Fabiola Santiago

His message: ‘The flag belongs to everyone.’ The Cuban regime jailed him for it | Opinion

This says more about today’s Cuba than any words Uncle Bernie and his choir of young believers can spin.

Making independent art is officially a crime in Cuba.

So is putting the Cuban flag to creative uses.

Cuban performance artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, 32, tested the laws.

In one of the more daring photographs, Otero is brushing his teeth bare-chested with the Cuban flag wrapped around his torso like a towel.

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In another, he’s sitting on the toilet with shorts bearing the American flag down around his ankles, the Cuban flag draping his shoulders.

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And there’s more: flag as scarf, beach towel — and most importantly, object to liberate.

“My second skin,” Otero calls the Cuban flag in an Instagram post about his performance art project, “The Flag Belongs to Everyone,” which has landed him in a Cuban jail.


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This time, with more repercussions than the usual beating.

Under new censorship laws designed to limit the use of the flag and to quash dissenting speech, he’s facing a two- to five-year sentence for a charge of defacing property and disrespecting national symbols. His trial, scheduled to begin Wednesday but suddenly suspended late Tuesday, is already making history.

His case — coupled with the constant harassment and arbitrary arrests of the last two years — is seen as a test of who controls arts and culture in a post-Castro Cuba.

And, it’s also bringing to the forefront race and class divides that Americans often negate, or overlook, in favor of the cliché that the revolution improved life for Afro-Cubans.

The independent, self-taught artist lives in one of Havana’s poorest, predominantly black neighborhoods, El Cerro. His raw, unfiltered work and social media presence directly put out there his reality and the government’s shortcomings.

To call him a dissident artist is an understatement.

After three girls walking home from school were killed when a building’s balcony collapsed in Old Havana, Otero designed a set of child-like hardhats in primary colors. For the children in Cuba to use for survival, he explained. He sent his work to the Ministry of Education, and he went around Havana, wearing a blue hardhat painted with the word “ derrumbe” (collapse), reminding Cubans of the deaths.

He also posted on Instagram a video of his own collapsed bedroom wall.

“By luck or destiny, I had gotten up early and wasn’t there sleeping,” he said.

American flag performance

Last year, he was arrested for staging a performance in his neighborhood in which he and another black young man ran through the streets with the American flag as wings.

It was captured on video.

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“I like going to the extreme to make people think,” Otero says in a powerful photo documentary of his work done by curator Catherine Sicot.

For him, the government’s wave of repression against journalists, artists and video gamers is a thing to protest, resist, not accept like too many do.

People have come to admire his guts and respect him as one of the leaders of the San Isidro Movement, formed in opposition to the constitutional Decree 349, approved in 2018, which criminalizes art not acceptable to the government.

The breadth of the opposition to Otero’s arrest and looming sentence — the calls for his freedom from inside Cuba and around the world multiplying on the internet — are unprecedented in that they have blurred political lines.

Among the critics of his incarceration is troubadour Silvio Rodríguez, one of the island’s most well-known musicians and, until now, an unconditional apologist for the dictatorship.

Otero’s friends and supporters have started a “Free Luisma” campaign using his nickname and have framed their Facebook profile pictures with a Cuban flag made out of black prison-like bars.

Race and class issues

Some of the most eloquent support is coming from the art world.

Cuban art historian Suset Sánchez, who lives in Madrid, questions, in an article about Otero’s trajectory in the blog Ultimo Maudit, if this would be happening to him if he weren’t poor and black.

“If he hadn’t grown up in El Cerro but in a big house in Miramar or Vedado; if his parents belonged to the select group of politicians, military, artists, or intellectuals recognized by the regime,” she writes.

Would the Ministry of Culture be turning its back instead of intervening on his behalf with state security, she asks, if he were one of the descendants of prestigious music and arts personalities of 20th-century Cuba?

“If his blackness didn’t exist, would the police harassment to which he’s permanently subjected be the same?” she argues. “Or if Luis Manuel had sufficient money and social status that would allow him the licenses vetoed for the rest of the population? And, if all those conditions where class and color do matter and place a value on human life were different, in the case of Luis Manuel Otero, where would his body be?”

The answers are self-evident and expose a Cuba the American left refuses to acknowledge.

Perhaps civil rights activist the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who in the past obtained political prisoner releases from Fidel Castro, and now has endorsed Bernie Sanders, can team up with the Democratic presidential candidate, who has also been endorsed by Cuba.

The two should ask leaders Raúl Castro and Miguel Díaz-Canel not only for Otero’s freedom, but for that of all Cuban art and artists.

They’ve been chained by officialdom long enough.

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