December 10, 2020 at 11:54 am EST | by Yariel Valdés González
The queers of San Isidro
Osmel Adrián Rubio Santos on hunger strike. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Bisquet Rodríguez’s Facebook page)

More than a dozen members of the San Isidro Movement who oppose the Cuban government stood up to the Communist regime for 10 days last month by locking themselves inside a dilapidated house in Old Havana.

Some of the 14 San Isidro Movement members who were protesting their arrests while demanding the release of Daniel Solís, a rebellious rapper who the regime sentenced to eight months in prison for “disrespect,” also went on a hunger and thirst strike. 

A policeman entered Solís’ house and insulted him while he was doing a Facebook Live video in which he expressed his support for President Trump. Solís during his broadcast used homophobic insults which prompted members of Cuba’s LGBTQ community to distance themselves from him. The rapper in the last video he uploaded to his social media networks apologized for his comments.

Solís was convicted without due process, and the San Isidro Movement members consider his incarceration an injustice. His release was their main demand to the government, although they also sought the closure of stores that sell basic products in U.S. dollars, a currency to which the vast majority of Cubans do not have access.

State security agents and police surrounded the house during the 10-day strike, and did not allow anyone inside. They even attacked it one night, destroying part of the front gate.

The police on Nov. 26 forcibly ended the peaceful protest under the pretext of possible exposure to the coronavirus from abroad. Carlos Manuel Alvarez, a journalist who circumvented security and entered the San Isidro Movement’s headquarters to show his solidarity, had arrived from Mexico and authorities said they needed to test him for the coronavirus again.

The activists were brought to police stations after their expulsion, and they remained in custody for hours. Authorities beat them and later released them to their respective homes. San Isidro Movement leader Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, who did not agree to go with a fellow activist, remained in custody.

His whereabouts were unknown for several days, until activists learned he was hospitalized against his will. Otero continued his hunger strike for several more days until he ended it to continue the fight for Solís “and all the brothers imprisoned and abused by this waning regime.

The San Isidro Movement activists remain under state security surveillance.

‘They mess with one of us, they mess with all of us’

Osmel Adrián Rubio Santos, a gay man who is just 18-years-old, joined the San Isidro Movement in September, but he had already begun his fight for human rights on the Communist island.

Rubio told the Washington Blade in an exclusive interview that he joined the movement because he wanted to peacefully protest Solís’ arrest and conviction.

“We say that when they mess with one of us, they mess with all of us,” said Rubio, who added he has never felt discriminated against within the group.

Rubio, like the rest of his counterparts, joined the hunger strike when the police prevented a neighbor from bringing food to the San Isidro Movement headquarters. Authorities later allowed food into the house, but the activists decided to continue their hunger strike as a way to exert more pressure for Solís’ release.

Rubio did not eat anything for three days. He ended the hunger strike due to what he described as his “delicate state of health.” Rubio told the Blade he thought he was going to die when he felt a sharp pain in his liver.

“I was, however, firm in knowing that I was fighting for my freedom and that of my country,” he added.

Rubio said San Isidro Movement members tried to stay positive and maintain a cheerful spirit, despite the constant threats and repression they faced. 

“It was a wonderful few days,” he said. “I could see what a free Cuba would be like, because there were all kinds of people there, from a gay man like me to a Muslim.”

Rubio said government supporters participated in a variety of actions in a desperate attempt to end the protest.

“The first attack we received was one day at 4 in the morning,” he said. “State security went up on the roof to pour acid on us and subsequently poisoned the water in (our) headquarters and in three other houses. They also threw acid under the door in order to suffocate us.”

A neighbor began to break down the house’s door with a hammer after he was unable to get Otero to leave.

“They began to throw several broken bottles at him through the window,” Rubio told the Blade. “Luis Manuel was injured in the face.”

Rubio said their eviction was a dark moment.

“They (the officers) kicked down the door,” he said. “They were state security officers disguised as doctors. They violently attacked us and took each of us out with blows and insults. They then took us to a police station. They kept us in a van for almost three hours and then they took us out one by one, beat us and took us to each of our homes.”

Rubio remains under surveillance 24 hours a day at his home in Havana’s Cotorro neighborhood. State security agents are posted at the door, and they prevent him from leaving. Rubio, for his part, reads to them “The Golden Age,” a children’s book that José Martí, Cuba’s national hero, wrote, and the Bible. 

Rubio’s neighbors have also repudiated him. He sent the Blade a video that shows a crowd walking to the rhythm of a conga drum as they pass in front of his house.

The Cuban government through state-controlled media has also launched a smear campaign against San Isidro Movement members that seeks to present them as U.S.-funded mercenaries.

“As long as we continue to be watched, the fight will continue on social media,” lamented Rubio. “In my case, I cannot fight over the (social media) networks, because the state security blocked my phone and my line.” 

‘The true revolutionaries’

Cubans who live abroad have shown their support for the San Isidro Movement in a variety of ways. 

Demonstrations have taken place in front of embassies on the island and in other countries. They have also happened in D.C., Miami, Mexico City and Madrid, among other cities.

Nonardo Perea, a queer Cuban artist who now lives in exile in Spain, has been a member of the San Isidro Movement since 2018. He has used his art to denounce the dictatorship’s actions against this group of independent activists and used his social media networks to make the movement more visible. 

“Demonstrations have been held in different parts of the city of Madrid, where we have been gathering a group of Cuban men and women who advocate for change in Cuba and in favor of the San Isidro Movement and of Denis Solís’ release,” Perea told the Blade from Madrid. “We will not stop taking actions to somehow create visibility for the Spanish government and the international community.”

He said the San Isidro Movement has helped him to be more creative and allowed him to successfully transition between queer art and political art.

“In some way it has helped me to evolve, to find other ways of making art,” said Perea. “After being part of the movement and having to go into exile, my life is different.” 

“Somehow everything has changed. I can no longer be the same as before,” he added. “Now I can see things more clearly. I already know that those who were supposed to be revolutionaries stopped being so with their bad actions against me. The true revolutionaries are those from San Isidro. The others are henchmen, and they have proven that they can do whatever they want with your life.”

Perea, who considers himself a non-binary person, said he never felt discriminated against within the group because of his sexual orientation or gender identity.

“The group always supported my work, and somehow thanks to them my work had a certain visibility when they invited me to the Bienal 00 (an independent art festival in Havana),” he said. “I must clarify that my work is 100 percent focused on issues of the LGBTIQ community. I don’t think there was any problem with gay issues within the movement. Everyone was and is in favor of freedom, both of expression and of gender.”

Nonardo Perea (Photo courtesy of Nonardo Perea)

Three Spanish MPs have denounced Solís’ imprisonment and have expressed their support for the San Isidro Movement. Republican and Democrat lawmakers in the U.S. have also urged the Cuban government to respect the San Isidro Movement’s demands.

Timothy Zúñiga-Brown, the U.S. Embassy in Havana’s chargé d’affaires, has responded to the San Isidro Movement’s call for economic justice and human rights on the island. The American diplomat in a message assured them that “the world is watching, the international community recognizes their peaceful protest.”

“The Cuban government has a responsibility to respect the human rights of all of its citizens,” said Zúñiga-Brown in a statement the embassy tweeted on Nov. 27.

Zúñiga-Brown in his statement also cited a quote from Nelson Mandela.

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