Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara went out to a busy intersection of Havana, across from Fidel Castro’s socialized ice cream park, the Coppelia, where hundreds of Cubans line up everyday. He stripped down to a g-string — a triangle of blue polka-dotted cloth flapping over his genitals — and a bow tie.
He grinned nervously with a plastic-wrapped rose clasped in his mouth. Then he undulated his body like a reject from a Chippendales tryout, grabbing a pole for support. Scrawled on his torso in white letters were the words “I love you. United for Wifi.” The performance, called “Striptease,” was an ode and wedding anniversary gift to his American, now-ex-wife, back in 2015. Otero began to climb the pole. A woman filming laughed with embarrassment.
As he climbed, his exposed testicles drooped from the thong.
What looked like an adolescent prank carried an important message. When Cuba decided to roll out internet access in public parks instead of private homes, “Striptease” commented on the commodification of connection at the price of intimacy. “It bothered me a lot … how intimacy was broken,” Otero told VICE World News.
More importantly, Otero’s public stunt was the first in a series of performances that would catapult him into the position of the unlikely leader of Cuba’s current dissident movement. He hopes one day his public performances will help lead to freedom in Cuba, a transition to a new government, and “give power to the citizens or the politicians who are capable of running a democracy.”
Political discourse at a public level is controlled by the government, art has become the primary stage for discontent.
Otero, age 32, heads the San Isidro Movement (MSI), a group of dissidents and artists who formed in response to the increased government censorship of art in 2018. He grew up in the marginalized, mostly Black neighborhood of El Cerro with a large family and few resources. He said he had inherent artistic talent at a young age, making sculptures from scraps of wood and cloth, but that his family didn’t have the money to hire private tutors or send him to art school.
Eventually, he became a performer. Like “Striptease,” his pieces hinge on shock value. He dresses in drag, wears the Cuban flag as a cape and attempts to smear himself in feces (though he was arrested before he could.)
In 2016, Otero co-founded the Museum of Dissidence, an art space and bare-bones website that is a wiki-esque rolodex of Cuba’s dissident history which includes Fidel Castro himself. It garnered international fame as well as the contempt of state security.
Otero said the psychological toll of government persecution is challenging. “You can’t plan your life, you can get arrested while having dinner, maybe for two hours, maybe for 24.” His family has been harassed, and he said he has received death threats. Now, he factors arrests into the price of his performances, like a list item in a budget. He’s been to jail over forty times, or maybe fifty — he said he’s lost count.
Otero and MSI staged a hunger strike last November in response to the arrest of Denis Solís, a rapper and supporter of former U.S. President Donald Trump. Eight days later, police disguised in hospital smocks broke up the strike, claiming that they were enforcing COVID-19 safety measures. They barged through two wooden doors at MSI’s Old Havana headquarters and detained everyone present.
Videos of the operation went viral and Cubans were outraged. They turned out to demonstrate. Over 300 people showed up outside the Ministry of Culture in Havana and demanded a meeting with the government. Activists met with officials that night and left with government guarantees for continued dialog. Cubans all over the world rejoiced, watching the spectacle for hours online.
It was an unusual outcome for public protests, which are usually stifled before they can get going. An official response is rare.
But days later, dreams of progress of both the protestors and their supporters were dashed when the Cuban government reneged on its deal. Instead of continuing with the agreed meetings, officials began falling back on tried and tested tactics such as staged, pro-communist demonstrations and calling opposition figures “terrorists” on TV. Many members of MSI were placed on house arrest for weeks.
Cuban artist Tania Bruguera, age 52, acts as a godmother to Havana’s vibrant dissident scene and a bridge between civic activism and art. She has lived in the U.S., where she was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Bruguera said Otero’s blossoming movement came on the back of years of hard work and that November’s events were “just the final drop in the bucket,” she said.
Though Bruguera isn’t part of MSI, she has nurtured its members, many of whom have taken her activism workshops. Otero has taken them all and said he was inspired by her performances to show the realities of Cuban society in his own work.
Now, Bruguera and Otero both say that governmental pressure feeds the beast it hopes to obliterate: rebellion. The official media’s attempts to discredit her via TV character assasination sessions have only made her more popular in Cuba. “Now people know who we are, they stop me and want to take pictures with me on the street,” said Bruguera. Adding to the popularity and singularity of this movement’s impact in recent Cuban history is the presence of social media. It has allowed demonstrators to organize and allowed Cubans to see what they had only heard about before, and feared: confrontations with state security.
Otero and others have published their arrests via live broadcasts online. He said he is fighting for something “like a democracy” but at times his publications become dominated with his arrests or performances like singing and dancing outside his house, seeming to lose any concrete objective. “Most importantly we need to see how we will take power in Cuba… we [the movement] need to acquire maturity and political character quickly,” said Otero. His ideas are still taking shape.
But despite his somewhat blurred objectives, he has gained undying support from intellectuals and fellow artists on the island. A cohort of young Cubans idolize him, even referring to him as a Jesus figure. They think he walks on water through Havana. Among his strictly anti-Castro faithful posse of admirers, a baby cult of personality has formed. And to them, he’s the man.
Otero takes pride in having made his way from humble beginnings to the mainstream. “My work generates empathy for that Black person… that being who is more vulnerable to the system… and more marginalized by the system.” His work launches the experience of being brought up as a Black man in Cuba into the elite spheres of the island’s art scene.
As is often the case, those involved in social movements on the island risk becoming pawns in a decades-long chess game between the U.S. and Cuba.
According to official media, following the protest in November, Culture Minister Alpidio Alonso “confirmed that opportunities for dialogue with young people and artists whose work is not committed to Washington’s [D.C.] interests remain open.” An article in Prensa Latina, the island’s official international media outlet said, the MSI hunger strike showed signs of an attempted coup.
Otero said he has been accused of taking money from the United States. “I apply to grants… that is how I live. I am not a mercenary… [The government] wants to discredit you … and say that you are not autonomous, you are a puppet of the [U.S].” In January Otero said that he was interrogated by state security and accused of working for the U.S. He brushed off the accusations as “out-dated, absurd and reductive.”
“Everyone wants liberty… [it] isn’t something that you need to [be] paid in order to defend,” he said.
The emphasis on U.S. economic impact in Cuba robs Cubans of the agency they’re showing now, according to Michael Bustamante, associate professor of Latin Studies at Florida International University in Miami. “There are people arguing that ‘these are signs that our [economic embargo] strategy of provoking unrest is working so we need to not let up’,” said Bustamante. “I think that is a fallacy.”
Something new is around the corner in Cuba, said Bustamante. The events of November brought different opposition groups together for the first time, and now “voices coming out of Cuba defy easy binaries of Left and Right that we inherited from the Cold War.” There is a united front “demanding rights. Period,” he said.
It may be confusing at first to understand how a resistance movement was built on the arrest of Solís, who’s Facebook page is full of pro-Trump posts. Otero said being a Trump supporter means something else in Cuba, “[Solís] is a young artist with little information really, and if someone tells you they are going to topple the regime… and that person is Trump, and [Solís] believes in that propaganda mostly from from Miami… you’re going to believe in that person.”
Bruguera echoes Bustamante’s sentiment that this is “the first time a dissident movement is also a Leftist movement … [the Cuban government] doesn’t know what to do with this,” she said. Though dissidents may need to work harder to rise above the polarizing politics of south Florida, Bruguera and Otero share the conviction that any tectonic shift towards democracy in Cuba must come from within.
As recently as late January, another peaceful protest at the Ministry of Culture was met with an aggressive government response. When Otero left his house to join, he was arrested before he could cross the street. Two days later, he live-streamed from his house saying “I’m going to the capitol [building], they aren’t going to let me get there, but I’ll keep going back.” The video ends as he is being frisked by a uniformed police officer.
Both Bruguera and Otero plan to stay in Cuba and continue fighting. They say small protests have broken out among fishermen, and even in a state-run convalescent home, that there is momentum. “It’s the frustration of my generation – [a generation] that needs to see change,” said Otero.
“Cuba is in its worst economic crisis in 30 years,” said Bustamante. But, even to the everyday Cuban usually too busy putting food on the table to care, the MSI has become a household name.
The new revolution of young rebels forming in Cuba isn’t armed with machine guns this time. Instead, they’re bringing poetry, literature, art and their smartphones. And they’re being inspired by Otero’s nothing-to-lose bravado and what he showed the world on his makeshift stripper-pole in 2015 – his balls.