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Cuban activist hunger strike hits a nerve inside and outside the island as social tensions escalate

A Cuban dissident’s hunger strike attracts international attention as artists on the island continue to push for greater freedoms, putting the government on the defensive after activists say it was forcibly evicted from his home and hospitalized but had not been seen or heard from since.

The United States, the European Union and the Organization of American States, among others, have expressed concern about the health of Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara, much to the anger of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel.

“It is very shameful to see this concern among officials of the most powerful nation in the world which viciously condemns more than 11 million Cuban men and women to hunger and scarcity,” Diaz-Canel tweeted on Monday, responding to a statement from a senior US State Department official.

Cuban health officials said on Twitter on Sunday that the leader of the San Isidro movement, an artists’ collective protesting against political repression on the island, had been taken in a Havana hospital for “voluntary starvation”, but showed no signs of malnutrition and walked without difficulty.

Activists questioned the official statement about his health and members of his family said they were denied access to him. They demanded proof that he is alive, fearing the authoritarian regime will intensify harassment of human rights activists on the island.

“We demand proof of life!” wrote the San Isidro movement on Twitter. “The Cuban government was capable of committing this blatant violation of its human rights.”

While other Cuban activists have gone on hunger strikes over the past year to protest the regime’s increased surveillance and crackdown on dissidents, the case of Otero Alcántara appears to have struck a chord among politicians. responsible in Cuba and abroad. It comes as the island grapples with a severe economic crisis, growing social tensions and a generational leadership transition following Raúl Castro’s retirement in April.

Julie Chung, acting deputy secretary of the US State Department’s Office of Western Hemisphere Affairs, said on Saturday that the United States was “extremely concerned for the welfare” of the activist, and urged the Cuban government “to take immediate action to protect his life and health. . “

Otero Alcántara began his hunger strike on April 25 to protest a police raid in which his works of art were confiscated and part destroyed at his home in the San Isidro neighborhood, according to a video he said. shared on social networks. The artist wanted the return of his works or a compensation of $ 500,000 which would be used to repair houses in the community. He also demanded an apology from authorities, the removal of a police fence around his house and the removal of a state surveillance camera in front of his front door.

The strike also followed a raid in mid-April in which the artist was placed under house arrest and detained several times as he attempted to leave his home, which was surrounded by police, according to the movement.

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Cuban television attempted to discredit the strike by broadcasting the alleged results of Otero Alcántara’s medical examinations and blood tests which showed normal parameters. Memes on Twitter mocked the artist’s hemoglobin level of 16.8 grams per deciliter of blood, considered normal for an adult male.

The US Embassy in Cuba pleaded for respect in a Twitter post: “Like all Cubans, Luis Manuel Otero Alcántara should be treated with dignity and respect. We have seen reports that he is hospitalized and his condition is stable. We urge the authorities to protect his well-being at this difficult time. “

The delegation of the European Union to Cuba also expressed its concern: “We have shared this concern with our Cuban friends and we now hope that he will soon regain his health and be able to enjoy his rights as a citizen and as a person. ‘artist.”

As of Monday evening, there was no update on her condition.

Otero Alcántara’s dramatic protest comes less than six months after another hunger strike by activists and academics led to a rare protest in Havana in which hundreds gathered outside the ministry of the culture.

The island is in trouble as authorities implement painful economic reforms that have spiked inflation. Long queues for food and essentials are now part of the routine for most Cubans. Trump-era sanctions reduced access to vital economic channels like remittances. Even the COVID-19 pandemic, which appeared to be under control for much of 2020, appears to be a growing threat as the number of cases and deaths continues to rise.

It’s no surprise that Cuba’s nascent but increasingly vocal social movement is channeling growing frustration through social media, but it’s not yet clear whether Otero Alcántara’s hunger strike will trigger the momentum for real transformation, said Ric Herrero, Executive Director of the Cuba Study Group. .

“There are a lot of Cubans demonstrating, but it’s mostly a rambling movement. There is no leadership, no common vision. There is a lot of energy but it is not directed towards a single goal, ”he said.

Additionally, the Biden administration has said Cuba is not a priority for U.S. foreign policy at the present time, he noted. And in Cuba, the leadership is more concerned with asserting its power amid the change of leadership, with the newly appointed Díaz-Canel at the head of the Communist Party.

“We’re probably going to see a continued downward spiral towards chaos and more chaos and repression,” Herrero said.

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