What is the San Isidro Movement, posing a stiff challenge to Cuba’s authoritarian regime?

In Cuba, a country under an authoritarian communist regime for more than six decades, a campaign by artists and activists demanding greater freedom of expression is fast grabbing the limelight.

The Movimiento San Isidro, or the San Isidro Movement (MSI), started two years ago to protest state censorship of artistic works, and has now become a platform for Cuban dissidents both within and outside the Caribbean nation.

The country’s president, Miguel Díaz-Canel, has called MSI “an imperialist reality show to destroy our identity & subjugate us again”, calling for it to be “crushed.”

The movement started in September 2018, when the Cuban government sought to enforce Decree 349, a law that would have given powers to the nation’s Culture Ministry to restrict cultural activity it did not approve of. To protest against the decree, artists, poets, journalists and activists gathered in San Isidro, a Black-majority locality that is among Havana’s poorest yet most culturally active wards, and which also forms part of the Old Havana UNESCO World Heritage Site.

What gave crucial firepower to the movement was a landmark 2015 deal between Cuba and the US, one of whose provisions stipulated that the Cuban regime should allow its people greater internet freedoms in exchange for opening bilateral relations with Washington. Thus, the protesters managed to connect and amplify their message over the internet with relative ease, in a country where the government controls all modes of communication, and where no political opposition has been permitted.

So, when the MSI demonstrated outside Cuba’s parliament against the controversial censorship measure, the government–which is usually known to swiftly crush any form of dissent– was forced to heed to public sentiment, and agreed to suspend the decree’s enforcement.

On November 9 this year, a member of the MSI, Afro-Cuban rapper Denis Solís, was arrested by the police. This caused a furore as Solís livestreamed the arrest on Facebook from his mobile phone, recording a police officer entering his house without permission. Two days later, he was sentenced to eight months in prison for “contempt”, and was sent to a maximum-security facility outside Havana, where he remains incarcerated.

MSI members then began a hunger-and-thirst strike, locking themselves inside their San Isidro headquarters. The strike continued until November 26, when government agents broke down the apartment’s door and arrested the 14 people inside. The officers were dressed in medical gowns, and gave the pretext that one of the protesting MSI members, a journalist, had broken Covid-19 protocols. These arrests too were recorded on cell phones and posted on social media networks. For an hour after the raid, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram went down all over the country, as per The Economist.

A day later, in a rare show of defiance, around 300 protesters, both supporters of MSI and those from other movements, demonstrated outside the Culture Ministry, demanding dialogue with its vice-minister, who ended up holding a meeting with them for five hours. Security forces, both in plainclothes and in uniform, surrounded the protesters. Some of the officers shouted communist propaganda slogans at them, while others clicked pictures and recorded videos of the protesters.

Days after Solís was arrested, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed support for the MSI, saying, “We urge the Cuban regime to cease harassment of San Isidro Movement protestors and to release musician Denis Solís, who was unjustly sentenced to eight months in prison. Freedom of expression is a human right. The United States stands with Cuba’s people.”

After the November 26 crackdown, the Netherlands and the Czech Republic voiced concern for human rights in Cuba, as did various human rights groups, such as Amnesty International.

The Cuban leadership has continued to criticise the MSI, calling it an agent of “Yankee imperialism,” unwittingly increasing its popularity around the world. The Cuban government did, however, release a political dissident, Silverio Portal Contreras, on December 1 to allay public anger.

In many countries, members of the Cuban diaspora continue to hold rallies in support of the movement.

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