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Artists Gather For Rare Act Of Defiance Against Cuban Regime

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Artists and activists achieved something rare in Cuba. They held a peaceful protest. At first, it seemed the communist government would consider their demands for greater freedom of expression. NPR's Carrie Kahn reports on what happened next.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Agents from Cuba's security forces showed up at the house of Tania Bruguera earlier this week. Among the accusations they made against the renowned performance artist - that she is destabilizing Cuba.

TANIA BRUGUERA: That I was creating subversion in the whole country, which is completely insane...

KAHN: And the outspoken 52-year-old activist tells NPR from Havana that agents also accused her of taking orders from the U.S. State Department.

BRUGUERA: Which is stupid - the people who know me, they know I don't do that.

KAHN: What Bruguera does do, along with other artists, is speak out about routine government censorship and the harassment of Cuban artists. That activism came to a head last weekend when hundreds gathered in front of the Ministry of Culture in Havana.

(APPLAUSE, WHISTLING)

KAHN: It was a rare show of defiance in Cuba and was followed by another unusual move - ministry officials agreed to meet with the protesters. Thirty went in. Hours later, the artists emerged with a promise the ministry would address their demands.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

YUNIOR DIEGO: (Speaking Spanish).

(APPLAUSE)

KAHN: Theater artist Yunior Diego told the crowd, "What has occurred today is historic."

The large protest was sparked by the arrest of 14 dissident artists and activists, members of a collective known as the San Isidro Movement. The group sprung up after the government further tightened artistic expression by enacting Decree 3-49 and prompting this video by local rappers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "#DECRETO349 NO ESTAMOS DE ACUERDO")

EL ANALISTA: (Rapping in Spanish).

KAHN: Cuban rapper The Analyst sings, "We don't agree with Decree 3-49." That protest song was recorded two years ago. This round of protest against censorship is much larger now that internationally recognized Cuban artists are joining in, says Cuba expert Ted Henken of Baruch College.

TED HENKEN: That kind of contagion is what the government most fears.

KAHN: Within hours of last weekend's protest, government officials changed course, calling the protesters pawns of the U.S., part of a CIA plot, subversives. Cuba's president, Miguel Diaz-Canel, tweeted, the San Isidro movement was nothing more than a reality show created by U.S. imperialists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT MIGUEL DIAZ-CANEL: (Speaking Spanish).

KAHN: "We will not allow meddling from the north," he told a crowd of government supporters.

Talks between the government and protesters were initially planned for this week, but none have been scheduled. And that conflict puts the incoming Biden administration in a difficult spot. The president-elect has already promised to reverse Trump administration sanctions against the Cuban regime. However, that shouldn't be seen as approval of the regime's human rights record, says University of California at San Diego professor Richard Feinberg.

RICHARD FEINBERG: But on the contrary, that by lifting certain sanctions, that will increase U.S. influence on the island. And taking the long view, that's in the U.S. national interest.

KAHN: Protestor and artist Tania Bruguera says despite the threats, she will continue demanding greater freedoms in Cuba.

BRUGUERA: I'm not scared. I am furious. I am furious.

KAHN: She says she will continue to protest respectfully but never back down.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Carrie Kahn on NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.