she said. Believing that her fellow protesters, many of them mothers with children in prison, would be punished if she did not leave the country, Barrero in February abandoned her homeland of Cuba and has been living in Spain.
Cuba’s treatment of dissidents such as Barrero is one of the reasons the country was not invited to the Summit of the Americas taking place this week in Los Angeles. Nicaragua and Venezuela, which the Biden administration has cast as undemocratic dictatorships, have also been left out of the event.
The countries’ leaders are not here, but their many vocal opponents are — among them artists, journalists and activists. Their appearance in Los Angeles for the summit coincides with “a new spirit of solidarity” in Cuba, Barrero said, noting that regular demonstrations in her home country have come to include not just elites or artists but common folk.
There has been “a catalyst, an avalanche of protest,” she said. “What began as something about artistic freedom quickly grew to civil rights and inspired an antigovernment movement.”
Barrero said the Cuban government, run for the first time in decades by someone not named Castro, has taken a dark turn, possibly fearful of a weakening in its ironclad power and control over the populace.
As an art historian who curates exhibitions around the world, Barrero felt the pressure affecting her life and livelihood in early 2018, she said. In one of his first actions, the new president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, the handpicked successor to former President Raúl Castro, instituted a law that critics say censored dissent and artistic expression. Among other things, it would require artists to be licensed by the government.
In just the last week, two artists, including a rapper who wrote a sardonic “anthem” for the protest movement that plays on old Cuban revolutionary slogans, were convicted of speech crimes. They are awaiting sentencing.
“The regime is trying to stamp out creativity itself,” Barrero said in Spanish.
Since then, dissidents say, Cubans protesting almost anything, whether political repression or food shortages, risk arrest and long prison sentences. Some of Barrero’s colleagues, including people under 21, have been given sentences of up to two decades, without a fair trial or legitimate defense, she said.
The crescendo came July 11, 2021, when thousands of Cubans poured into the streets to demonstrate against political repression, hunger and the COVID-19 response. Havana alleged that U.S. destabilizing forces were responsible for fomenting the unrest, which was an unprecedented show of public discontent. Authorities responded by arresting hundreds of people.
Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment but have said those who were arrested disrupted public order.
Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla said the country’s exclusion from the Summit of the Americas revealed the event’s flaws. The summit is “a neoliberal failure” that “disconnects” the U.S. from Latin America, Rodríguez said on Twitter.
Closing the door to Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua triggered a boycott of the summit by other leaders, most significantly Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who sent his foreign minister instead, undermining the overall substance of the event and further calling into question U.S. influence in the region.
Barrero said she does not agree with those who say it would have been better to invite the shunned governments and use the forum to chastise them or demand reform, adding that “it is naive” to think the power of persuasion will change Cuba’s actions. Plus, she said, Havana’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should disqualify it from joining a Western Hemisphere gathering that supports democracy and national sovereignty.
“You cannot have a system of sanctions against Russia, then give a hand to Russia’s war allies,” she said. “It makes no sense.”
Nicaragua’s dissidents are living a similar experience to their counterparts from Cuba, perhaps made more difficult because the country underwent a period of democracy following revolution, war and U.S.-sponsored efforts to overthrow the government.
Daniel Ortega, one of the leaders of the movement to free Nicaragua from dictatorship in the 1970s, was elected president in 2007, and he proceeded to move the levers of government to keep himself in power indefinitely. In recent years, he has jailed his political opponents, journalists and others who have dared to speak up.
“It is not a dictatorship; it is a mafia,” said Enrique Saenz, an economist and fierce critic of the Ortega government, 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 eastern coast and has fought to preserve its culture and political freedom.
The Ortega government is “trying to destroy everything attached to our identity,” she added.
Venezuela is a special case because the United States has actively supported an alternative government, saying 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.
Defending the State Department’s decisions on whom to invite, spokesman Ned Price said organizers worked to include all voices.
“We will engage in direct dialogues with stakeholders on the margins of the summit, including with citizens from Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua, as we work to realize a more equitable, democratic and prosperous hemisphere,” Price said.
Barrero, who was overseeing a display of artwork by Cuban and Venezuelan artists at a gallery in downtown Los Angeles, is using the summit to spread the word of her plight and those of her fellow nationals.
One strategy of authoritarians like Ortega and Díaz-Canel is to drive out of the country those with different, progressive viewpoints — which appears to be working. But Barrero remains optimistic.
“The one thing I know in my life to be true is I will return to Cuba,” she said.