An artists’ protest in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana, November 27, 2020. Photo: Reynier Leyva Novo

The Right to Have Rights

A new “artivist” movement demands freedom of expression in Cuba.
Coco Fusco Dec 23, 2020

Este artículo está disponible en español.

On November 27, 2020, Cuban artists, writers, and filmmakers carried out an unprecedented protest in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana. A crowd of more than 300 people chanted and waited for 12 hours to pressure officials to open the Ministry’s doors and listen to their demands. At 9:00 p.m., 32 of them were allowed inside for a historic five-hour meeting with officials. The protesters called on the Cuban government to refrain from harassing independent artists, to stop treating dissent as a crime, and to cease its violence against the San Isidro Movement, a group of artists and activists that had staged a hunger strike to protest the arrest and sentencing of a young rapper. Out of that encounter emerged a new “artivist” movement called 27N. I asked several artists—Camila Lobón, Julio Llópiz Casal, Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra, and Reynier Leyva Novo—to speak about the significance of this new movement and the response of the Cuban government to the protests.

Camila Lobón photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Camila Lobón photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Camila Lobón

Coco Fusco: In your opinion, what are the most important aspects of the November 27 protests?

Camila Lobón: I believe the most valuable thing about 27N—beyond the fact that a spontaneous peaceful protest of this magnitude, an event without precedent, occurred at all—was that people with different political views were united by a desire to defend basic rights, such as freedom of expression and the right to dissent without retaliatory harassment. These demands, in effect, express the disagreement of many with the political reality that we live in Cuba.

What do you think of the current situation in Cuba with regard to the 27N movement?

Things are unpredictable at the moment. The government unleashed a media campaign to discredit the very same people who were admitted to the ministry on November 27. Since that night, many of the participants have been surveilled by state security, prevented from leaving their homes, harassed by state security via telephone, or subjected to public acts of repudiation by government loyalists. However, the community that came together that day continues to work together to elaborate upon the demands that were presented on November 27.

What are the artistic projects that have been created by 27N that represent the group’s efforts at raising awareness?

27N group members are using their Facebook and Twitter accounts to chronicle and make visible everything that has happened since the protest. We finally managed to meet in person, after two weeks in which several of us were illegally deprived of freedom of movement and also had our Internet disrupted. We are using online platforms to make ourselves known, get others involved, and to expand our community.

A 27N poster that reads, “This is not a dictatorship”

A 27N poster that reads, “This is not a dictatorship”

Julio Llópiz Casal photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Julio Llópiz Casal photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Julio Llópiz Casal

Coco Fusco: In your opinion, what are the most important aspects of the November 27 protests?

Julio Llópiz Casal: The event was an expression of collective indignation. Everything that happened on that day, from the peaceful nature of the protest to the way the 30 people were elected to enter the ministry to speak to officials, happened in a democratic manner. I personally had never experienced such a democratic event in Cuba before.

What do you think of the current situation in Cuba with regard to the 27N movement?

I would say that the situation is tense but favorable. On the one hand, the state has deployed police and paramilitary operations throughout the city and is trying to argue in official media that what happened was orchestrated by the United States. On the other hand, although the ministry has found every way not to dialogue with the protesters, people are gradually formulating their positions. Dialogue and exchange about necessary change in Cuba is taking place among many people in civil society, above all in the artistic community. That energy is in our environment and is very important.

What are the artistic projects that have been created by 27N that represent the group’s efforts at raising awareness?

We have made short audiovisual documentaries about what has happened and is happening in the wake of the 27N. I have created graphic designs to respond to campaigns that try to portray us as terrorists and mercenaries. In the immediate future, I will create interventions, performances, and videos that relate in one way or another to the possibilities of freedom of expression and respect for difference.

27N logo

27N logo

Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra during his hunger strike, photographed by Katherine Bisquet, 2020

Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra during his hunger strike, photographed by Katherine Bisquet, 2020

Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra

Coco Fusco: In your opinion, what are the most important aspects of the November 27th protests?

Luis Manuel Otero Alacantra: The most important thing about 27N, which in fact did not begin on November 27, was that it was sparked by the anger felt by the San Isidro Movement because of the arrest of Denis Solís, a member of the movement, an artist and musician. Bound up with this were personal sentiments and friendship. In Cuba these values have been lost due to having to live with scarcity and persecution, which cause friendships to fracture. We began a campaign for his release. Either he had to be freed or we die. That sense of friendship spread to other Cubans who, bound by love, admiration, and a commitment to the struggle for justice, came together.

What do you think of the current situation in Cuba with regard to the 27N movement?

Cuban reality is marked by a lack of creativity on the part of the regime, and our people’s lack of representation. 27N represents a creative Cuban society that wishes to exist within Cuba and do something for Cuba, unlike the regime that is becoming increasingly pathetic and frustrated, and offers few solutions to our problems. All the government does is enforce its power through repression, violence, and instilling fears in the citizenry. 27N brings artists together with activists working on animal rights and gender issues. Everyone came together for justice.

What are the artistic projects that have been created by 27N that represent the group’s efforts at raising awareness?

In recent years, art in Cuba has been deployed as an exercise in civic education. This is being done in a country that is very rigid, where the slightest gesture causes everything to explode. Cuba is like a macho man who, because he does not get a medical examination, dies of prostate cancer. Right now, art connects with many people when you do a work about these issues. Art is providing solutions and tools to people.

A 27N poster that reads, “The House Is Not a Dungeon”

A 27N poster that reads, “The House Is Not a Dungeon”

Reynier Leyva Novo and Tania Bruguera, photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Reynier Leyva Novo and Tania Bruguera, photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

Reynier Leyva Novo

Coco Fusco: In your opinion, what are the most important aspects of the November 27th protests?

Reynier Leyva Novo: The most important thing for me is the protest itself. In Cuba there is no culture of protest against the government or outside the state. This civic culture ended, paradoxically, in 1959, when the Cuban Revolution triumphed. The protest emerged as an imagined possibility for Cubans who for decades have been silent or protesting quietly within their homes, so that the Big Brother would not hear them. After the police raid on the headquarters of the San Isidro Movement, people felt deep indignation and decided to take to the street. At first, there were only 30 of us outside the Ministry of Culture, but within a few hours there were more than 300 people united by a common idea: freedom. Freedom of expression, freedom to dissent, freedom of association. That day people began to think differently and turn their thinking into action. It was important that our demands extended beyond the sphere of art. We have civic demands that spoke to our basic rights as citizens, which are the rights of all, not of a privileged minority. Artists and intellectuals in Cuba in the last 60 years have rarely taken on that responsibility.

What do you think of the current situation in Cuba with regard to the 27N movement?

27N definitely opened a door. The government seems destabilized, it seems to be casting stones everywhere, looking for an enemy or misguidedly creating one. The government doesn’t seem to be able to face this historical moment and doesn’t seem to have concrete answers to our demands. Or perhaps they don’t want to have answers, which would be worse. The truth is that people saw the light. It is sad that a government does not listen to the legitimate demands of its citizens. The 27N movement is an energy that lives in many Cubans on and off the island. It is an energy that extends beyond our borders.

What are the artistic projects that have been created by 27N that represent the group’s efforts at raising awareness?

The 30 representatives that were appointed by consensus on the night of the protest to meet with officials at the Ministry of Culture have formed a heterogeneous alliance that seeks to give shape to the spirit of social justice that crystallized on November 27. Since several of the protesters have been harassed by police, we have directed our creative actions toward social networks. Artistic projects are being generated through open calls for people to join from digital platforms. One example is the “video reconstruction” of the 27N, in which people are asked to explain in 40 seconds why they went to the November 27 protest. The idea is to create a collective memory of the demonstration from the participants’ point of view. The San Isidro Movement has invited people to join a collective whistle every night at an appointed time. For another #challenge (#IpayIsavings) people are invited to turn off the television when the National Television Newsletter (NTV) is on to protest the defamation campaign against the protesters, and also in reaction to the steep rise in electricity prices in Cuba. I called from my Instagram and Facebook pages for people to brush their teeth in public with the slogan of #noaladifamasion and #caretakuverb. Another poetic action was carried out by poet Katherine Bisquet and visual artist Camila Lobón. After being subjected to house arrest for 13 days, they painted the following text on a bed sheet—“13 days of deprivation of illegal liberty. We have the right to express ourselves freely”—and hanged it from the top of a building. 27N is creating a fresh and colorful graphic campaign in response to urgent issues such as house arrests, the criminalization of free thought, and the government’s baseless claims that independent creators and journalists work for the CIA. While the government represses with violence, we respond with creativity, intelligence, and culture.

A 27N poster

A 27N poster

A 27N meeting photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020

A 27N meeting photographed by Reynier Leyva Novo, 2020