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 tied, from the protest she staged outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana earlier this year.

“Libertad!” Bystanders shouted. “Freedom!”

Barrero, 35, said she had been repeatedly threatened with deportation, imprisonment and torture for her activism and involvement in anti-Cuba government demonstrations. She spent six months last year under house arrest at her residence in Old Havana with police on her doorstep 24 hours a day.

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 left her native Cuba in February and has lived in Spain ever since.

Cuba’s treatment of dissidents like Barrero is one of the reasons the country was not invited to the Americas Summit
takes place this week in Los Angeles. Nicaragua and Venezuela cast by the Biden administration
as undemocratic dictatorships, have also been left out.

The countries’ leaders are not here, but their many vocal opponents – including artists, journalists and activists – are here. Her 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 now include not just elites or artists, but ordinary people as well.

There was “a catalyst, an avalanche of protest,” she said. “What began as artistic liberty quickly evolved into civil rights and inspired an anti-government movement.”

Barrero said the Cuban government, led for the first time in decades by someone not named Castro, has taken a dark turn, possibly fearing a weakening of its ironclad power and control over the people.

As an art historian who curates exhibitions around the world, Barrero felt the pressures affecting her life and livelihood in early 2018, she said. In one of his first moves, new President Miguel Díaz-Canel, the handpicked successor to former President Raúl Castro, introduced a law that critics say censors dissent and artistic expression. Among other things, artists would have to be licensed by the government.

People in an art gallery

Visitors to the politically themed ‘No Nos Sirve De Nada El Miedo’ art exhibit at the Gloria Delson Gallery in downtown Los Angeles.

(Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Just last week, two artists, including a rapper who wrote a smug “hymn” for the protest movement that alludes to old Cuban revolutionary slogans, were convicted of crimes of speech. They’re awaiting sentencing.

“The regime is trying to eradicate creativity itself,” Barrero said in Spanish.

Since then, dissidents say, Cubans have protested almost everything from political repression to food shortages, risking arrest and lengthy prison terms. Some of Barrero’s colleagues, including those under the age of 21, have been sentenced to prison terms of up to two decades 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 protest against political repression, hunger and the response to COVID-19. Havana claimed that US destabilizing forces were responsible for fomenting the unrest in what was an unprecedented display of public discontent. Authorities responded by arresting hundreds of people.

Cuban officials did not respond to requests for comment but said those arrested disturbed public order.

Cuban Foreign Minister Bruno Rodríguez Parrilla said the country’s exclusion from the Americas Summit exposed the event’s shortcomings. The summit was “a neoliberal failure” that “separates the US from Latin America,” Rodríguez said on Twitter.

The closing of 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, undermining the overall substance of the event and the impact of the United States continued to question 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 chastise them or call for reform, adding that “it’s naïve” to believe that persuasion will change Cuba’s actions. Also, she said, Havana’s support for Russia’s invasion of Ukraine should prevent it from attending a western hemisphere gathering that supports democracy and national sovereignty.

“You cannot have a system of sanctions against Russia and then give a hand to Russia’s wartime allies,” she said. “That makes no sense.”

Nicaragua’s dissidents are having a similar experience to their Cuban counterparts, perhaps made more difficult because the country has been going through a period of democracy following 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 manipulated government levers to hold himself in power indefinitely. In recent years he has imprisoned his political opponents, journalists and others who have dared to speak out.

“It’s not a dictatorship; it’s a mafia,” said Enrique Saenz, an economist and harsh 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 fighting to restore democracy,” said Daisy George West, a member of Nicaragua’s Miskito community, a minority living on the country’s east coast who have fought to preserve their culture and political freedom.

The Ortega administration “is trying to destroy everything associated with our identity,” she added.

Venezuela is a special case because the United States has actively supported an alternative government and says President Nicolás Maduro is not a legitimate leader. Instead, Washington recognizes opposition leader Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s rightful ruler, but chooses not to invite him to the summit.

Spokesman Ned Price defended the State Department’s decisions on who to invite and said organizers were working to include all voices.

“We will engage in direct dialogues with stakeholders on the sidelines of the summit, including citizens of Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua as we work to create a more just, democratic and prosperous hemisphere,” Price said.

Barrero, who oversaw an exhibition of artworks by Cuban and Venezuelan artists at a downtown Los Angeles gallery, is using the summit to publicize her plight and that of her countrymen.

One strategy pursued by authoritarians like Ortega and Díaz-Canel is to drive those with different, progressive views out of the country – which seems to be working. But Barrero remains optimistic.

“The only thing I know in my life that is true is that I will return to Cuba,” she said. Cuban dissidents gather at Summit of the Americas in L.A.

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