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Playwright in exile as Cuba uses old playbook to crush dissent

MADRID – For Yunior García, a Cuban playwright, the rapid journey from activism in Havana to exile in Madrid may have been lifted from one of his scripts.

It started with the beheaded pigeons at his door, placed there, he suspects, by agents of the Communist government of Cuba to scare him. Then a pro-regime crowd, strong in scores, surrounded his house to shame him. He secretly got a visa for Spain, he said, and contacts took him first to a safe house and then to Havana airport.

And just like that, Mr. García, one of the rising stars of the opposition protests that rocked Cuba this year, was gone.

“I am not made of bronze or marble, and I am not on a white horse,” García, 39, told reporters at a press conference in Madrid on Thursday, a day after his arrival. , claiming that he feared being imprisoned and did not want to be a martyr. “I am a person who is afraid, who has fears and worries. “

It was a disheartening loss – some even called it a betrayal – for pro-democracy protesters in Cuba who had managed to channel decades of anger over the economic failures and desperation caused by the pandemic into a never-before-seen moment on the island: a movement on the streets, organized on smartphones and social networks, which has attracted thousands of Cubans to demand change.

But it all came to a halt on Monday when state security agents scuttled a nationwide protest. And a few days later, one of the movement’s best-known leaders, Mr. García, sat in Spain.

For many, Mr. García’s predicament heralded a return to the Cuban government’s program of suppressing dissidents, which peaked in the 1980s and 2000s. Critics have been intimidated into fleeing the country, or in some cases, forced to leave.

“There is this kind of recurring, cyclical phenomenon: discrediting these voices, silencing them, intimidating them,” said Katrin Hansing, an anthropologist at Baruch College in New York who studies Cuba.

But this new generation of exiles is different.

They are young writers, artists and musicians who, for a time, were encouraged by the openness of Cuba, even going so far as to promote their talents to the world.

Less than a decade ago, Cuban leaders spoke of a need for change, even for a limited critique of the system. The country has abolished the exit visa, allowing Cubans to travel without official authorization and younger generations to continue their studies abroad. It has reached an agreement with the United States to reestablish the links, with provisions to expand the flow of information.

Hamlet Lavastida, a 38-year-old Cuban artist, was among those who took advantage of the relaxed restrictions. After living in Poland for several years, he moved to Germany in 2020 to do an artist residency. His work was often aimed at the Cuban state: in May, he exhibited a cutout piece that included the confession of another Cuban artist questioned by authorities.

After Mr. Lavastida returned to Havana in June, authorities arrested him and took him to an interrogation center where he was held for three months without charge. He said he contracted Covid-19 there, with officers repeatedly questioning him about his artwork and claiming he was a terrorist.

“Do you know who Tony Blinken is?” “They would ask,” Lavastida said, referring to Antony J. Blinken, the US secretary of state. The Cuban government has accused the dissidents of acting on behalf of the United States, which it says is promoting unrest to overthrow the government.

In September, the government forced Lavastida to board a plane to Poland, where he has a son. Back in Berlin, he was indicted in Cuba this fall for inciting violence.

Mónica Baró, a 33-year-old freelance journalist who left Cuba this year for Madrid, said the recent trend echoed the 2003 Black Spring crackdown, when the government jailed 75 dissidents and journalists.

This time, however, the government is using tactics that attract less media attention, Ms. Baró said. For example, rather than sentence government critics outright to jail, authorities detained them for extended periods of time, with the aim of “emotionally destabilizing everyone – you and your family,” he said. she declared.

“It’s a kind of psychological torture,” Ms. Baró said.

For García, that leaves a question: why had the government been touting reforms if it did not tolerate voices like his?

“It’s like they’ve tried perestroika without glasnost,” he said, citing terms used in the Soviet Union during its reform period at the end of the Cold War. The first refers to official reforms, the second to the opening that was to follow.

Mr. García made a name for himself in the small but growing world of Cuban theater, pioneering a style in which he wrote short scripts that were then used as the basis for improvisation. Much of his work centers on his own history as a dissident artist.

One play, “Jacuzzi,” told the stories of three Cubans – a dissident, a Communist, and a listless young woman – as they discussed life and politics in a hot tub. Performances of the play, premiered in 2017, have been permitted in Cuba, although at Havana’s largest theater festival it was ordered to be performed in a hard-to-reach theater, he said. declared.

Hopes for greater change after the thaw in US-Cuban relations faded under the Trump administration, which aggressively rolled back most ties that had been renewed between countries, dealing a damaging blow to the Cuban economy .

In early 2021, the pandemic was also straining the country’s much-vaunted health system.

In July, hunger and power cuts sparked protests, as thousands took to the streets in a protest of unprecedented defiance in the six decades following the Cuban revolution. The government responded by arresting hundreds.

Mr. García had hoped to mobilize protests again this fall. He and other activists started Archipiélago, a Facebook forum that has grown to over 38,000 members. They called for a new round of protests on November 15, the day Cuba was to re-allow foreign tourists. to enter.

Mr. García found himself in the crosshairs.

On October 22, he said he returned home to find the pair of decapitated pigeons. A few days later, hundreds of government supporters gathered on his doorstep, chanting against him.

“I didn’t see a single neighbor among them,” said García, who believes the crowd was transported there by the government.

Last week, state-owned television began broadcasting segments saying Mr García was aiming to violently overthrow the government. He took it as a warning that he would soon be arrested.

Despite having obtained a 90-day visa from the Spanish government, Mr García was still considering joining the November 15 protests. But he was prevented from leaving his home because the government prevented protesters from assembling.

Shortly after, Mr García said, two friends sneaked him out of his home and took him to a safe house where he spent two days before arriving in Spain. The government had posted guards outside his home, but Mr García said he believed he had not been arrested because authorities wanted him to leave the country.

Reactions to his departure were mixed on the Facebook group he founded. The group’s leaders, apparently unaware at first that he had fled, posted messages suggesting he had been kidnapped. Some commentators said they felt betrayed by his departure.

In Spain, however, Mr. García was well received.

On Thursday, he walked into a pizzeria where he was kissed by the owner, Eduardo López, who had left Cuba decades earlier at the age of 22.

“I was hoping you would come here. I prayed for it, ”he said.

Mr. García sat down and looked at the menu. He said he wanted to return to Cuba.

It wasn’t clear when it would be, if ever.

José Bautista contributed reporting from Madrid.

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