After Three Months in Prison, Cuban Artist Forced Into Exile

Cuban artist Hamlet Lavastida, who has been in prison in Havana for the last three months, has been forcibly exiled to Poland with his partner, writer Katherine Bisquet. On June 26, Lavastida was detained upon his return from a residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin, imprisoned at the maximum-security Villa Marista facility on charges of “instigation to commit a crime” for discussing an unrealized artistic project in a private chat group.

Lavastida has now been freed “in exchange for our exile,” says a letter from Bisquet published yesterday in El Estornudo. “We have taken the precaution of making our situation public at this point out of concern for our personal safety.” Lavastida, who is the father of a Polish citizen and thus legally permitted to leave Cuba with his European visa, was released only on the condition of Bisquet’s extradition.

On Saturday, officials transferred Lavastida directly from the prison to José Martí Airport in Havana “with his head between his legs,” Bisquet says. Her family was not allowed to see her off before the couple boarded a flight to Warsaw. During the 90 days of Lavastida’s detainment, Bisquet adds, she was under house arrest and experienced constant harassment from state police, including blackmail and “psychological torture” to which friends and relatives of the artist were also subjected.

“There is no justification here that can even minimally disguise the macabre plan that the state has exercised over our lives,” she says.

The couple’s banishment is only the latest in a troubling pattern of state persecution of dissidents in Cuba, including artists, journalists, and intellectuals. They are regularly detained on vague charges linked to their participation in public protests and other forms of peaceful anti-government activism. Lavastida was arrested after authorities accessed Telegram messages in which the artist suggested stamping Cuban bank notes with the logos of 27N and the Movimiento San Isidro (MSI), two movements fighting for freedom of expression on the island.

Protesters in Washington, DC stand in solidarity with demonstrators in Cuba this summer. (photo by @4strs, courtesy of @Cuba.SOS)

This summer, Cuban people took to the streets in massive numbers to protest President Díaz-Canel’s government and poor living conditions worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. During the demonstrations, the largest on the island in nearly three decades, state police detained countless participants, many of whom have yet to be released. Among them were artist Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, a frequent target of Cuban authorities, and photographer Anyelo Troya, who collaborated on the music video for the hip-hop song “Patria y Vida” that has become a rallying cry for Cuban liberation.

The human rights organization Amnesty International included Lavastida and Alcántara on a list of six prisoners of conscience, “a symbolic gesture to the many hundreds more who likely deserve the designation.” Also named are rapper Maykel Castillo Pérez; activist José Daniel Ferrer García; journalist Esteban Rodríguez; and activist Thais Mailén Franco Benítez.

Bisquet estimates that “more than 800 people” are currently imprisoned or disappeared for peacefully demonstrating in Cuba.

“In the last few months something has changed. The people have expressed the will to change things. Today those Cubans are saving me and saving themselves,” she writes in her letter.

“Very soon, and after a brief recovery, we will be giving our testimonies. Nothing will go unpunished,” she continues. “Every act of repression and every humiliation against our lives will be translated into an important part of my literature. Every detail, every word, every gesture, every body.”

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