Imprisoned For An Idea with Hamlet Lavastida

Co-Founder of the Cuban dissident San Isidro Movement and recently released political prisoner, Hamlet Lavastida, speaks at the 14th Annual Geneva Summit for Human Rights and Democracy – see quotes below, followed by full prepared remarks.

On speaking out:

“I agreed that I’d stay silent, that I wouldn’t talk about the Cuban government, or about my time in prison. But I’m here today to tell you everything.”

On being an artist in Cuba: 

“Cuban artists & their supporters have faced intimidation & attacks by the authorities for years.”

“You couldn’t hire an artist without the government’s blessing, and artists couldn’t sell their work without permission either. In other words – they can censor absolutely anything they want.”

“Soon, an independent tribunal will summon them and they will suffer. Until that day, I will never stop talking about Cuba. And I will never stop making my art.”

On his imprisonment in Cuba:

“For the next few weeks, they interrogated me every single day. Inside that world, I could see that even though the economy is in shambles and Cuban people are suffering extreme poverty, the Cuban police state has access to all the resources it needs.”

“Sometimes I think I’m still there. When you’re an artist you develop a certain sensibility for sound, music, beauty, horror, terror. Prison is the worst place for a person, and for an artist, even worse.”

“I saw other prisoners losing their minds and at a certain point I started hearing voices too.”

Full Remarks

In September 2021, I was released from prison in Cuba after I signed a statement with my conditions of release. I agreed that I’d stay silent, that I wouldn’t talk about the Cuban government, or about my time in prison.

But I’m here today to tell you everything.

I grew up in Cuba in the 90s, and unlike previous generations, we never romanticized the Cuban revolution. Because we could see it for what it was – brutal corruption. Fidel Castro would always say that we’re his family. But as a kid, I was like “okay, if we’re your family, where’s our food? You gotta provide for us.” Instead, we stood in long lines to buy bread, there was no meat, no oil. The best you could do was one egg. We thought it would be short term, no. 93 passed, then 94, 95, 96, 97. That’s when the Cuban people really lost hope. One of my mom’s friends turned to prostitution to buy food for her family. It was the most shocking thing – I’ll never forgive Cuba for that.

We lived on the West Coast and we could pick up some FM radio stations from the U.S. It’s how I learned English – but it’s also the first time I heard Cuban exiles talking critically about Cuba. Inside Cuba, we understood what was happening, but we never talked about it. It was too dangerous to speak it out loud. Even when we saw thousands of people leaving in rafts.

In 1998, I began studying at the Academy of Fine Art in Havana. I knew it could bring me trouble. But I started doing research on Cuban & Russian propaganda. I started noticing the people who disappeared from history books – the names no longer listed in the captions, the faces missing from a strategically cropped photo. The Revolution has a way of devouring its own children.

Political propaganda & censorship are such integral parts of the Cuban experience that we barely think twice about it. And that’s why I decided to use my art to re-appropriate the language & imagery of their propaganda.

But I knew my art wouldn’t be welcome in the country – so as my career grew, I repeatedly left the country for residencies and exhibitions. I knew, as early as 2003, that the Cuban authorities were surveilling me.

Cuban artists & their supporters have faced intimidation & attacks by the authorities for years. But in 2018, the government issued Decree 349, a new law that prohibited all artists from operating in public or private spaces without prior approval by the Ministry of Culture. You couldn’t hire an artist without the government’s blessing, and artists couldn’t sell their work without permission either.

In other words – they can censor absolutely anything they want.

And we weren’t gonna stand for that. So alongside hundreds of other Cuban artists, musicians, and performers, the 27N movement was born. In April 2021, we wrote & signed a manifesto stating that we want to live in a country that’s inclusive, democratic, sovereign, prosperous, equitable, and transnational. And we demanded political freedoms, economic freedoms, the legalization of independent media, the right to assembly, and the right to collectively organization.

That same month, I debuted a solo exhibition at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien gallery in Berlin that consisted of two large scale installations of paper cutouts. One was a massive transcript of a police interrogation of Cuban photographer Javier Caso in 2020. One was a letter written by Cuban poet Herberto Padilla in 1971 after a brutal 36 days of imprisonment where he was forced to denounce his own work as counterrevolutionary. They were 49 years apart – and yet it seemed like nothing had changed.

When I returned to Cuba on June 20th, they sent me to a quarantine center for 6 days, even though I was vaccinated and had a negative COVID test. When I was released from quarantine, I was arrested immediately and sent to Villa Marista prison.

They accused me of “instigating to commit a crime” because of an idea that I shared with 27N in a private chat to stamp Cuban currency with logos of San Isidro & 27N. That idea never happened – but I was arrested just for thinking it & just for saying it.

For the next few weeks, they interrogated me every single day. Inside that world, I could see that even though the economy is in shambles and Cuban people are suffering extreme poverty, the Cuban police state has access to all the resources it needs.

Then, on July 11th thousands of Cubans took to the streets to protest the government’s handling of COVID-19, the failing economy, and the crackdowns on free speech & peaceful assembly. It was one of the largest demonstrations Cuba had seen in decades. They detained hundreds of peaceful protestors and charged them with crimes like “Public disorder” and “contempt.”

After the protest, my interrogators escalated their threats, suggesting that I could be tried for “instigating rebellion,” which carries a 15 to 20 year prison sentence.

After that first month, I started to think I was moving to prison, that I’d never be released. Sometimes I think I’m still there. When you’re an artist you develop a certain sensibility for sound, music, beauty, horror, terror. Prison is the worst place for a person, and for an artist, even worse.

They held me in a small prison cell with 3 other inmates on the top floor of the security headquarters. They never leave you alone because they knew you could commit suicide. The lights were on 24/7. A TV in the hallway played Cuba television & propaganda all day long. I saw other prisoners losing their minds and at a certain point I started hearing voices too.

In interrogations, they tried to force me to confess – first, saying that I’d taken orders from the U.S. State Department. Then, that I was being managed by secret agents in Poland. I refused.

In early September, I contracted COVID-19 and was sent to the prison infirmary. Then, I learned that the police had made a deal with Katherine to Europe in exile. Because my son lives in Poland, they tried to play it off like I went there voluntarily – but everyone knew it wasn’t true. 20 agents escorted us directly to José Martí airport without saying goodbye to our families. They agreed to extend my Cuban passport for 2 years, but with a warning – if I continue to criticize the government and you try to return, Villa Marista will be waiting for you.

Today, I live in Germany and continue to work for a democratic Cuba. And I believe that’s much closer than you think. The reason the government is acting so strong is that they know they’re losing. That soon, an independent tribunal will summon them and they will suffer. Until that day, I will never stop talking about Cuba. And I will never stop making my art.

Thank you.

Speakers and Participants

Hamlet Lavastida

Cuban artist, former political prisoner, founder of artist-led San Isidro Movement

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